From New Albany to Bulgaria: James Hollenbeck brings e-learning insights to Eastern Europe

23rd June 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Last October, Dr. James Hollenbeck, professor and coordinator of secondary education, presented two papers and led a vigorous discussion on e-learning at the 48th Annual Conference of Chemistry Teachers with International Participation in Sofia, Bulgaria.

At the time, Bulgarian educators were seeking new ideas for reform amid demographic contraction in rural areas and economic uncertainty overall.

Hollenbeck’s presentations, based on technologies that are still not widely used in Eastern Europe, might have seemed somewhat theoretical.

Fast-forward to today: E-learning has become the backbone of education in a world locked down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As Bulgaria adapted to the new normal, Hollenbeck’s presentations to the country’s educational leadership from last fall took on top-shelf relevance.

“The e-text and e-learning lectures proved to be very timely for them as they had to apply it more quickly than they ever thought,” Hollenbeck said. “IU Southeast provided them with a battle strategy before they knew they would need one.”

Hollenbeck, a 2009 Fulbright Research Fellow in Bulgaria who also has close personal ties to the country, maintains a high profile among educators and researchers in the Eastern European country.

He explained that digital natives are largely receptive to e-texts and e-learning which are highly dynamic, allowing students to multitask and giving them access to information via the internet, streamed to omnipresent smart-phones and tablets.

“They expect rapid responses to their questions, giving online platforms an advantage over traditional modes of instruction, since information can be constantly updated and accessed from anywhere, anytime,” Hollenbeck said.

That said, much depends on the delivery of logistical and methodological support, such as IT infrastructure and internet access, as well as local support for software and updating e-textbooks.

“Successful e-learning depends on the readiness of educators, students and parents to use electronic devices combined with appropriate support from publishers and information technology staff from schools,” Hollenbeck said.

The response from the Bulgarian teachers in October was enthusiastic, but reserved. While instructors there were technologically proficient, resources were lacking for widespread implementation and experience in online education was limited.

“They were concerned about the cost of such an expensive program, the availability of the technology for students and effectiveness of learning,” Hollenbeck said. “They liked the ability to expand their classrooms to the world but were wondering how this could be done when they were struggling to get, keep and maintain their buildings, equip  labs, provide basic textbooks for all students and improve salaries that would enable them stay in teaching.”

All that in addition to worries about academic integrity and effectiveness of learning, and such basics as documenting attendance.

Those concerns became “academic” once Bulgaria went into lockdown.

“Since the pandemic, the government has been very pro-active in the promotion of e-learning through whole country,” Hollenbeck said. “Not all children have access to computers and the internet, so the national television channels have been utilized for educational programming.”

The Ministry of Education and Science introduced its e-learning system in mid-March, enrolling 89% of students on the Microsoft TEAMS platform. The effort reaches more than 700,000 students via videos and webinars, in addition to the content broadcast on two national TV channels.

The Ministry also quickly made available an e-content repository of materials for working in the e-learning environment. Among these are video lessons, training programs, innovations in teaching, tests, exercises, entertaining pedagogy and presentations, and much more, according to a comparative study of educational approaches during the pandemic by the World Bank.

Hollenbeck has remained in contact with colleagues at the St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, with whom he often compares insights and experiences.

Dr. Milena Kirova, a director of science education at the university and organizer of the conference, praised Hollenbeck for a “useful exchange of ideals.” She noted that many attendees had commented that Hollenbeck had delivered important information on how to improve their teaching.

Hollenbeck believes that his presentations have had an impact in the way online learning is delivered in Bulgaria.

Among the talking points he sees reflected in practice are simple messaging, the use of props, visuals and sounds to get the message across, instructions written clearly and for the least fitted students, and communication between instructors and parents and other community stakeholders.

Before the pandemic, only a few schools in the nation’s capital, Sofia, were acquainted with e-learning. Now, it is widespread, by necessity. 

At the secondary level, teachers are experiencing the same challenges as Hollenbeck’s American colleagues.

“Students miss their teachers, their classmates and the structure that school brings,” Hollenbeck said. “Teaching is universal, we all share the universal talent of teaching and the love sharing our expertise.”

In a note to Hollenbeck for this article, Kirova expressed her gratitude, and that of colleagues, that he had shared his experience with conferees.

“The online resources that you shared were excellent and provided them [the teachers] a foundation that was lacking from other sources,” Kirova said. “You came at the right time to help us prepare for the unseen to come.”

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