Learning and teaching just below the polar circle

Do you know what level of education a country has that arranges 357.000 inhabitants on an area that is approximately a quarter of Austria? This is far behind Europe’s lowest population density. Nevertheless, Iceland is among the most efficient in international comparison concerning academic degrees as well as young people’s training qualifications. Moreover, Iceland stands out due to its unemployment rate of merely 2,8% and as of yet mostly unproblematic immigration despite migration rate 4 (Austria 4,8).

During the stay at our partner University of Akureyri, I was provided with the opportunity to investigate what makes their approach so successful. With 18.000 inhabitants, Akureyri is the fourth largest city, located in the far north, at a fjord that passes the polar circle. The University was founded in 1987 and, nowadays, offers a multi-layered, unique collection of courses and trainings. These are provided by 181 teachers for 2400 students at three different schools and 12 faculties (including the faculty of education).

The peculiarity of the Icelandic society is also reflected in the working process at the University. Everyone knows everybody and they have the loving mentality of taking care of each other. Once, a colleague was late for work and I was waiting for her. While waiting, another colleague that I had not met before asked me whether I was waiting for a meeting with “Ingibjörg”. Most interestingly, last names are not of great importance in a very much egalitarian society, not to mention academic titles. People support each other, communication is key, which is expressed in terms of the generous design of the public space at the University. They offer seating accommodation, free coffee for staff, and open workspace for students along with free access to technology (no blocked paper tray at the copiers).

Most of the 100.000 Icelanders that are not living in one of the four major cities, primarily live on farms that are spread over the coastland. During winter, it is most often complicated, sometimes even impossible to undertake longer excursions. That is why sometimes people do not leave their farm or their village during that time. As a result, the training facilities at Háskólinn á Akureyri (University) is high-tech and based on a wide range of offers for distant learning. Lectures are predominantly recorded and individual online-coaching is standard. Groups do meet face-to-face, accompanied by skype conferences. Merely teaching practice at the faculty of education requires physical attendance. I was also introduced to a personal, electronic supervisor that enables a virtual visit to the University. He is representative for all students in the lectures and seminars to make communication possible.

Meetingelectronic assistant

Another vital concern during my stay was the question of language education in a country whose language has only slightly changed during the last 1000 years and that, from a linguistic purism’s perspective, even translates computers into “number oracles” or mobile phones into “Friedensstehler”. The development of a methodology for Islandic as second language is rather innovative and this is why there has been great interest in our DaZ-concepts. In foreign language teaching in primary education (until reaching the age of 15), English is the first foreign language and Danish the second one. In secondary education, you can choose between German, French, Spanish and sometimes even Russian. During my stay, I could take part in a Danish lesson, have a conversation with the language teachers’ methodologists and get an insight into practical experience concerning approaches, challenges and problems. Icelandic teachers as well consider the encouragement of reading and writing skills and the erudite language considerably important.

In the end, at another meeting, it was possible to promote the IDT 2021 since two members of the Icelandic German teacher organization work in Akureyri. 

Meeting

All in all, a very kind and pleasant impression remains due to the professionally organized stay that provided a considerable number of insights and ideas of how to cope with specific educational challenges. Let me express a special thanks to Runar and Kristin who have arranged as well as accompanied my program. Hopefully, they will soon be coming to Vienna for an Erasmus stay.

Mag. Dr. Brigitte Sorger

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