e-Dev: You have been a member of the e-Development since its founding. Kindly share with its members and all those who follow our work the key details of your professional career.
MV: By profession I am a screenwriter/playwright and I work in Communications, as a consultant, trainer and writer. Within that designation lies a kaleidoscope of exciting jobs and projects.
I started working early, as a radio host. Later I was a contributing journalist to respectable local and foreign publications. For a decade, I was a film critic and worked alongside Nebojša Đukelić on his TV shows about film. I was the first copywriter in Dragan Sakan‘s team, when he was formulating ideas that later made him famous worldwide. I translated medieval plays from French and English. All this stopped in 1992. I initiated with my husband a campaign entitled “All the Presidents’ Babies” and briefly became the principal enemy of the Serbian state. That’s when I have left the country with my family.
While in exile, I worked in marketing, public relations, pre-press and TV production. I also wrote for clients, in English — scripts, promotional materials, strategies and business plans. That’s when I started developing multilingual websites – something I still do with enthusiasm.
In 2002, I returned to Belgrade as a UNDP consultant, to develop capacity of civil servants in Serbia. This is a role I sometimes have in development projects financed by the European Union. I also do interesting projects through my agency, Compass Communications. Our team translated, localized and prepared for print a Dorling Kindersley‘s 16-volume illustrated family encyclopedia. “Millennium” ended up being the first encyclopedia in the Montenegrin language.
It seems I enjoy being a pioneer. I was writing my first blog – “Crisis Analysis” – 10 years ago, weekly. When everybody else discovered blogging, I became interested in e-learning. Currently I’m most active in content development. I write for social media, websites and corporate communications.
And finally, I’m writing a book about writing, also in English. I am expanding my booklet from 2008 – “Writing for the Internet“ – in a new context, as no one knows how artificial intelligence and machine learning will develop.
E-Dev: You are also active in education, especially online education. Which are the advantages of online education over the classic forms of education?
MV: By now, everyone must know the key virtues of distance learning. It’s cheaper and simpler than maintaining classrooms; you choose your own time, place and environment for learning, and often the dynamic too. It’s easy to record and review the content, because everything is already digitized.
Still, interaction with the lecturers and other participants is limited. This summer, Stanford University has made three of its introductory computer courses available online. Hundreds of thousands have registered, but many have given up. Even so, after 3 weeks, as many as 35,000 students submitted their first assignments. Imagine that challenge. Even if only one in ten students asks a question, this is 3500 conversations or emails. The grading and the communication are now being transformed on the go.
E-Dev: To what degree has education in developed countries moved online and how is it organized?
MV: Up until five or six years ago, the universities have pioneered e-learning for their few distant students. Meanwhile commercial educational organizations have sold expensive business-themed courses. Individual trainers-enthusiasts would use Skype, videos and Facebook to host promotional interactive webinars. This is when I had also done open live webinars once a month, about business communications skills, mostly in Serbian. But it was equally part of the global offering at the time, since participants would log in from Oslo, Boston, Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles…
At the same time and in the same way – a quiet room, a small microphone, maybe a web camera, and a passionate educator – Khan Academy and similar platforms have developed. In the last three years massive open online courses (MOOCs) have become popular. The above example of Stanford is part of that trend. These are tuition-free university courses and they are making high education globally accessible. Platforms such as SkillShare have also sprouted; anyone can record and offer a course about photography, programming, cooking or other topics. Participants will pay a modest amount to access those practical lectures.
E-Dev: Is this type of education applicable in Serbia?
MV: By all means and it has been in use for some time. The range of options just keeps growing. At first, privately owned universities and schools launched it, some ten years ago. Then small and medium enterprises followed. Soon large enterprises initiated their employee training and trained their clients online, while state-owned universities developed their own electronic lectures. There’s an interesting example from a technical school in Nis. Students from their first online English language course scored better on the test than their colleagues who followed the classroom-based program.
Families with school children are well aware of sample math assignments and similar local online video fare. For years now, state institutions have offered e-training among their courses for civil servants. Last year, the Education Ministry and the EU enabled a project called Razvionica to train thousands of our school teachers online. In February this year, in Belgrade, the British Council organized a two-day conference & fair, about digital technologies in education. Only then we all became aware how rich the local selection of courses, tools and projects has become, here and in the whole (West Balkans) region.
E-Dev: Why isn’t then e-learning even more present and much more popular here?
MV: Well, e-learning is easy and lightweight only on the surface. There are serious challenges in its implementation. Education is a most sensitive sector, where you cannot undo things if you go wrong.
To deliver educational content over a distance, be it asynchronously or live, you need to completely transform both the materials and the approach. What’s required behind the scene is a huge extra effort by professionals of many profiles. Just think of the security aspect when banks or telecommunications companies decide to train their employees online.
