Special Report

The Viking Journey

By Andrew Trotter — May 06, 2004 13 min read
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Settled in the sunlit gallery of Fjölbrautaskóli Suðurlands, a secondary school here in southern Iceland, Árni Arason is a picture of concentration as he rests a laptop computer on his knees and plows through his homework during a break between classes.

Though the burly 16-year-old has a calm demeanor, Árni is in a hurry. In his first year at Suðurlands, he is a so-called “speed student,” which means he’s taking extra courses to shave six months off the four-year academic program. His career goal of becoming a plastic surgeon will require training in the United States after he earns a general medical degree in Iceland.

As if that challenge weren’t enough, before and after school there are the 50 dairy cows and 100 sheep on his father’s farm in Hella, just over 18 miles from the school, that Árni must tend. (Icelanders of all ages commonly use first names on second reference, and telephone books are alphabetized by first names.)

Árni has lofty athletic goals, too. In last year’s Iceland Championship, he won the 16- year-old division in both the shot put and the hammer throw. And he aspires to compete in those events in the 2008 Olympic Games—if only he can eke out enough time to train.

The teenager says his laptop and other digital tools help him manage his complicated life. He can do Web research or check assignments from anywhere on campus, for example, using the laptop’s wireless connection to the school network. He e-mails his friends to stay in touch, or calls them on his cellphone.

In his embrace of technology, Árni is a typical member of Iceland’s younger generation. And his school is also attuned to using technology to meet students’ needs.

Iceland has more subscribers to Internet service, per capita, than any other nation, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a Geneva-based organization affiliated with the United Nations that coordinates standards and policies on telecommunications. Roughly 60 percent of the country’s 280,000 people subscribe to Internet service. Similarly, the 8.4 percent of Icelanders who have highspeed Internet put the nation near the lead in Europe, behind only Denmark and Belgium, and ahead of the United States.

Icelanders have a cultural affinity for digital technologies—especially those involving communication—because of a historical need to overcome geographical isolation and harsh conditions, says Tómas Ingi Olrich, who was the minister of education until this year. He points out that for centuries, Viking clans would travel every year in the summer to assemble in the dramatic rift valley of þingvellir about 25 miles north of Selfoss.

Prosperity over the past two decades and economic ties with Europe and North America have strengthened the population’s interest in trade and travel and given them the means to purchase technology, Olrich says.

Þórunn Bjarnadóttir, an Icelandic educator serving as an administrative fellow at the University of MinnesotaTwin Cities, relates her countrymen’s fascination with the Web to a tendency for Icelanders to journey or study abroad upon reaching adulthood, which she calls “going into Viking.”

“Now they can be going abroad virtually [on the Web], visiting faraway places while you’re still at home,” she says.

Selfoss, an orderly town of 6,000 about seven miles from Iceland’s southern coast, is in a picturesque farming region, where curly-horned sheep and stocky horses, whose ancestors were brought to this island by Vikings a millennium ago, graze beside the well-paved highways.

Landscapes in the region range from plains of green moss and grass, to stony volcanic fields, to snow-draped mountain cones. In some places, geysers fume and geological formations crouch on hillsides, evoking thoughts of trolls and other mythical creatures that some Icelanders still believe roam the island.

In the winter months, the weather here can shift in the course of a day from icy rain, to fog, to sunshine, to North Atlantic gale. The daylight hours are compressed between the ends of the long, near-Arctic winter nights.

Fjölbrautaskóli Suðurlands occupies a modern, two-story building here that stretches east to west across a large field and has huge windows to maximize the southern exposure. Nearby is a tract of small, one-family “villas,” many of which sprout two antennas, for TV and wireless Internet.

Suðurlands is one of Iceland’s 14 comprehensive secondary schools, financed mainly by the national government and partly by the counties where the students live. It serves 16- to 20-year-olds who have completed 10 grades of compulsory schooling. (The school also offers programs for adults and for children with disabilities.)

Administrators here describe a distinctly modern challenge: to prepare the youths of a tiny, geographically isolated country for success in a much larger world. The 840 students in Suðurlands’ four-year academic and twoyear vocational programs will leave for university or the workforce, often going abroad for study—or, at the least, taking jobs that must compete in the global economy.

For Icelanders, technology is considered a basic tool for real-world preparation. Teachers use it to help run their classes and bring resources into the learning process, as well as to encourage students to learn in deeper ways and express themselves better. It also helps engage students who are on the verge of dropping out.

