September 2006


What factors induce us to change and embrace the new, to let go of the comfortable known? Is it different country by country? International projects are good for exploring these questions, but my experience for bidding for grants to do this has been patchy.

One of my first attempts was an ‘arms into ploughshares’ workforce development project in 1991. I was doing a scoping consultancy in Czechoslovakia for the British Council after the fall of the Berlin Wall and met the Managing Director of the tank factory in Marten in Slovakia.

We spent a Sunday morning on site discussing the future for the 10,000 workforce and came up with the outline of an exchange programme with the hi-tec arms manufacturer Lucas Aerospace in Burnley.

The project got lost in the bureaucracy, but I learnt that when the priority items (tanks) you are producing become valueless overnight, you’re highly motivated to look for change. The known is no longer a comfort zone.

The experience was at the back of my mind this year when I wrote a Grundtvig bid for an innovative learning platform project, involving a rare mix of adult and vocational education partners from five other countries – Finland, Lithuania, Greece. Portugal and Northern Ireland.

Exactly the same proposal was submitted to each of the Governments and this time I had a bit more luck, as two of the bids were successful. Sadly though the British Council rejected ours (“unclear aims” and “not enough details of learner involvement”), so the project lapsed without the required three EU partners.

The Ministry of Education in Greece – one of the less internet advanced countries in the EU – was however a backer, so this last week I’ve been in Chios in the Eastern Aegean to see if there’s been a post Olympics technology mood change in the country.

Why Chios? Well it’s remote from Athens (6 hours by boat) and a bit like some of the rural areas in Canada and the UK, which I wrote about in Digital Nations in the making, where internet penetration was low. A large and varied island, close to mainland Turkey, it has good infrastructure, substantial shipping interests and a large mastic growing industry.

Tourism knows its place – only 5,000 beds are available compared with 180,000 in nearby Samos, but there are good quality developments, like at Pyrgos Village, Volissos in the north west of the island. Here traditional hill top houses in disrepair have been sensitively restored with no expense spared.

View of Volissos with ruined Byzantine fortress above.

They are linked to a stunning new conference centre – all with broadband ADSL connectivity – which I discussed in a conference call with Spilios Vlachoulis, the Athens-based manager. There’s local gossip about the source of all this investment and doubts if it ever could become the ‘Davos of the Aegean’ (as some claim), so I’ll be listening for news – as well as looking out for some adult education conference possibilities.

There’s plenty of good web based information available in Greece for the traveller – for example Greek Travel Pages (www.gtp.gr) has details of ferry schedules, the Ministry of Culture’s website (www.culture.gr) lists sites and monuments and there’s a digest of Eastern Aegean News, covering Greece, Turkey and Cyprus news. The Rough Guide can provide more.

The mobile telecommunications revolution has hit Greece as well. I wasn’t phased by the woman cleaner taking her call in the Athens gents toilet, but was a bit surprised in Chios to see the 8 year old girl happily texting in a rural village and the fisherman juggling his mobile and the tiller as he steered his way back to the quayside at the end of the day.

Landing from the Athens ferry, I booked in to Chios Rooms, where Don Rodgers originally from New Zealand, runs a simple and friendly set up on the waterfront. He’s well-connected and a barometer too for changing attitudes to technology. He now has his own website, built by an Italian student doing a course locally at the University of the Aegean and plans shortly to take up an ADSL broadband connection.

Another incentive to promote connectivity has come from a Ministry of Tourism (EOT) offer of a free new computer to small businesses, in a scheme similar to ones we have seen here in the UK.

Don’s been a great source of information and is a good ambassador for Chios. He enjoys a good crack and makes connections. “What’s the first thing every visitor asks me?” he chuckles and quickly answers, ‘Where’s the internet cafe, Don?’.

His website works as it brings new bookings, so he’s planning to promote the Bridgehead to Turkey idea and local festivals via the web to extend the season and make a more viable business. I’ve sold him the idea of his own blog about events and people passing through. He’s just got to find the time, say 10-15 minutes once or twice a week!

