EPALE interview: Dušana Findeisen and the digitisation and digitalisation of education for older people
Now Head of the Institute for research and development of education at the Slovenian University of the Third Age, Dušana Findeisen has worked in the field of education for older people and intergenerational learning and education for local development in former Yugoslavia, Slovenia and in many European countries since 1984. In 1986 she co-established the Slovenian University of the Third Age, where she has been president now for 15 years. She has been managing European projects for the last 25 years.
When you were president of the Slovenian University of the Third Age, the national association for education and social inclusion, you wrote a manual on management in non-governmental organisations. In what way do they differ from companies?
In many ways! "What is essential is invisible to the eye,” said Saint-Exupery. This is true of companies, institutions, non-governmental organisations and their non-material value. In NGOs this value relates to both internal and external relationships. It lies in the social relationships with their members, journalists, local, national even international authorities and partner organisations all over Europe. Since March we have kept in touch with most of our Erasmus+ project partners. During the lockdown these contacts were particularly valuable. The Slovenian University of the Third Age started its 37 year-long story by transmitting knowledge in ambitious ways, by creating new knowledge together with older learners and students and by caring about relationships. Since 1984 the Slovenian University of the Third Age and the network of U3As (currently 55 in total) have been interested in the cultural and human capital which older people carry and which they are eager to share.
You argue that establishing a non-governmental educational organisation is not that difficult today but maintaining it alive is a real challenge?
Yes, that is right. There have been many challenges so far. Just have a look at what is happening in the present health crisis. Non-material value is at risk. We must protect it. We have to encourage our students and employees and maintain our social bonds. We have to be flexible.
How are you adapting to the present situation?
Financially it is difficult and we are “digging” into our monetary reserve funds. Each time the news on COVID is bad, lots of students make the decision to stay at home or to go to their second homes, etc. From the outset, we began digitalising our programmes, methods and contacts, etc. We recognise that crises are not necessarily a bad thing. They mean separation from the past but also an opportunity to search for new opportunities for the future. We think that for older people who overtly reject digital contacts and education preferring social and physical bonds, this crisis is a unique opportunity. Sooner or later they will discover that they can be a part of the digital world.
Can you describe what you have done lately in the field of digitalisation of education and learning for older people during this crisis?
For decades we have been involved in many European Leonardo da Vinci, Grundtvig and Erasmus+ projects. Fortunately, most of them were already promoting digitalisation learning for older people. If I remember correctly, it all started with the European Certificate of Intergenerational learning coordinated by the Beth Johnson Foundation which produced learning materials in Moodle. We then moved to CINAGE, which saw European film for active Ageing become a real breakthrough, promoting older people’s active ageing competencies and teaching them how to make short feature films. This project naturally became an intergenerational project where young students experienced teaching older people and older people had to learn how to be taught. Something they do not often find easy.
I personally learned a lot from all the Erasmus+ projects and this led to both mine, and our, deep and innovative interest in the field of visual literacy in education for the elderly and the subsequent activities which came out of it. The Erasmus+ projects which we conducted all related to education for the elderly. They helped us to establish a link between the issues faced by older people and other underprivileged social groups and major social changes. We included filmmaking in our bi-annual International Festival of Knowledge and Culture in Later Life.
We have continued to run our project Refugees In, European cinema for social inclusion which resulted in thematising socially engaged filmmaking, education and art. Then came SLIDE which was meant to be just about exchanging good practices but which ended up using CANVA to make posters and create films including promotional films about active ageing, a sort of advertisement.
SPIDW has been about including older learners in the digital world and in a film school set up by AidLearn Lisbon. LearnersMot is about understanding the phenomenon of functional literacy and motivating the poorly educated and the lowly qualified (DomSpain, Spain). The project now has a sequel, LearnersMot2. Timeless (Uscak University) creates e-books for learning English and learning about cultural heritage. All these Erasmus+ projects and many others used blended learning to promote multimodal learning.
What about your other attempts to digitalise education for older learners?
To be honest, the digitalisation of our programmes could have been more efficient. However, as I mentioned, older students overtly prefer social and physical contacts within their study groups. Up until the COVID outbreak, using digital methods was more about students’ curiosity than true interest. Then, in March, everything was turned upside down. At the Slovenian U3A, teachers have attended numerous online conferences both as participants and lecturers. We have thematised older people's digitalised education, written articles, participated in radio programmes, digitalised 30% of our educational programmes and trained more than 400 mentors and students on how to use Zoom and TeamViewer. Finally, the most recent Slovenian U3A's conference was entirely devoted to the digitalisation of education for the elderly. The conference was intended to be for 55 leaders of U3As, members of the Slovenian University of the Third Age Network. The focus of the conference was on personal and social aspects of digitalisation of education in later life.
What is the positive thing about the digitalisation of education for older people?
We argue that having access to digital procedures is both a privilege and a right enjoyed by few. Online education enables you to live normally and comfortably in the midst of a health crisis and to live through it while being included in education. Zoom offers several opportunities. For one, it is intimate. In real life lecture rooms students remain seated and “trapped”, listening to the lecturer, even though they may not be interested in what is being said and may not have a very long attention span. Zoom makes it possible for you to listen while carrying out other tasks. Immanuel Kant would not agree with this approach since he argues that attention is the basis of learning. However, there is one essential condition needed for digital distance learning to work well. Learners must be autonomous learners, listening and learning with a pencil in hand and not just listening passively. When digitalising education, mentors of older students play new roles, animating them to join the “Brave new world”. A great number of older people have voluntarily cut themselves off from the digital world by complying with old age stereotypes which see them as poor digital learners. Digital inclusion in the modern world is a privilege. Only 53% of the world’s population have access to digitalised procedures. Digital learning enables older people to appreciate themselves. It is about decent living. In digital times nobody should be left behind, least not older people in institutional care. We should all be aware of this. Moreover, the right to be digitally included should be incorporated in policies on digitalisation. Erasmus+ projects are useful for stimulating the direct application of the results to adult education. They also offer a lot of creative freedom if you have acquired good project management skills. Greater attention should be paid to the content of the projects.
I realise we have not yet talked about intergenerational learning…
Creating intergenerational bonds is not a process which can be developed through a project or an event. It occurs naturally when project activities are creative and when goals are shared. The Slovenian University of the Third Age itself started as an intergenerational project. Young students of adult education brought retired and active professionals together in study groups, involving them in shared learning and activities. Members of the Slovenian University of the Third Age, regardless of their age, shared their knowledge, skills and competencies acquired during their first or second professional careers. There have been different ongoing and lasting intergenerational projects. For instance We see, we hear, we read together was a project run by the Slovenian University of the Third Age and Society of Students of Andragogy and Pedagogy in which community reading groups were created to share moments of reading and reading aloud in public, etc.
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