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Published: 2018-11-26

Brings education to a new dimension

PROFILE Fearless, curious and restless are words that Johanna Olsson uses to describe herself. As a teacher and educational consultant, she wants to develop teachers’ educational, digital competence and contribute to improving the University’s distance educations.

Moving borders of what is feasible

Johanna Olsson has her office at the Department of Education in a some­what hidden-away corridor between the Social Sciences Building and the Behavioural Sciences Building. Spending so much of her time in the borderland between two huge campus complexes feels rather symbolic. During all her working life, she has passed and moved borders of what is educationally and technically feasible in teaching distance education — an area into which she is often called in as an expert.

"The Department of Education took on new technology very early on. When we started the first full-time distance web-based educations in spring 2008, we were among the first in Sweden. Loads of students applied and were accepted, and the number exploded. But we had no one to learn from nor share experiences with."

I've never been a tech geek, but I'm nearly always prepared to try new stuff, and I enjoy it.

"A huge advantage is that I've been surrounded by a group of committed and positive individuals," says Johanna Olsson.

She was born nearly forty years ago in Gothenburg and from time to time, her childhood Gothenburg accent makes itself heard. Although over 15 years on Northern soil has made its mark.

A rough-skinned team player

For as long as Johanna Olsson can remember, she has enjoyed attention, both on the football pitch and on stage.

"What I really wanted to become was an actress or dancer, but I'm tone-deaf, can't sing and have always been rather stiff, so I suppose I wouldn't have gotten that far," she says with a smile.

She found her sense of security through her friends — nine girls who stuck together through thick and thin, and still keep in touch.

"I've realised how unusual it is for girls to stick together in such a large group. We also had a rather crude jargon. It makes you rough-skinned, and it helps you to fit in to all kinds of constellations."

Johanna Olsson

Reads: Detective stories, preferably by female authors. Also, books that take place in the Middle East or Africa.
Follows: American TV series like House of Cards and Homeland. Also keeps up with the Swedish Royal Family, particularly Victoria.
Visits: Museums, and art exhibitions on humour.
Listens to: Mostly radio shows on Radio Sweden channel P1, such as documentaries and series. Has an unhealthy relationship with classical hit songs – schlager, that is.
Dreams of: Going to the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran.

Becoming a teacher over night

Her fearlessness, in combination with a certain restlessness, has followed Johanna Olsson throughout life. After graduating from upper-secondary school, she took off to the US on her own where she worked as an au-pair in a Swedish family outside of Washington DC. As a 'young and rather foolhardy' adult, she travelled through the US with Greyhound buses, but also had time to study and explore Sociology and Psychology. The new interest for behavioural science made her move back to Sweden in 1998 — this time a tip from a friend inspired her to move to Örnsköldsvik, a town 110 km south of Umeå, for an entirely new education.

"It took some time getting used to the change. I felt rather urbane, and probably wasn't the most humble person in town."

The Programme in Behavioural Analysis of IT-Environments turned out the perfect match. After the education, she was hired by the department as a university lecturer. From one day to another her teachers became her colleagues.

"I didn't ponder over it too much, I had no plan, but instead I devoted myself to teaching. When new things have popped up, I've usually tried them out. Of course, it means that you need to be daring, but it's also quite convenient not to have to lay out the direction in advance."

A flexible approach needed

Since then, she has taken an interest in topics of education, and has moved the borders of how technology can be used in supporting methods for learning and education. Since the previously mentioned web-based educations became so incredibly popular, the department had some breathing-space and the opportunity to develop the model, often with Johanna Olsson walking at the head of things. In periods, she has come across some rather reluctant teaching-staff.

"After all, the resistance is based on how the role of the teacher is perceived. Some are teachers because they like being at the centre of attention. And fine, often it's only the voice that is heard online, but the role of the teacher is still just as important, although somewhat different. You need to be able to create a good climate and be educational in the digital classroom as well."

To begin with, many teachers – Johanna Olsson included – were afraid that students would be too anonymous online. But it is not necessarily true, according to her. In web-based educations, just like regular ones, there are some students who are heard and seen, and some who are more reserved.

The challenge, however, is to establish contact bet­ween students when many of them study at very irregular times.

As teachers, we need to be flexible, but just because students study nights and weekend, we don't have to fall into the same pattern.

"Instead, make sure that course literature is available online, and schedule deadlines on Sundays rather than Fridays," she says. "It's now possible to hold seminars using Adobe Connect or Skype, and most student groups take own initiatives to start Facebook groups where they can interact."

Another wrongful common view is that all recorded educational material has to be perfect.

"You're not expected to achieve a professional TV production – we are all human. It doesn't really matter if you cough or the phone rings."

An unusual career path

Johanna Olsson has had several leading positions over the years, for instance as deputy Head of Department responsible for IT and collaboration. She has also been appointed both as a merited and excellent teacher.

"Having a common system for the entire University is great. As a teacher, you just have to get used to expressing your best qualities in writing, and then be assessed, just like researchers are."

It is not overly common to have leading roles at the University without having a doctoral degree, though. Johanna Olsson has tried the research track, but it did not quite suit her.

"I reckon it's the mode of working – I'm too restless. Nevertheless, I still find that I'm contributing. There's a great need for varying qualities to complement each other," she says and hopes to continue acting as a role model to others who want to go all in on education.

Educational development in new learning platforms

Johanna Olsson holds professional development courses for teachers and is involved in working groups for the Police Education. A few years ago, when the Medical Programme was to be regionalised, she was hired as an educational consultant to offer the education in a new learning platform. But the experience grew to something greater.

"When teachers from various parts of the education had a chance to meet, they started discussing all kinds of teaching methods. It was incredibly instructive."

Particularly rewarding was when someone came up with the idea to make all material for the entire education available on the learning platform. This means that medical students now can repeat previous terms and also study in advance. And demand is huge. Although over 300 films are available, students just want more.

In recent years, Johanna Olsson has been the driving force in making the term pedagogical digital competence a part of the University e-learning policy, a much longed-for strategy document that was finally decided upon six months ago.

Finally, things are beginning to fall into place. The Faculty of Medicine has for instance in its operational planning included that teachers should increase their educational digital competence, and increase digital elements in their educations.

Johanna Olsson continues by emphasising how important good leadership is in the digital part of teaching.

"There must be an articulated strategy if you want to achieve change on a larger scale, teachers can't solve the problem on their own."


Text: Camilla Bergvall
Translation: Anna Lawrence
Photo: Elin Berge

This article was first published in the magazine Aktum no. 4 2016.