Suðurlands’ array of equipment is typical of technologysavvy schools in other countries. There are three computer rooms, digital projectors and screens in classrooms, and a wireless network.

In 1999, the school was one of three high schools that received a government grant to pay for laptop computers, along with training, for all of its 80 teachers and to buy 15 laptops to be used in class by students. Other technologies the government has provided to Suðurlands are standard in schools across the island. For instance, a high-speed Internet service, called FS-net, has been available at a low fixed fee since 2003. And schools all have access to a nationwide centralized system for student information, called “Inna,” an ancient Icelandic word for “wife” taken from a poem about a certain king’s wife who could answer all questions.

Educational software can also be bought cheaply from Námsgagnastofnun, Iceland’s official educational publisher, which often collaborates with its counterparts in other Nordic countries.

Suðurlands gets digital leverage, too, from the many technologies in students’ and teachers’ homes and book bags, and in the broader community. About 350 of the students here own their own laptops, administrators say. Students are also avid about their DVDs, cellphones, and other high-tech gadgets.

Suðurlands teachers have adopted a diverse set of methods that use the technologies at their disposal. Many focus on presentations and group work, which teachers say keeps students interested in their studies. Projects usually involve Internet searches, but may also include excursions outside the school for activities such as taking digital photos.

Örn Oskarsson, 6-foot-4 and with the build of an oarsman, teaches a course titled Natural Sciences—a blend of physics, chemistry, and geography—using a soft voice and a digital overhead projector. Students in the course also travel to woodlots to take digital photographs for a study of reforestation on the island. They used the images in PowerPoint presentations that they projected on the screen in the large lecture hall where the class meets.

One day in late November, the class of 80 students, a mix of grade levels, has been divided into small groups and assigned positions to defend on economic and environmental issues affecting Iceland.

Edda Karlsdóttir, 16, and Atli Steinn Hrafnkelsson, 18, are scowling at the task they’ve drawn: to defend a fictitious proposal to build a power plant at Geyser, the island’s famed hot-springs region, where hot water bubbles and spurts from underground.

Opening their laptops at their desks, Edda uses the Google search engine to seek information on the Web about Iceland’s power industry, while Atli writes an e-mail to send to a University of Iceland professor, whose Web site promises to answer student queries.

In a week, they will debate a group researching the environmental and tourist values of the hot springs. “They will probably win us in that, because we are lying,” Edda says.

A few classrooms away, in Life Skills class, eight groups of eight students apiece are researching their digital presentations on human-rights violations on selected continents. Guided by a list of key questions, they surf for online sources such as the International Red Cross Web site and newspapers from around the world.

They also visit the school library to use books as well as the Internet. The school librarian coaches students individually on how to sift through data and evaluate the credibility of Web sites.

Learning by doing, rather than a lecture approach, is especially helpful for shy students, says Kristin Assætran, one of the two Life Sciences teachers. “Some are so shy they cannot say their names; after a little while they can come out and present,” says Kristin.

In addition to building confidence, technology activities can reap other psychological benefits, according to Kristín Runólfsdóttir, who teaches an English literature class in addition to serving as the school’s technology coordinator.

“It’s part of the Icelandic character not to show feelings—you don’t criticize face to face,” she says. So, when students evaluate each other’s papers in person, “they don’t elaborate or are not very explicit.”

But reticence tends to disappear, the teacher says, when students evaluate one another’s papers using an online discussion group available on the school’s e-learning platform, called Angel.

All of Suðurlands’ teachers must learn to use Angel for school business. Many use it to manage their classes by posting and accepting students’ homework assignments online and organizing class-related e-mail.

Because the school’s wireless network is accessible from the surrounding community, teachers may do more of their tasks from home—flexibility taken advantage of by Kristín Runólfsdóttir and her husband, Örn Oskarsson, the natural sciences teacher. Their traditional, birch-paneled house has a computer in almost every room. Ports into which their laptops can be plugged rest on tables near shelves crowded with delicate stuffed songbirds and geological specimens they and their children have found on wilderness rambles. Örn is also a devoted photographer—his digital images of native wildlife are both a hobby and a classroom resource.

Teachers here have an expanding range of online options, for their own learning and for teaching others. Since 1993, Iceland’s teachers have been able to take some graduate courses by e-mail, and later through the Web, from the Iceland University of Education in Reykjavik. And for nearly as long, Akureyri University, in the north, has been offering graduate education courses by interactive television at remote centers. Now, both institutions are combining those approaches; and the number of courses has accelerated, now that FS-net connects Iceland’s secondary schools and universities.

