Netherlands: Matthijs Leendertse

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Matthijs Leendertse - TNO Information and Communication Technology

Matthijs Leendertse talks to Jim Playfoot about how technology can transform teaching, the need for change in further education in The Netherlands, the challenges of workplace learning and the missed opportunities of the multi-cultural classroom

Matthijs Leendertse looks remarkably young for someone with such a broad range of experience and expertise. Amongst his many current activities, his primary focus is as an advisor to TNO, which he describes as the "applied science organisation of The Netherlands". The organisation employs around 5000 people in The Netherlands. TNO's mission is to translate scientific knowledge into practical applications for business and government. Matthijs is Senior Media & Education Advisor to TNO Information and Communication Technology, looking at how education products and content can be developed to create next generation learning and to influence policy. He's also a lecturer at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and is part of a European-Commission funded project called Future of Learning which is looking at the shape of education in 2020 and beyond. Ideal, one would think, to provide a vision of where education is going and, perhaps, more importantly, where it should go. And so it proves.

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Continuing education beyond the classroom

We begin by talking about the education system in the Netherlands and the perceived strengths and weaknesses. Matthijs is broadly complimentary about both 'academic' and 'vocational' streams, both of which are clearly defined and offered as optional paths to students aged 14. The vocational choice is, he says, well respected although it is also seen by many as a staging post to a more academic educational pathway. Furthermore, the academic route is one that is highly focussed on the development of academic skills - in fact, the academic path is what one might describe as 'traditional' in the sense that it is delivered with the objective of fostering academic thinking and practices (rather than with any pretence to being in any way 'vocational', something we pick up on later). Matthijs describes the objectives of university education as to "teach...the academic way of thinking". Significant emphasis is put on the acquisition of English as a second language with students taking the academic path are expected, at 18, to be able to speak and write fluently. However, regardless of the option taken - vocational or academic - Matthijs believes that the problems begin when this phase of education ends. As Matthijs puts it:

"The problem comes when people leave formal education and go into the workplace - training on the job is lousy. When formal education stops, bad education starts."

He goes on to give reasons why this might be the case:

"On-the-job training is an industry. The people who offer training on the job are typically not very well trained in terms of pedagogy: really good training requires someone who knows about education"

He believes that, in many ways, too much emphasis is being given by policy makers to those currently in education or those beginning their educational careers. There is a whole generation of people now in the labour force who will need new skills, new competencies, new learning as a result of what he describes as 'the changing nature of work'. There is a sense that these people are being left behind or, at best, are receiving sub-standard education and training. There needs to be, he suggests, greater incentives for both the individual and the business to engage in a meaningful way in continuing education as well as a marked improvement in the quality of provision. He concludes:

"Learning should follow the learner - learning should not end at school."

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Improving graduates

We return to the theme of further education and, specifically, academic study. Although Matthijs is broadly positive about the way in which universities operate in the Netherlands (he does, after all, work for one), he does believe that there is considerable room for improvement. The things that they currently set out to do - to teach academic skills and nurture research practices and critical thinking, they do well. He's also aware of the quality of language teaching that tends to go hand in hand with academic study in the Netherlands. However, the general competencies that are increasingly seen as vital to every individual leaving education are not, currently, taught in any explicit way. We talk about the Future Skills for Future Jobs initiative published earlier this year by the European Commission and specifically about the competency list the project has developed. Matthijs believes that what he calls "the educational process of teaching competencies" should be a vital element of every further education experience.

"Universities should just have classes on competencies - how to collaborate in inter-cultural teams, how to deal with information, that kind of thing. These things - generic competencies - should be offered at university level to all students."
Not only would this be good from an employability perspective, it would also improve the ability of these students as academic practitioners. Teaching core competencies alongside academic skills would, he argues, improve the academic study abilities of these students, help them communicate and collaborate.

The irony, he says, is that as a member of the university faculty, he is sent on competency courses to help him be a better teacher and to improve his ability to be an effective member of the academic staff. But, for some reason, universities don't see fit to provide this kind of training to their students. Not only should these courses be offered, they should, he believes, be core to the curriculum.

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Internationalisation and the multi-cultural classroom

We talk further about his experiences as part of the teaching faculty at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, one of the Netherlands' leading business schools. He reflects on the international nature of the institution and on how vital this is to its survival:

"Around half the population in Rotterdam are of non-Western origin. We have about 130 nationalities here. The international element is there in society."

He explains why this is so vital:

"We're a really small country and as such we're very dependent on our ability to work internationally so developing inter-cultural skills is really important."

He sees the internationalisation of higher education as a pattern repeated across Europe. Interestingly, he also characterises this as a significant missed opportunity. One of the roles his university can play is to provide an internationalised education that fosters inter-cultural understanding. With a typical class made up of a huge range of students from different cultural backgrounds, Matthijs believes is using this mix directly to engage students in cultural discussions and in exercises that help students understand inter-cultural issues. Instead, the inter-cultural mix in a particular classroom is never directly reference. In fact, this is often seen as an obstacle:

"Universities are sensitive to cultural issues but it tends to be seen as a problem - they don't look at the opportunities of learning from working in diverse teams. We don't talk about the strengths. This is untapped potential."

These sorts of skills are vital and hugely valuable in a global workforce that is increasingly nomadic and exploiting these opportunities is one way for education institutions to provide their students with an edge and, in the process, attract more of those students to their campus.

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The role of ICT

Inevitably, our conversation moves onto the subject of technology. As a part of a technology-focussed organisation, and with a remit for education, Matthijs has some interesting thoughts on the application of technology within the classroom. ICT, he believes, is one of the primary mechanisms through which education systems can be transformed.

"You cannot think about the future of education without thinking about ICT. The traditional classroom setting - 30 students and one teacher - is ridiculous. ICT can free up resources in the classroom."

He is particularly interested in exploring ideas around personalisation and adaptation. He makes the point that "..the core problem with education is that it's so standardised - we can't cope with children on the margins, either gifted or slow. The system's built for the middle-ground student." His company has been involved in a project that uses ICT to teach children with autism. He explains:

"ICT can provide a safe collaboration environment for autistic kids. This is very difficult to do in a traditional classroom setting."

He explains further how he sees technology developing in relation to education:

"Look at the state of artificial intelligence and human computer interaction - in 10-20 years virtual teachers will be in use who will always say the right things, adjust to the ability of the learner. This can really help the weaker students: they tend to be afraid to ask questions in case they are perceived as stupid...so ICT can help individuals who have cultural issues around communication."

He also sees a gap in the market around perhaps the most pervasive of technologies in many children's lives, that of gaming. Although he acknowledges that there are some developments in the area of epistemic or educational gaming, the field is not currently getting the attention it deserves, particularly in terms of the potential for collaboration between the different stakeholders:

"Why is the gaming industry not more involved in formal learning?"

At TNO, he is working on this alongside other innovations that, he hopes, will shape a more competency-based education system that that supports ongoing engagement and that adapts to the individual needs of the learner.

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