Living on reclaimed land

Large parts of the Netherlands are polders: reclaimed land consisting of drained wetlands. Having mostly been used as pastures some of these areas of grassy land, lakes, ditches, reed lands, and swamps have become natural reserves. This map of 1901 shows the polder I live in: Botshol, reclaimed in the late 18th century, and now a reserve of the Society for preservation of nature monuments.

Botshol 1901

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Training for Humanitarian Aid: a Learning Challenge

I have the best job in the world: I help others to learn, and make the world a better place in the process. I’m a didactical specialist working with the international aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. Our assistance to people in distress is first and foremost medical and my role is to train my colleagues in giving the best quality care – as midwife, nurse, doctor, logistician or specialist in water and sanitation, as expatriate flying into the mission from Holland, India or Canada, or as a national staff member in our mission in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Papua New Guinea. My job is to find out how best to accommodate their learning.

Over the past two years, I’ve participated in a number of MOOCs on education and related subjects. My goal is to deepen my knowledge about theories, methods and best practices in training and leaning and to keep up-to-date with developments in these areas. How do we transfer knowledge, skills and behavior from one person to the other? How do we assess a learning need? How do we evaluate training and learning in systems for formal learning? And is there a way to do so in types of informal learning? What do the rapid developments in virtual learning and distance education mean for all these issues? Even after so many years of working in education, I still don’t know most of the answers to these questions and if I do, they are in desperate need of an update.

Satisfying my desire to know more about training and learning is not the biggest problem: applying that knowledge to the unique learning environment of Doctors Without Borders is a real challenge. Take, for instance, what I’ve learning in the first week of UC San Diego’s MOOC Learning How To Learn: it makes no sense to cram your head with information, it’s more effective to repeat what you’ve learned and space that repetition. It’s still better to throw in some exercise and a good night’s sleep! That’s a luxury learners feel they don’t have at Doctors Without Borders: time costs lives, and a training takes them away from their care for people who need shelter because of a war or natural disaster, who are sick and suffer from malnutrition. Staff appreciates learning opportunities because they realize they can take better care of people afterwards. But it’s impossible to stop them from cramming as much information as possible in their heads, and from sharing experiences until late at night.

Being creative in learning, as computational neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski pointed out during an interview, might actually help to overcome my challenges. At Doctors Without Borders we might not have the opportunity to build strong neural structures by spaced repetition of information during our training, but we can initiate opportunities for learners to do so afterwards, for example through distance learning. In a post-training-test we can establish what information training participants retained, and then can refer them to information sources for what they forgot.

I have a long way to go in terms of learning about learning. But I’m confident that Learning How To Learn and other educational MOOCs will help me doing a better job at that!

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Back in Amsterdam

Having lived around the globe for nearly a decade, Spouse and I moved back to the Netherlands early 2014. My new job at Doctors Without Borders takes me to the beautiful centre of Amsterdam on a daily basis.


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E-learning and digital cultures 2: our future with tech #EDCMOOC

In the debate on teaching and learning in the digital age two dominating views tend to emerge: one utopian, one dystopian. The video New Media is an expression of the latter: immersive technology makes us blind and deaf for the destruction of interpersonal communication, environmental pollution and societal collapse in general. A day made of glass is an advertisement video and depicts the opposite view: a future in which digital technique makes our work and school experiences easier, profounder and more enjoyable. Which video reflects my take on our future with tech?

My interest in e-learning was first aroused  in the early 2000s, when I was  teaching at universities in the Netherlands and Taiwan. Learning management systems had just been developed and were introduced in industrialized countries to facilitate online learning in higher education. I went back to school to study Digital Communication and Media/Multimedia. Using web creation tools I became fascinated by the many ways digital creativity and interaction can be used to enhance learning. In 2011 I started working for a Swiss medical NGO, developing e-learning and blended training courses for health care professionals in low- and middle-income countries. It became my personal mission to optimize instructional design and educational technologies for the promotion of sexual and reproductive health while offering learners a stimulating online learning environment that enhanced continuous learning.

