GREECE: Struggling to keep up

Greece is not in the forefront of e-learning but efforts are being made to keep the country from lagging too far behind other major European countries in and out of the EU as well as worldwide.

Although higher educational institutions and the vast majority of the population are fully aware of the advances and the advantages of modern technology, the massive public investment required to build infrastructure and a deep-seated conservatism which favours traditional forms of tuition, are keeping the country in the periphery - if not at the end of the queue of e-learning developments.

Most higher education organisations such as universities, technological institutes and research centres, however, increasingly use ICT for a variety of purposes and projects. They rely to a large extend on the new technology for tuition although they are a long way from becoming virtual universities.

E-learning would seem to be not only an attractive alternative but an inevitable priority given the country's terrain - remote mountainous areas and a great many islands - along with the large number of people who would like to 'learn and earn' at the same time. Then there is the increasing difficulty of funding state universities and the high cost of building new universities or modernising existing ones - with only one third of the potential student population able to secure places in traditional institutions.

The benefits both for Greece and the parents who inevitably foot the bill would be substantial if students who failed to secure university places did not turn towards other foreign countries (mainly US and UK but also Scandinavian and even Balkan countries) in search of knowledge and qualifications. Or if they did not turn towards private colleges, which more often than not provide dubious quality education, but were instead able to study at home through e-learning.

Greece, together with Spain and Italy, are considered the most important net importers of trans-national education facilities since many foreign institutions have established branches and award titles which, in the context of the EU, are recognised in Greece and give their holders professional rights.

This is an area where ICT would be of enormous help for institutions to deliver courses relevant to students who could remain in their own countries and continue with their activities while pursuing a course of study.

The level of investment required to build the necessary infrastructure is too steep to come exclusively from national resources and not attractive enough to private investors when one considers the small size of the indigenous population or the export potential.

A survey published last year revealed that internet use has risen from 9% of the Greek population in 2000 to just over 33% this year. Perhaps the government's intention to spend EUR2 billionn by the year 2012 might bring infrastructure closer to the more advanced countries in the EU.

Future trends show that distance education and e-learning will have a major impact globally from the educational as well as the trading aspect. Greece is following closely these developments even though unable to keep up with them fully.

The Hellenic Open University, based in Patras, does not operate like its British equivalent. There is a restriction on the number of students and places are allocated after a ballot among the applicant. Last academic year, it received just over 7,000 students from a total of 65,000 applicants.

The university still relies heavily on traditional methods of tuition (campus, classes, face-to-face tutorials, lectures,) but is increasingly using ICT to get in touch with students, to link students and lecturers, and to link with virtual universities around the world.

But lecturers and tutors do not have the necessary skills to communicate effectively with their students for instruction. Nor do students have the solid computer skills to manage all the facets of university life such as registration, research, accessing materials and services online, as well as communicating with the secretariat on various organisational and procedural matters. Therefore priority is given in developing these skills.

Valiant though all this effort is a report by the nearby University of Patras stated the Open University "in general uses ICT for administration but depending, on the programme, it has very limited use for student purposes".

Research centres operate a variety of programmes and projects, some in partnership with the EU which finances e-learning projects provided three countries collaborate to develop what is called 'virtual mobility'.

A research umbrella provided by the General Secretariat of Research and Development is promoting an e-culture among local authorities. So the will is there, the skills could be either imported or developed in a short time and, if investment followed, then e-learning - so necessary for Greek students and for the country as a whole - may yet get a much needed boost.