The New Millennials are entering universities and workplaces worldwide. While experts still debate the question whether generational differences exist, universities and corporate training departments have to deal with the challenges faced by the new learners. “Collaborative”, “achievement-orientated” and “networked” are just a few terms that describe them. We have asked Roger Larsen, Managing Director and Founder of Fronter, market leader in providing open learning platforms for schools and universities all over Europe, how his company is tackling the challenge. Larsen is one of the keynote speakers at OEB 2008.
OEB: Fronter has been on the market for 10 years now. Do you recognise differences between learners from 10 years ago and today?
Roger Larsen: The company was founded on the philosophy that the best way to learn is through interaction and collaboration, which we summarise in our expression “Learning Together”. Our mission for 10 years, therefore, has been to facilitate this learning process by providing tools for collaboration and learning online. The difference we have seen over the last 10 years is that more and more people embrace this way of organising the learning process.
We are also seeing to a greater extent how the students themselves contribute actively to their learning process and that of their peers through the more widespread use of the portfolio method. Because of our close ties with the educational community, Fronter was able to pick up this trend at an early stage. The platform contains all the tools necessary for the effective use of peer review, portfolio assessment and a process-orientated teaching and learning style.
OEB: How does Fronter respond to the needs of the Generation Y learners?
Roger Larsen: Fronter acts as the “hub” for the learning process, where teachers can set up targets, students can collaborate and interact with each other and the teacher, activities are being documented, and achievements are formally assessed and recognised. However, we have always recognised the trend that we see very strongly now with social web services – that most of the learning process happens outside of the learning platform.
Our role has therefore always been to provide a facility so that the learning process can happen anytime, anywhere, and with any tool or method available, for example by extensive use of various social Web 2.0 services like open blogs, wikis and social networks.
In the flow of such new tools and services that can be used in the learning process, many people forget the importance of having a secure and managed learning environment which can coordinate it all and record the formal learning outcomes from the process. The institutions are required to back up evidence of learning for posterity as blogs and wikis are ever changing and transient. We respond to the educational institutions’ needs for order amid chaos, we secure data in accordance with documentation requirements while at the same time opening up to Web 2.0 services. In fact, I would argue that to make good use of all the new opportunities, having a platform to hold it all together is more important than ever.
OEB: Looking back at 10 years of company history, what would you say were the biggest challenges?
Roger Larsen: The Fronter platform scales extremely well, so this part of the expansion is not particularly difficult, but when a company is growing quickly over a large geographical area, it is a challenge to ensure that it speaks with one voice in all markets. We have succeeded in this, because we have a very clear mission. Our values are Easy, Open and Professional, and serve as guidance to everything we do – from product development to sales and support. These values are like a common conscience that we all share, and they set a standard for how we interact with each other and our customers.
Because we have a unique product development process – where we systematically involve professional educators in customer reference groups – we know that we have a product that stays in touch with the evolving needs of the education community. As customers from new markets enter the customer base, their voices are added to the reference groups and the knowledge base broadens even further. Together with our customers, we come up with a roadmap for development which gives them the tools they need for their future teaching and learning activity.
OEB: Does this development process mean that your system integrates well with other systems that the educational institutions depend upon?
Roger Larsen: Absolutely. We are especially proud of all the different Management Information Systems (MIS) integrations we are carrying out with a great variety of MIS products. In fact, we have completed more than 1000 successful MIS integrations in the UK alone this year. Because the Fronter interface is consistent with the IMS standard for import and export of data and metadata from Management Information Systems, we perform simple transfers of user data and metadata between Management Information Systems and Fronter. A smooth integration makes life easier for us and the educational institutions, which can then easily and seamlessly create and maintain different user groups for staff and students.
OEB: Since 1998, Fronter has been active in the education market in Europe (and worldwide now). What do you consider the most significant developments in this sector until now?
Roger Larsen: The most significant development we see is that the drive for our services now typically comes from a municipal, regional or even country level, where earlier demand came from individual institutions and schools. The reason is that the importance of the managed learning environment as a driver for flexible learning and “homebase” for online learning is now being recognised. This has led many countries to make it a requirement that all learners and schools have access to a stable virtual learning environment.
The learning platform is not bought in isolation, but viewed in the larger perspective of a coherent ICT strategy. ICT tools and digital content have been used by schools and educational institutions for a long time, but were earlier bought as separate products and their use was often complicated by a number of different passwords, lost CDs and interoperability issues that had to be overcome.
We could respond to the need for a common platform which supports international standards to tie all this together. Best practice examples are the City of Oslo, where the Fronter platform is the heart of the City’s ICT programme for all 177 primary and secondary schools, and the City of London, where 33 local authorities jointly procured the platform to power its Managed Learning Environment for some 2500 schools across London.
OEB: Mr Larsen, thank you very much for your time.
Roger Larsen will speak in the Opening Plenary of Online Educa Berlin 2008 on Thursday, December 4.