Willem De Meyer from Het Perspectief (a centre for formal adult education) first got his degree in computer science. However, he later decided to pursue his true passion and became a teacher. Read more about Willem’s involvement in a European project for teaching digital skills to seniors, and the lessons this teacher learnt.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the kind of work you do?
I was born in Belgium and I have worked as a teacher in adult education since 2002. I have a degree in IT science but later I got my pedagogical degree because teaching was what I really wanted to do. I started to write books to help people easily learn more about computers. In total I have published 18 books in Dutch. I had worked on projects before and in 2011 I met some great people at a contact making seminar in Sardine and that was the base for the project HIHTAST. The acronym stands for Hand In Hand To A Social Tomorrow.
The project focussed on training volunteers to help with teaching basic ICT skills to seniors, sometimes over 80 years old. We produced a paper with our results and how we motivated very old seniors to follow a lesson in basic computer skills. Some of the volunteers went abroad and taught all over Europe in various languages such as Portuguese, English and Italian. It was a great experience for everyone involved in HIHTAST and now seniors still go abroad to meet the friends they made there. I myself went to Padua, Italy in 2015 where I taught to seniors in Italian, English and French. It was a great experience that every teacher should do at least once in their lifetime. This was all possible thanks to Key Action 2 of the Erasmus+ programme.
How did Grundtvig help?
For the HIHTAST project we needed to learn from the experience and results of former European projects. HIHTAST for example had a great symbiosis with our “Open a new Window” and the “I volunteer!” projects. Without the knowledge we gained and partners we met there, it would have been impossible to build everything from scratch.
In most organisations there is no budget for volunteers. With the European funds we could train volunteers and give them a great experience so they could still enjoy working as volunteers (completely free) and stay motivated through the international meetings where they could exchange ideas and experiences.
How did you identify the key issues and decide on a course of action?
In order to find out what was needed, we looked at our society. There were seniors who needed something to aim at after their retirement and other needed ICT skills to survive in the digital jungle. Bringing these two groups together was great! It also helped fight isolation and tolerance (some immigrants followed the classes).
/epale/en/file/3jpg-0HIHTAST Project 2
What special circumstances were at stake? Limited budged, tight deadline, high profile, high-pressure, equipment?
We didn’t throw our money out the window – with the help of the volunteers we trained we achieved great results. Deadlines came close very fast but thanks to the experience we had from other projects, we could manage it. The biggest problem was the language in which our seniors could communicate with others in Europe. In Belgium it’s very common for people to speak at least one foreign language. Some Belgian seniors spoke three or four foreign languages but in other countries like Turkey there was a big gap in language knowledge. We managed to solve this with an interpreter.
How is working with older persons different?
Working with elderly people means that sometimes even for short distances we’d need a wheelchair or a taxi. A lot of the seniors had health problems and it was sometimes difficult to manage everything. With seniors over 80 it’s normal that sometimes things are a bit more difficult but it was exactly the aim of our project to find solutions for them.
Did you use any special tools or resources to complete the project?
For completing the project we had to make a lot of special provisions. For example, we got PC mice for people with trembling hands, a sign language interpreter for deaf people, a social assistant for a student with mental problems, we had to design an adapted course, and most importantly we had to deliver a totally different way of teaching. We also had one assistant on each row of desks in the classroom to help the students with their computer problems.
What were the results of the project?
At the end of the project we had many measurable results:
- The adapted our courses in many languages;
- YouTube playlist with video tutorials
- The number of seniors who followed a course;
- The (economic) impact on society – students bought the latest computers and laptops, smartphones, fast broadband;
- The volunteers who still work for free;
- The international meetings and the lessons given by the participants in those meetings;
- The number of people who went back to school after a heavy surgery because they were so motivated;
- The knowledge gained by the seniors – for example they can use the internet now;
- The paper we wrote about the HIHTAST project.
How did you personally benefit from this project? Perhaps you met someone influential?
There were no financial benefits for me through this project. It cost me money and a lot of time. But the project enriched me as a person and it was a great experience. I met some very interesting and motivated people with whom I’d like to do another project with.
The biggest benefit from the HIHTAST project were the contacts with other people of Europe and the opportunities of working with them on future projects.
What did you do that exceeded people’s expectations?
The unique experience of teaching abroad was great for our volunteers. They had a new job and the liked it very much. The international network was a bit unexpected but it was great and organisations are still asking to start other projects with them. The social aspect should not be overlooked as the students became friends.
What is your best memory from the project?
My fondest memory from the project is the contact making seminar where it all started and the great ideas that were brought together for this amazing project.
You can only learn about other European citizens if you go to their country and work together with them. The friendships I made are also very valuable to me. If there is a problem in a country, I always call my former project partners from that country to know if they are ok. Everybody should have worked at least once in a European project.