Lia Alexandra Baltador, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu
Ioana Negru, Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu
In the Romanian education system, the online teaching tools have been mostly used… with caution. There are some objective and subjective (hard and soft) reasons behind this situation. Let’s start with some facts. Romania has a low education spending, 2.8% of the GDP (compared with 4.6% EU average) and the lowest share in the EU, with only 10.1% of the adult population having above basic digital skills.[i]
There are structural socio-economic problems, such as high income disparities, poverty and social exclusion. According to the latest working papers on the Country Report Romania 2020 for the European Semester[ii] “Social transfers have a limited impact on poverty reduction. Inequalities persist, in particular for people in rural and disadvantaged areas early school leaving are also very high.” Last year, for instance, the early school leaving rate was 16.4%[iii]. Also, the document assessed limited progress in improving the quality and inclusiveness of education. So, even before COVID 19, “one in three Romanians is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, with vulnerable groups, including the Roma, being the most exposed.” Other findings of this paper indicates that the number of highly digitally equipped and connected schools in Romania is significantly below the EU average.
Also, an OECD study indicates that in Romania teachers reported high development needs in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) teaching skills (21.2%), while 49.8 % of Principals reporting shortage or inadequacy of digital technology for instruction [iv].
On a softer note, the Romanian culture stands out, in Hofstede’s Model, on two dimensions. It ranks one of the highest on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index and the highest on the Power Distance Index, both having a value of 90 (out of 100 max). Would these cultural characteristics play a role in education? We think they do, and in our experience they have been confirmed as doing so. Romanians are uncomfortable about uncertainty. We need to know, even if the situation is critical. The new situation was without precedent and the government appeared (and probably was) very confused and vague in its instructions and subsequently updates. This become obvious in the high volume of fines that law enforcement officers applied to confused and disobedient citizens. A high Power Distance Index indicates cultures in which people accept uneven distribution of power between members of societies, but expect solutions from its leaders, without much individual civil engagement. The lack of clear rules resulted in much speculation, mostly among the least educated, who are also more inclined to be manipulated.
Our faculty encouraged their staff to make use of digital learning tools, so that many colleagues would use online platforms, such as Google classroom. However, in many cases we wouldn’t rely on it much for teaching, per se. The suspension of face to face classes put professors in front of a screen, where non-verbal feedback was not possible, while verbal feedback involved long pauses and, as Murphy would predict, crowned at some points with technical difficulties. … These experiences raised some questions: What was the biggest challenge for us and for our students for the foreseeable future? Why were there so many communication difficulties? What should be changed in our teaching practices?
In our attempt to find out how our students are coping, we raised this question via menti (an app which ensures anonymity for respondents). Some of the answers indicate several stress factors, including the inability to meet one’s family and friends, isolation and loneliness, the need of parents to go to work in a risky environment, being bored and without motivation or being constantly indoors. Most of this challenges we could feel on our own, so mutual understanding and empathy was easily created. Even some of the more introvert students seem to be more approachable and shared their experience, so, to some extent, the social distancing brought us closer.
While communication relies on sending messages and receiving feedback, the latter is much more difficult to obtain online. In our experience, not getting the immediate verbal and non-verbal response resulted in a feeling much like that of a tv anchor presenting the news. And it is frustrating to some point not to be able to know if the message got through, more so in a climate of confusion, uncertainty and fear. Furthermore, Romanians, as with many Latin cultures, tend to speak not only with the mouth. The inability to make use of and exchange kinesics, facial expressions, eye contact and proxemics hindered effective teaching.
In future, classes should aim to develop critical thinking, team-work and compassion and care for others. If there is (at least) one lesson to be learned from this pandemic it’s: We are all in it together!
[i] European Commission (2019), Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2019- Country report Romania, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/scoreboard/romania
[ii] COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN CENTRAL BANK AND THE EUROGROUP https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/2020-european-semester-country-reports_en
[iii] European Commission (2019) Education and Training Monitor 2019 Romania https://ec.europa.eu/education/sites/education/files/document-library-docs/et-monitor-report-2019-romania_en.pdf
[iv] OECD (2019, Romania: Teachers and teaching conditions (TALIS 2018), available at: https://gpseducation.oecd.org/CountryProfile?plotter=h5&primaryCountry=ROU&treshold=5&topic=TA