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EPALE interview: Tim Van Aken - pedagogical coach (Flanders/Belgium)

ag Karine Nicolay
Teanga: EN
Document available also in: NL HU

Tim Van Aken is a pedagogical coach for adult education at Katholiek Onderwijs Vlaanderen (Belgium), the network organization of Catholic schools and education in Flanders and Brussels. Tim takes care of quality assurance, innovation and internationalization. The past few weeks have been hectic for him and his colleagues, but also satisfying. The Covid19 crisis has accelerated the introduction of online teaching. An Erasmus + KA1 project played an important role in it.



Can you tell us something about yourself and your role in adult education?

Tim Van Aken: I have a somewhat peculiar profile for someone working in adult education. I graduated as an engineer-brewer with a chef's degree and a level 1 prevention advisor diploma. Maybe that's someone you don't immediately expect in adult education? Soon after I graduated in 1998, I started working in what was then called ‘social promotion’ and I gave cooking classes to adults. In 2000 I became director of a center for adult education (CVO). In that role I had to deal with some mergers into what eventually became CVO Kisp, one of the larger players in the landscape of East Flanders, and now also in a part of Antwerp. I stayed in this job until 2010, but then I wanted to explore other horizons because the restructuring process had been difficult and tiring and had left its traces. I then started at the umbrella organisation of Catholic Education Flanders and I still am there today. Together with a team of 6, we are responsible for the pedagogical supervision of adult education at Catholic Education Flanders. In this team I support our centers for quality assurance, innovation and internationalization.

How are you and your team doing in these special times?

Good in fact, but it is busy, quite hectic even. In other 'normal' years we were always looking forward to the Easter holidays to catch our breath and do some other things. But we didn’t have an Easter break this year. We kept on going full steam ahead. And after a while we all started feeling the fatigue. From 18 May onwards classes in adult education were allowed to start again. We helped writing the roadmaps for prevention for adult education and the pedagogical roadmap. From then on, many questions came our way. So yes, also our few days off in May and June are at stake.

What impact did the lockdown have on you and your colleagues?

Like everyone, we first experienced the lockdown as a shock, but whichever way you turn it there are also positive consequences to Covid19. We already had made some plans for online learning and how we were going to introduce it in our centers. Suddenly this thinking phase was over and we really had to start doing it. All of a sudden there was a 'sense of urgency' and you actually need this to really make a change. People no longer had a choice, they had to go ahead with it. That helped us in our approach. Immediately after the lockdown, we set up a padlet ‘Creative in CORONA times’ where everyone could share all kinds of questions but also tips. Before the crisis, we already had regular online meetings with our team, now the online meeting schedule just got a bit more intensive. Also the contact moments with our general directors of the 9 groups of the CVO we supervise became more frequent to enable us to follow things up very closely. We now see each other at least once a week at a fixed time online, while before that was only once a month. Our ongoing counseling sessions have also changed radically because all the personal physical contacts had to disappear. We very quickly made a switch to particular subjects in the process. Out of necessity we now focus on digital didactics and we divided the people into two groups, a ‘Canvas group’ and an ‘Office group’, called after the two digital platforms we use with with our students.

How do these new guidance courses on digital didactics work?

We just had to bring our schedule forward. Following a visit to the BETT fair in LONDON and an Erasmus + project 'Teachers as designers of learning environments', we organized a European tender last year to invest in Canvas an LMS system (learning management system). We were in full preparation to implement this platform next year. But because of the situation and with the support of the teachers, we immediately started using it. The technical implementation is a fact and we immediately started testing it with students. However, in adult education in Flanders legally we cannot offer 100% online learning. In consultation with the government, an adjustment was made to this rule by means of an emergency decree. Once the Covid19 crisis is over, these regulations will be adjusted again, but we decided to continue to do this even when this crisis will be over. 100% online learning is not feasible for everyone and we respect that. But we do notice that we don’t reach a large group because we can’t offer full them online learning today. We will not be able to open the doors for 100% of our courses. That is why we want to experiment with the language courses in the first phase and hopefully we will be able to expand it to other courses.


Visiting ROC Mondriaan in the Netherlands with teachers from various CVO thanks to an Erasmus+ KA1 project. They play the MONTEL educational escape room, a ‘game’ that is part of the evaluation process of the students.


In collaboration with our professional field, the government and the inspectorate, we started a practical study with our teachers to ensure that in time we will be ready to realize 100% online learning in the context of adult education. We expect the results of the surveys of teachers and students in this practical research before the summer. We will certainly share them in the e-learning working group of the Department of Education.