Chios Rooms is a magnet for travellers who use guide books and the web for information and the hotel for swapping stories and meeting others like Greek American families, Italians, Australians, French, Dutch, Canadians – and a few Brits like Mike Carter, one of the Observer’s freelance Eurobloggers, with whom I spent a couple of hours discussing media trends over some coffee.

Mike had just crossed from Izmir after doing 20,000 kilometres on his BMW bike through Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Turkey and was emailing back to the UK a weekly report of his adventures.

He’d plenty of good stories but what struck me most was how easy he had found it in so many places to pick up an unsecured wi-fi connection and post his report and photos straight from his Mac computer. The weirdest place? In his tent in the middle of a Swedish field!

The message was clear. Central Europe and the expanding EU is fast embracing new technologies and the web. Like the Greeks in Chios and my tank manufacturer in Slovakia, people are willing to experiment and adopt when they can see advantages. Tourism is an obvious example, but there is much scope for educational use as with the University of the Aegean, with its broadband links between different departments scattered across the islands.

The Greek Ministry of Education must have liked our Grundtvig project for just this reason – promoting educational innovation. Pity about those other Governments not seeing the potential.

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[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 11 – Mobile phones; Pages 61-65 – Models for ACL; Page 109 – Broadband penetration].

Some intensive remedial work and waste bin filling with my filing systems and old reports – in search of the paperless office – has got me reflecting on the state of adult education in the Information Society in Britain today.

I wrote in Digital Nations in the making: “So pervasive is the web that suddenly there is no corner of the world, no feature of our society that can avoid its reach and impact. Ignoring it is perilous”. So just how are managers, staff and tutors responding to the challenge? A close embrace or reluctant dabble?

No one can deny that at the start of the enrolment period for classes, things are not looking that easy. Changing policies and funding cutbacks have led to the slashing of courses in colleges, libraries and centres. The cost to students has risen by up to 25%. Fees of £5 or £6 a session to attend a weekly evening class – which still involve a substantial subsidy – may not seem so unreasonable compared with a ticket to a film or theatre, but are certain to lead to adult learners dropping away. We’ll see how big a drop, when enrolment data starts to be returned and analysed.

The writing has been on the wall for some time of course and you can always press your case for more funding with your local MP. But why should adult education be different from other sectors? Why should it receive special protection if it is not seen as a priority in a globalising Information Society where everyone is being affected?

Campaigning is fine but don’t take your eye off the key issue. How can you sustain a business, any business in a changing world, where traditional revenue sources reduce or dry up and people want different services or the same services delivered in a different way or at a lower price?

And it is changing – fast. Telecommunications and the world wide web, offering always on connectivity to anywhere on the planet is the principal cause. My faded 2000 powerpoint presentation to a marketing group spoke of a world total of 440 million email users. Now it is over 1.1 billion.

Even more significantly worldwide mobile phone connections (with text messaging and much more) have just hit 2.5 billion, up from one billion in only 3 years. According to The Register (8 September 2006) the majority of the monthly 40 million new connections are coming from developing or emerging countries like China, India, Russia, Pakistan and  Brazil.

In 1999 e-commerce – buying and selling items online – was little more than a gleam in the future for most, but according to an Observer Business Section report (10 September 2006) it had risen by 2005 to £19.2 billion. In another 5 years Forrester Research predict 80 % of us will be buying online.

Broadband take up (enabling always on connectivity) is further evidence of sweeping change. In 2001 only 100,000 households had broadband, but by 2006 ONS Statistics show this had risen to 9.6 million.

What does this all mean? In short it means that the world is going online! The impact can be seen all around us – with music (i-pods) and video (U-Tube), with advertising and insurance, with travel and newspapers and with the 4 large Bs – banking, betting, bidding and bookselling. And some strange things are happening – like the Telegraph and ITN new alliance reported in the Observer (10 September 2006) – as companies restructure their activities and redefine their services.

Is education generally and adult education different from these private sector areas? Yes of course it is, but technology can still help us shape a stronger future if we start to think creatively about solutions. Things are starting to stir but we need to be doing more faster. I’ll be taking these issues up in my next posting. In the meantime all comments are welcome.