A couple of Suðurlands’ teachers teach online courses to students at other schools; and some, including Örn, have been preparing courses to put online.

Yet the Icelandic approach to e-learning is measured. Courses almost always include some in-person contact, especially early in the semester—reflecting skepticism here that computer screens should completely usurp face-to-face meetings of students and teachers.

Ragnar Brynjolfsson, who teaches two online courses in Java programming, has about 40 students at four secondary schools. He travels to the schools weekly to meet with his students.

He uses Angel to manage communication with his students, grouping messages according to class and topic. Students log on to Suðurlands’ server to do their programming in Java. They compile and run their programs on the server.

“At any time, I can log on to the program server, see their work, send them e-mail, and give hints on how they can continue,” says Ragnar, who is also the school’s computer systems administrator.

But teachers say students must be highly motivated to succeed in online classes. Ragnar says he can predict early, from the thoroughness with which students complete programming challenges, whether they are suited to online learning.

Some teachers say technology can be a great tool for keeping students from washing out of traditional classes. In November, Helgi Hermannsson, who teaches sociology, was using digital filmmaking to bring life to what can be a staid subject.

“The more the interaction, the more the action by students,” says Helgi, a serious man with a sharp stare.

One of his goals was to grab the attention of some disaffected teenage boys who seemed in jeopardy of dropping out of school.

He asked his students to make short digital films about sociological subjects. One group of teenage girls, for example, made a talk-show segment making fun of terms used in sociology. For them to effectively lampoon the terms, Helgi points out, they had to understand them.

The group of teenage boys made the second film, which Helgi shows on his laptop. It is much more serious.

They portrayed the issue of incest by telling the story, first, of a boy who took sleeping pills and so became vulnerable to a sexual assault by an older man. The boy’s future is then shown: He is working as a floor scrubber in a dead-end job.

The film then presents an alternative scenario, in which the boy does not take sleeping pills and foils the attempted assault.

For a school project, the five-minute movie is startling, with sexual overtones and a glimpse of nudity that would set off alarm bells at most American high schools. But Helgi is unfazed, noting that the boys were energized by their film project, and that their enthusiasm carried over to more traditional classroom activities.

“If boys get enthusiasm when making movies,” he says, “it’s a good way to make them learn.”

However, some Suðurlands teachers do not wish to use technology in instruction—and a teacher’s right to choose pedagogy is fundamental in Iceland’s education system. “I can defend my position; I learned my German without using the technology, so why cannot they?” says Hannes Stefansson, a lanky, bearded teacher of German as well as Icelandic.

Use of the laptops at Suðurlands is still “experimental,” Hannes says. “I haven’t seen any plans on what to do next.”

But like many Icelanders, Hannes explores both sides of a question. Confessing he is “a little bit old-fashioned,” he theorizes that computers offer “the possibility of endless drilling of grammar exercises,” and that e-mail makes the use of overseas pen pals in language study more practical.

When teachers do resist the use of technology, there is not much anyone can do about it. Though each school’s faculty devises an educational program based on the rather broad national curriculum, Iceland’s education system gives teachers the freedom to choose how to teach.

But that is a strength, Icelandic educators insist. They say some teachers may be slow to adopt technology, but such reluctance helps avoid the errors made when educators rush in or are pushed.

A burst of training happened when the laptops first arrived at Suðurlands, and a few training sessions are offered every year. Teachers also learn from examples outside the country—in November, two teachers attended a conference on virtual schools in Florida.

Still, there are concerns about the role of technology in Iceland.

During the two 30-minute breaks in the school’s modular schedule, students are as likely to watch entertainment DVDs—some boys clustered around “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” one afternoon—as do their homework. Even during classes, some students confess to surfing the Internet for personal interests rather than taking notes.

These tendencies are worrisome in a country that prizes independent thought, civic-mindedness, and the reading and writing of books. Educators and researchers are also concerned that the use of technology not be at the expense of the depth of learning.

Tómas Ingi, the former education minister, also worries that the new shorthand ways of communicating—using technologies such as instant messaging and speech-recognition software—may unavoidably lead to a more streamlined language.

But he concedes: “Education and culture is always a very complex thing—they are always very linked to technology.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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