The Viking Journey

Located in the sunlit gallery of Fjölbrautaskóli Suðurlands, a secondary school in southern Iceland, Árni Arason is deeply focused as he balances a laptop computer on his knees, completing homework in between classes. Despite his calm demeanor, Árni is in a hurry. As a "speed student" in his first year at Suðurlands, he is taking extra courses to expedite his four-year academic program by six months. His ultimate career goal of becoming a plastic surgeon necessitates further training in the United States after obtaining a general medical degree in Iceland. In addition to this challenge, Árni must also tend to his father’s farm in Hella, which houses 50 dairy cows and 100 sheep, both before and after school.

Árni also has ambitious athletic aspirations. In the previous year’s Iceland Championship, he emerged as the winner in both the shot put and the hammer throw categories for the 16-year-old division. He hopes to compete in these events at the 2008 Olympic Games, provided he can find enough time to train. The teenager credits his laptop and other digital tools for assisting him in managing his complex life. He is able to conduct web research or check assignments from any location on campus using the laptop’s wireless connection. Additionally, he stays connected with friends by emailing or calling them on his cellphone.

Árni’s affinity for technology mirrors that of his peers in Iceland. The country boasts the highest per capita subscription to internet service, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Approximately 60% of the population, or 280,000 people, subscribe to internet service. Furthermore, Iceland ranks near the top in Europe for high-speed internet connections, with 8.4% of Icelanders having access to such services, exceeding the United States and trailing only Denmark and Belgium.

Iceland’s cultural inclination towards digital technologies, particularly those related to communication, stems from its historical need to overcome geographical isolation and harsh conditions. This is explained by Tómas Ingi Olrich, the former Minister of Education. Olrich highlights the annual gatherings of Viking clans in the rift valley of þingvellir, situated 25 miles north of Selfoss, as a testament to the resourcefulness of the Icelandic people. Over the past two decades, prosperity and economic ties with Europe and North America have further fueled the population’s interest in trade, travel, and the ability to afford technology.

Þórunn Bjarnadóttir, an Icelandic educator at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, suggests that Icelanders’ fascination with the internet stems from their tendency to explore and study abroad, colloquially referred to as "going into Viking". With virtual exploration now possible via the internet, Bjarnadóttir explains that Icelanders can experience faraway places from the comfort of their own homes.

Selfoss, a tranquil town with a population of 6,000, is situated approximately seven miles from Iceland’s southern coast. Surrounded by picturesque farmland, where curly-horned sheep and stocky horses graze, Selfoss is located in a region known for diverse landscapes. Rolling plains of green moss and grass, stony volcanic fields, and snow-covered mountain peaks create a varied and captivating scenery. Geysers and geological formations add a touch of mystique, evoking thoughts of trolls and legendary creatures that some Icelanders still believe roam the island.

In 1999, the school was chosen as one of three high schools to receive a government grant for laptop computers. The grant also included training for all 80 teachers and the purchase of 15 laptops for student use in class. Suðurlands has access to various technologies provided by the government, such as a high-speed internet service called FS-net, available at a low fixed fee since 2003. The schools also have access to a centralized system for student information called "Inna." Additionally, educational software can be purchased at a low cost from Námsgagnastofnun, Iceland’s official educational publisher, which often collaborates with other Nordic countries.

Furthermore, Suðurlands benefits from the use of technology outside of the classroom. Approximately 350 students own their own laptops, and they are also enthusiastic about using DVDs, cellphones, and other high-tech gadgets. The teachers at Suðurlands employ various methods that utilize these technologies. Many focus on presentations and group work, which helps to keep students engaged in their studies. Internet searches are commonly used for projects, and students may also participate in activities outside of school that involve taking digital photos.

One example is Örn Oskarsson, a teacher of Natural Sciences, who combines physics, chemistry, and geography in his course. He utilizes a soft voice and a digital overhead projector to enhance his teachings. As part of the course, students visit woodlots to take digital photographs for a study on reforestation. These images are then incorporated into PowerPoint presentations that are shown in the lecture hall.

