I have been involved in adult education since 1986, as the head of the Department of Education, and then as the director of the Public Open University "Ante Babić" Umag. At the latter I lead a three-member team dealing with formal and non-formal education, which implements ESF projects and Erasmus + projects, organises various public lectures, and completes the lifelong learning cycle with the College for the Third Age, in which our fellow senior citizens have been learning, drawing, painting, dancing and socialising for 17 years. In 2019, we ran about 60 formal and informal programs, which were attended by approximately 1,000 participants.
The EPALE platform was presented to us by the Agency for Vocational Education and Training and Adult Education, located in Zagreb, Croatia at professional gatherings. This encouraged us to use, monitor and participate in it. As a representative of Croatia, I participated in the Second EPALE Regional Conference in Banja Luka (Bosnia and Herzegovina) in 2017, with the topic "Adult education institutions as stakeholders in the regional development of lifelong learning". This meeting, as well as the EPALE platform itself, is extremely important for the development of adult education, as a source of information, and as a global place for the exchange of ideas and different experiences.
Our "COVID-19 story" takes place in the westernmost Croatian town, on the Istrian peninsula, in the border zone.
Umag is characterised by daily migrations in both directions. Many of our fellow citizens work in Italy, and our neighbours, the Slovenians and Italians like to enjoy the excellent Istrian gastronomic offer over the weekends. This was the case until the first weekend in March, when the Corona virus epidemic began to spread uncontrollably in our immediate neighbourhood.
Insecurity slowly crept into all of us, and there was a growing sense that every next day of school was a real gift.
On March 10, the mayor of Umag unconditionally ordered the immediate suspension of all activities that involve large gatherings, This included the suspension of the work of the College. It was a wise decision even though it caused quite a shock, because there was supposed to be a lot of activity in our College that day. Unfortunately, we did not have to wait long for the first Covid cases. Our small town became an infamous record holder in Croatia in mid-March with more than 20 patients and hundreds of fellow citizens in self-isolation.
After a week, the measures of the national and county headquarters recommended "work from home". Under these conditions, many years of investing in one's own knowledge helped a lot. In recent years, we have learned a lot about the application of digital technology in teaching and we have our own expert for all our digital challenges. Erika, through our two Erasmus + projects called "ICT (POU)čavanje" and BE.CO.ME., attended trainings in Dublin, and was joined in Barcelona by her colleague Antonela, and was a participant in a transnational conference in Cologne in December last year, on the topic "Digital competencies for staff in adult education".
Our Erasmus+ projects aimed to introduce new teaching methods (eg "Flipped classroom"), use digital resources and online communication platforms to raise the quality of teaching and motivate adult learners to learn. However as it turns out, they were also a good "preparation" for the "COVID situation".
We chose the DingTalk platform and successfully tested it in the 10th lesson of the A2 Italian language course, led by my colleague Erika. This way of working requires several hours of preparation from teachers, and in a pandemic it also requires individual conversations with each student, getting to know their situation, opportunities and conditions for online learning (from technical, to health and family) and encouragement and raising self-confidence. Our virtual classroom retained the friendly atmosphere that reigned in the classic classroom, and the only complaint was the lack of real physical contact, the cheerful breaks between classes and the chocolate shared by the participants during the course in the classroom.
At the same time, other colleagues, external associates, who have already completed classes in Italian A1 and German language courses A1 and A2, started preparing for the online exam. Most of the participants accepted the challenge of a new way of completing their education.
The DingTalk distance learning platform was a good choice, as it supports real-time video conferencing, mail and chat communication, document, audio and video exchange. Written and oral exams could be held in real time and in line with all professional rules, including a three-member commission.
Teaching and conducting distance exams is an interesting experience that was sometimes very stressful in the COVID-19 circumstances, but the experience has been a success, with both students and teachers and andragogical staff of the University of Umag "passing the exam". The feeling of satisfaction felt by the students who managed to complete their education despite the extraordinary circumstances is immeasurable. Still, we missed the classroom, its warmth, its smell and that special feeling we get when we share chocolate together.
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