Do you expect any major obstacles there?

The evaluation part of online learning is still a difficult hurdle to take because online evaluation is susceptible to fraud. So there is a need for support at the CVO to set up online evaluations. In addition, we also provide online sessions on the use of tools for consultation, contacts between student and teacher, online teaching, but also for evaluating online. The sessions are, for example, about MS Teams, Zoom, OneNote ClassNotebook, MS Forms, Google forms, the many possibilities of Canvas and so on. Together we developed a vision text for teachers about online evaluation. We notice that many people and teachers have worked very hard on it to get it right.

How did you experience the mood of the people in the centers throughout this process and the disruption due to Covid19?

Actually very positive because our people have found a lot of energy in the new challenges they faced and that has given them a boost. The drive was "we're going to do it" and "we need to take care of our students and staff." But the longer the uncertainty about the restart lingered, the more we saw energy levels drop. It took too long and after 4 weeks the energy faded because no perspective was given yet. That’s why a few directors started to search for that certainty themselves and decided not to start the face-to-face lessons again this school year, even if they would have been given permission to do so. Now the green light for face-to-face education is given but they stick to online classes.

Is it possible for them to organize all courses completely online?

When it comes to practical training, it is not so easy and sometimes very difficult. For example in some cases students need to use industrial machines to practice. Of course this is different for the practical component of e.g. healthcare professionals. You can practice dressing a patient at home e.g.. You can also evaluate it by asking to record it. For someone who does not have a welding machine and has to prove that he or she can use it, this is not so easy, if not impossible.

What was the main reason for making this decision? Were those health concerns?

Not so much at the time of the decision. The main reason was the need for clarity, because then the directors could get started with a goal in mind. The lack of clarity consumed all of the energy they and their staff had. Wit the decision to fully go for online teaching they got rid of ithis and could start working towards to the new goal. Most centers have also been guided in their decision with the situation of their students in mind. Courses or modules that include graduate students have been given priority over others to restart.

Is there complete clarity for the sector now?

With the GEES (the group of experts in Flanders that take care of the exit strategy) we have approved that one-on-one contacts can be organized with students. This leaves us enough freedom to reorganize ourselves. All conditions are in place to be able to end the school year in the best possible way.

How did that roadmap for adult education come about?

In Flanders a roadmap for compulsory education was ready very quickly. But then it took 3 to 4 weeks before we even could get adult education on the agenda. In the meantime, we took the scenario for compulsory education as an example and translated it into the context of adult education. An important condition of the GEES was that there had to be a prevention roadmap but we already had that. We presented it to a number of colleagues who worked on it further. That eventually became the adult education prevention scenario.

Is there anything else that struck you during this period?

Yes, what shocked me is the fact that access to the internet for everyone is still very far from reality. We quickly assume that it is an acquired right in our society, but this is absolutely not the case! In politics you hear "we are all in the same storm" and that is true, but certainly not everyone is in the same boat! And it is very important in which boat you are. If you are in a plastic rowing boat in this storm, you can be sure that you will drown. The ones in a tanker are the lucky ones and that makes a huge difference. We didn’t realize this enough. And I'm not just talking about students, also about organizations and teachers. Generalizing now is the worst thing you can do because there are huge differences. However, this does not mean that higher educated people can always stay on board. In many cases they have to continue working while they also have the care for the children at home and they no longer have time to continue or complete an online course, for example. It is not only the so-called ‘low-skilled’ who are at risk of dropping out. These are difficult times for everyone.



Onderwijs Vlaanderen  (Catholic Education Flanders) was established in 1952. It is a network organisation that unites the boards of Catholic educational institutions. Catholic Education Flanders is tasked with the religious and pedagogical vision on Catholic education as well as with its vision on management and development. The organisation speaks for its members and represents them at government level, in the Catholic Church and in society. Catholic Education Flanders believes that quality education is more than just training and instruction. Education in its broadest sense should empower children, youngsters and adults to cope with the ever more complex world of today and tomorrow.

A link to the page about internalization in Catholic Education Flanders and in adult education can be found here.




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  • Maria Cutajar's picture
    The public health crisis has made more visible the digital divides that exist. Your analogy of the plastic rowing boat and the tanker in a storm is spot on! The plastic rowing boat leads to an incredible amount of difficulties which can be exacerbated by other situational circumstances. As educators we need to do our best to keep supporting those on the plastic rowing boats to make it to the safer tanker or better still to firm land (if one exists in our less than perfect world).