Obviously, the biggest weight of this transformation falls on the teachers. Working face to face with the learners and delivering knowledge via a microphone and camera are drastically different. As a former TV host, I see this clearly and have done practical trainings to address it. Few things compare to the pleasure of training university professors and guiding them through that arc – from stage-frightened beginners to confident e-lecturers.
A fundamental shift is under way. It progresses very cautiously in all countries, through experiments and an exchange of best practices. Later generations of both teachers and students will not be aware of all the work now needed to introduce something that they will consider routine.
Our e-learning pioneers have exchanged their insights for years now, locally and with their peers from abroad. Scientific conferences take place regularly – including at the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences – and this fact speaks for itself.
E-Dev: You have spent ten years of your life abroad, where you have acquired new personal and professional experiences. What was positive and what was negative that impressed you during your stay there?
MV: We lived at two opposing ends of the world. Sri Lanka and Canada are opposites in everything: the climate, the food, the languages, the culture, the rhythm, the standard of living. Still, I was impressed by how immature as a society we are in comparison to those two nations and other nations beyond our region.
During the eight years in Toronto, there was little that wasn’t positive. Canada is the closest to an ideal human society – it’s tolerant, orderly, diverse, responsible, hard-working, cultured and entertaining. People have so much diversity in their family trees. One can have a Chinese grandmother and a grandfather from India and, on the other side, their roots could be Inuit and Jewish. Any newcomer, no matter from where they come, can fit without difficulty.
Still my impression of the decade was to what extent the people in Canada do not care about politics. The general election day might may fall on a Thursday, so if you make it after work, you’ll go to vote on your way home. But the influence of politics on your work is nil.
I don’t know what I could mention as negative – whatever was possible, the Canadians have fixed it. Except winter – it does last long. When, over here, in April, we already venture out into our gardens, daily temperatures in Toronto are still below zero. The real spring generally doesn’t start before June.
E-Dev: How do you perceive the business environment in Serbia?
MV: With anguish and anger. We have copied paragraphs from foreign regulations, but not the essence. In the developed world, the states do all they can to grow their businesses. That way, enough money overflows for the state and its services. Here, the State doesn’t strive to support the businesses; it focuses on extracting any money from them and quickly. That’s an upside-down setup.
For example, you cannot collect what is due to you, if someone decides not to pay you. This ability is a prerequisite of a sound business environment and the first task of the state in an economy. Instead of that, we pay taxes to support this dysfunctional mechanism, even before we manage to grow our businesses. And we don’t get anything in return. The economy barely survives in these conditions.
No economy relies only on super-sized businesses which bend time-space, or rather the regulation. An endless number of small and medium enterprises, with 10 – 15 or 100 employees each, should be working at full steam. Spend, invest, sell, collect, then restart the cycle. Here, it’s mission impossible. I’m afraid that free market simply isn’t suited to us. Many people wouldn’t know what to do, if they needed to make decisions on their own, without the directives from above.
E-Dev: Are you pleased with the degree of the development of information society in Serbia?
MV: Who would welcome the blindness of almost all our governments – starting from Milka Planinc, during whose mandate personal computers overtook the world – to present day? I imported my first computer back in 1986, knowingly breaking the rules that forbade it. My professor (famous writer) Slobodan Selenić publicly emphasized that I convinced him to convert from a typewriter to a computer. But I don’t see enough of a change in the general mindset over these 30 years.
Instead of ICT being the engine of the economy, instead of putting everything we own in the service of the obvious technical talent we seem to have, the sector is almost in the grey zone or on the margins. Suffice it to know how the state treats it – it shoves ICT, like an unwanted orphan, from ministry to ministry. Raw comedy material, worthy of Nušić (famous Serbian comedy playwright).
Energetic and competent people exert themselves proving that information & communication technology is the most important field in the world in recent decades and that – through some miracle – we have many experts who match their foreign peers in knowledge. Yet the state won’t hear this evidence.
E-Dev: Are you pleased to be a member of the e-Development Association and what motivated you to become a member of such an organization?
MV: I have been an enthusiastic user of computers and the related equipment from the earliest age. One of the things that helped us function on two continents in exile, both on the personal and professional level, was my skill to extract the most from often modest equipment I had at my disposal. Upon returning to Belgrade, out of touch with shady local schemes and political shenanigans, I found the seriousness, the professionalism and an orientation to true values only in the IT profession. Hardware and software people are immune to politics. They get it – they’re smart people – but they just are not interested in it. So this is an environment in which I feel like I am part of the world.
One thing I would like is for the Association to include more “orientations”. The many people active in the free software and its many informal communities, as well as often self-taught individuals, mostly outsourced by foreign clients, would be a great addition to our membership. The entire profession would thus become more influential.
Slobodan Krstić, President of the e-Development Association (e-Razvoj) initiated and conducted this interview as part of an initiative to present the members of the Association to the public. The original (in Serbian) can be found here.