The coronavirus crisis has led to changes. Almost all the exchanges between our colleagues and clients are now done over digital tools. What are the priorities and challenges for 2021 for Koen Rousseau, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at VAN IN?
VAN IN, a subsidiary of the Finnish group Sanoma Learning, is the Belgian leader in digital learning tools for education. Its product range covers textbooks and exercise books through to digital learning platforms. These platforms cover primary and basic education, for French-speakers and Dutch-speakers. They are respectively known as Bingel (Dutch) and Wazzou (French) for primary education, and as Diddit (Dutch) and Udiddit (French) for secondary education. Koen Rousseau is Business Technology Manager and a member of the Management Team for the educational publisher VAN IN. He also acts as Digital Lead for Primary Education for the Finnish parent company Sanoma Learning, and he sits on the Technology Board.
How has the coronavirus crisis affected your tasks as CIO?
Belgian educational stakeholders have successfully used our digital platforms for a long time, and for almost 10 years now for Bingel. However, we’ve seen the emergence of a new paradigm since the first day of the lockdown. In normal times, our digital platforms are used together with school textbooks, through ‘blended learning’. Since the coronavirus crisis, our remote learning platforms have become the solution of choice for tens of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of students. As a result, the number of simultaneous users has skyrocketed, increasing by a factor of three during peak connection times. The use of our tools has increased tenfold. Users have increased the time they spend on the learning platforms, which have been transformed into a communication tool, etc. The early stages of the first wave of coronavirus obliged us to mobilise all our resources, as well as to make continual adjustments, to ensure that the use of our learning platforms remains secure and efficient. This has all happened at a time when remote working has become obligatory, and during which a new model of remote collaboration and motivation had to be implemented. I’m satisfied that we were able to quickly handle the situation.
What are the challenges for you as Business Technology Manager?
As a CIO, I’ve got quite a few challenges! My three main ones are respect for privacy, internationalisation and collaboration. Continual innovation is also a major development focus.
Our learning platforms are used daily by teaching staff, psycho-educational coordinators, and management. Hence we cover all the teaching teams in schools, plus the students. That’s why we make it a point of pride to ensure security and privacy. This involves continually reviewing national and international regulations, such as the recent ruling of the Schrems II judgement of the European Court of Justice, and bringing our strategy and operations in line.
The international success of our learning platforms, especially Bingel, is also a major challenge. Education itself is broadly similar in every country where we operate, however its digitalisation is happening at very different rates.
What is the extent of digitalisation in Belgian education, by comparison with other countries?
Flanders is in line with the European average, while Wallonia is somewhat lagging behind. We can see a real difference in strategy between the two regions. For instance, while Flanders has had an inter-schools ICT coordinator for some time, this job is only just emerging in Wallonia. Yet this job plays a key role in the school community’s digital transformation. The ICT coordinators recently sounded the alarm, so even Flanders cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Because of this policy difference between the two regions, as a CIO I sometimes feel as though I’m placed in an uncomfortable position. On one side of the linguistic frontier, there’s a growing focus on ensuring a better digital experience (smartphone, tablet, Chromebook, etc.). But on the other side of the same frontier, a fully offline version of our learning platforms would be more appropriate, due to the lack of internet and WIFI infrastructure.
Scandinavian countries are clearly leaders in the use of mobile technologies. Smartphones are seen to be an extra tool for stimulating students in their lessons. For example, when sliding a smartphone over their book, the illustrated animals move. In Belgium, that would be unthinkable today. Most children in primary education don’t have a smartphone. In basic education, teachers forbid the use of smartphones. However, these devices can bring genuine added value. Imagine for example a lesson looking at the structure of eyes. With a smartphone, the students could view this in 3D. What a great step forward for these students, who would remember far more from this lesson than they would if they had studied a diagram projected on their digital blackboard!
In your view, what are the key opportunities of education’s digitalisation?
I believe there is much to be learned from methods such as Learning Analytics and Personalized Learning. However, before that, we must put an end to the culture of fear that stifles the debate on data, a culture that also requires the rapid anonymisation or even destruction of this data. We are all aware now of the importance of hospitals keeping a historical record of patients’ medical data, in order to optimise their treatment. Why don’t we apply the same principle to the field of teaching, to maximise the development of each child’s capacities?
We are constantly evaluating the benefits of new technologies, often those used on other markets, and their added value for our purposes. Our aim for example is to ensure that machine learning and artificial intelligence are ‘user-friendly’. These technologies could then reduce the workload of teachers and enhance students’ learning experience.
Do you have any advice for human resources managers, to help them deal with the coronavirus crisis, particularly for team teleworking?
Just recently, I watched a TV report looking at how teachers are dealing with the complete lack of contact with some of their students, who are isolated by the lockdown for personal reasons. As a people manager, my biggest fear is that physical distance breaks these links. Since I started at VAN IN, I have always focused on setting up autonomous teams, and today we’re truly reaping the rewards of that work in this coronavirus period. However autonomy calls for communication that is fluid, spontaneous and transparent. The members of a single team must be connected, support one another and offer each other mutual support. It’s precisely this communication and sense of belonging that are so different in team teleworking.
My chief priority and main advice are: communicate as much as possible with your team and try to create a team spirit. This task can be done in many different ways, e.g. taking on a challenge in online team games (after all, that’s why we’re active in ICT!), starting a chain of messages in which everyone can express themselves about this new situation, sending photos of your home workplace, participating in a virtual tech café, creating a team playlist for Spotify, joining your team’s chat tools, etc. If people don’t do this, there’s a risk that your team will get lost in the limbo of virtual space…