So yes, digitization of learning and development definitely had a positive impact in my education and work. But not everyone is that fortunate. Many of my learners in developing countries for instance: their computers don’t meet the technical requirements for state-or-the-art online courses or they lack bandwidth. In  industrialized countries a increasing proportion of children has serious back problem because of excessive use of games, tables and smartphones that are increasingly used for teaching in schools. On a personal level I find I can be so occupied with online communication that I neglect my partner and friends in real life – something Sirley Turtle discusses at length in her TED talk ‘Connected, but alone?’.

Of course it’s not technology that’s to blame for  inequality in  digital access and knowledge, back pain, and the deterioration of real-life communication: what’s at fault is the way we relate to technology. And that’s all but a black-and-white matter. The videos I mentioned show the limitations of a dichotomizing view on our future with tech: New Media could not have been created without the advances in technology and A day made of glass is stuffed with 1950s-style gender stereotypes. We need cautious technical and digital progress: making sure all who want can join the developments, and reflecting on what is lost during the time we spend online.

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E-learning and digital cultures 1: how to prevent overdosing #EDCMOOC

Interested in teaching and learning in the digital age? You should definitely try the University of Edinburgh’s introductory massive open online course (MOOC) on e-learning and digital cultures. While you’re at it, sign up for the excellent course on video games and learning, offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that not only teaches you how game experiences get to be designed for education purposes but lets you participate actively in research on the topic. The New Teacher Center’s latest course on blended learning is, of course, a must for everyone interested in latest didactical models for personalization of education. And did you know Columbia University offers a course on big data in education? Indispensable if you want to know more about knowledge inference in online learning. Signing up for these courses is free and all they require is active participation in online forums, twitter, blogging weekly (though higher frequency is allowed) and, to earn a certificate, assignments and quizzes.

E-learning is happening right now. It’s not difficult to start your engagement with it – but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sophisticated discourses that takes place at such a high speed on so many different  platforms. How to prevent overdosing on e-learning and, eventually, opting out altogether? I’ve been learning on and working in the domain of e-learning for years and I’ll give you the key to my success: immerse yourself,  then carefully select what’s on offer and learn effectively by applying online subject matter to real life opportunities.

Luctor et emergo is the official motto of the Dutch province where I was born and means to say: I wrestle with the sea, and I emerge. And it totally applies to e-learning: plunge into it and trust you’ll make it out more informed and better equipped for learning an teaching in the 21st century. Sign up for all open e-learning courses that appeal to you, check out their resources, look for related twitter debates using appropriate hashtags, start following relevant people, and see who they follow. Sign up for e-learning alliances and online networks.

Onto the next part: delete. You’ll find  some courses more appealing then others – depending on content (from healthcare to maths, e-learning design, use for adults versus children, user data analysis) but also on didactical models and teaching styles. Don’t be afraid to un-enroll from courses you don’t like, download specialist lectures for later, ignore assignments if they don’t appeal to you and only go for certification or tenure tracks if you really feel that might actually make sense for your professional or personal development. You’ll soon appreciate certain people on twitter – they respond to your questions and offer additional information in blogs – and unfollow others. Read the mails you receive from networks for a while (this will require some patience) and see which ones are the more active and offer groups to your liking. Within a few weeks you’ll have a manageable and nice variety of e-learning sources that cater to your needs and topics of interest and, just as important, cut down on the time you spend on e-learning.

Remember how you used to learn in school? Memorization, passing a test, then clearing your mind of subject matter to stuff in other material. Adult learning and, increasingly, learning for children is not like that anymore: it’s about problem solving. You need to become conscious not just of the kind of learner you are and the content of subject matter, but also the context in which you’ll apply your acquired knowledge. Not because this adheres to some nice new didactical theories, but simply because you remember subject much better if you apply it to the context that’s relevant for you. Turn the assignments of your e-learning courses into blogs. Make summaries of the resources you use and write about the way you could apply them to your professional or personal projects. Look on course forums for active peers that are interested in the same topics and ask them to comment on your blogs. Do the same with people in e-learning networks. Use their feedback. Don’t mindlessly retweet for quantity but rather read up on subject matter behind it and tweet for quality: how it contributed to your knowledge, and a link.

E-learning is addictive, no doubt about it. The speed of technological changes in learning and teaching as well as their nature is dazzling. Many of the people engaged in them are fascinating creatures to befriend and their communities stimulating. Knowledge on e-learning can be to your professional and personal advantage. Yet in the end e-learning is like any other addictive substance: enjoy, and use it wisely.

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