In November, a class of 80 students is divided into small groups to defend different positions on economic and environmental topics affecting Iceland. Two students, Edda Karlsdóttir and Atli Steinn Hrafnkelsson, are tasked with defending a fictitious proposal to build a power plant at Geyser, a famous hot-springs region on the island. They use their laptops to conduct research, with Edda using the Google search engine and Atli sending an email to a professor for further information.

In another classroom, students in a Life Skills class are researching human rights violations on selected continents. They use online sources like the International Red Cross website and newspapers from different parts of the world. They also visit the school library and receive guidance from the librarian on how to evaluate the credibility of websites and sift through data. This hands-on approach to learning is particularly beneficial for shy students, as it allows them to participate and present their findings.

A few teachers in Suðurlands teach online courses to students in other schools, and some, including Örn, have been preparing courses to be put online. However, the Icelandic approach to e-learning is cautious. Courses almost always involve some form of in-person contact, especially at the beginning of the semester. There is a belief here that computer screens should not completely replace face-to-face meetings between students and teachers.

Ragnar Brynjolfsson, who teaches two online courses in Java programming, has around 40 students from four secondary schools. He travels to these schools on a weekly basis to meet with his students. He uses Angel to manage communication with his students, organizing messages based on class and topic. Students access Suðurlands’ server to do their programming in Java. They compile and run their programs on the server.

Ragnar explains, "I can log on to the program server at any time, see their work, send them emails, and provide hints on how they can continue." In addition to teaching, Ragnar is also the school’s computer systems administrator. However, teachers emphasize that students must be highly motivated in order to succeed in online classes. Ragnar can determine early on, based on how thoroughly students complete programming challenges, whether they are suited to online learning.

Some teachers believe that technology can be a valuable tool for preventing students from dropping out of traditional classes. In November, Helgi Hermannsson, a sociology teacher, used digital filmmaking to bring life to a subject that can often be considered dull. "The more interaction there is, the more action from students," says Helgi, a serious man with an intense stare. One of his goals was to engage disaffected teenage boys who were at risk of quitting school.

Helgi assigned his students the task of creating short digital films about sociological subjects. For example, one group of teenage girls made a talk-show segment that satirized terms used in sociology. Helgi points out that in order to effectively lampoon these terms, the girls had to understand them. The second film was made by the group of teenage boys and is much more serious.

The film portrays the issue of incest by telling the story of a boy who takes sleeping pills and becomes vulnerable to a sexual assault by an older man. The film then shows an alternative scenario in which the boy does not take the sleeping pills and thwarts the attempted assault. The five-minute movie, created for a school project, is quite powerful, with sexual undertones and brief nudity that would be concerning in most American high schools. But Helgi is unfazed, noting that the boys were energized by the film project, and that their enthusiasm spilled over into more traditional classroom activities. "If boys get enthusiastic when making movies," he says, "it’s a good way to make them learn."

However, some teachers in Suðurlands do not want to incorporate technology into their teaching. In Iceland’s education system, a teacher’s right to choose their pedagogical methods is fundamental. Hannes Stefansson, a tall, bearded teacher who teaches German and Icelandic, expresses this sentiment by saying, "I can defend my position; I learned German without using technology, so why can’t they?" The use of laptops at Suðurlands is still considered "experimental" according to Hannes, who admits, "I haven’t seen any plans on what to do next."

However, like many Icelanders, Hannes sees both sides of the issue. While he considers himself "a little bit old-fashioned," he believes that computers offer "the possibility of endless grammar exercises" and that email makes it more practical to have pen pals from overseas for language study.

Tómas Ingi, the former minister of education, expresses concern about the potential consequences of the emerging methods of communication, such as instant messaging and speech-recognition software. He fears that these technologies may inadvertently lead to the development of a simpler and more succinct language. However, he acknowledges the intricate relationship between education, culture, and technology, highlighting their strong interconnectedness.


  • baileywilliams

    Bailey Williams is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog as a way to share her insights and knowledge with her readers. She has been teaching for over 10 years and has a deep understanding of the school system and how to help students reach their goals. Her blog is packed full of helpful information and resources, so be sure to check it out if you're looking for help with your schoolwork!