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The Future of Diaspora Hellenic Learning is Here – Nudged by the Coronavirus Era

May 9, 2020
By Constantine S. Sirigos

ATHENS – Perhaps more than any nation, Greeks faced with life’s lemons produce remarkable lemonade. That continues in the tragic and frustrating time of the coronavirus: the long hoped-for revolution in Diaspora Greek language learning has arrived. A BETA version of StaEllinika, a new online platform and suite of apps for learning Greek, has been provided free of charge to families in lockdown around the world.

This promising educational initiative was launched by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Centre at Simon Fraser University (SFU) for Hellenic Studies in collaboration with the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad of the Greek Foreign Ministry with SNF support. 

The SNF Centre’s Director, Dr. Dimitris Krallis, shared his excitement about the project with The National Herald.

Speaking of the Centre’s Founding Director, the late Dr. Andre Gerolymatos, Krallis said “it was Andre’s commitment to growing Hellenic studies at SFU that led us here,” referring to the debut of the learning platform. “He realized a magnet was needed for the crucial funding to build and grow the Centre. The hook was the Greek language, in particular, language delivery through online education,” Krallis said. 

Dr. Gerolymatos was truly ahead of his time, but necessity is also the mother of invention. SFU is located in Vancouver, British Columbia, and because the Canadian province’s 13,000 Hellenes are widely dispersed “it was difficult to put bodies into classrooms for learning Greek, so basic logistics at FSU dictated reliance on technology.”

The attempt to create a platform for the delivery of Greek online prompted Gerolymatos to contact SNF and receive the first grant in 2000.

There were three phases: a platform for teaching Greek at the university level; a platform geared towards the vast, untapped Chinese market; and StaEllinika.

“Through the years we have built relations with more than 20 universities and 4000 students use our platform in China – driven by a strong interest there in Greece, and its civilization that is as ancient as theirs.”

Krallis said, “teams from SFU and SNF visited China and saw the technology was working on the ground, so by 2011 the seeds were planted for the larger $7 million grant that help create the SNF Centre…with its broad community of academics in different disciplines united by their interest in Hellenism,” and driven by Dr. Gerolymatos’ passion and vision.

The current platform StaEllinika – In Greek – is part of a $2 million grant under the banner Rebooting the Greek Language. “The purpose was to create a set of entry-level Greek learning programs calibrated for different ages – because it is clear that 15-year-old beginner is different from a 4-years-old. We had to create distinct platforms, with desktop and mobile phone versions targeted to different groups: preschoolers, pre-teens, teens, and then university levels.”

The team grasped that children cannot be bored into learning, realizing that “the way to motivate a young learner, cannot be by saying ‘hey, here is some fantastic grammar’ – nobody likes grammar,” Krallis said.

“What we did was create a form of gamification. Language learning is converted into an adventure. As a learner you become a player in a game, but to win, you must acquire some skills. Just like in a video game, you acquire badges and points, your grammar and syntax successes – which will not be called that – will be translated into points, and it can make be made as competitive as you like.”

He explained that “by following various adventures and story lines that get you through the learning process, you move through a mapped world of learning, and when you accumulate enough knowledge, you jump to the next level.”

In other words, the program meets the children in the very world in which they live.

The program “includes a series of instructional videos that tells stories about Greek history, mythology, culture – and in doing so, Krallis said, “relates essential language acquisition information.”

After the Centre began to collaborate with the Foreign Ministry, which made its products the official platform of the Greek state for Greek language learning, it was named StaEllinkia, and now it is slowly emerging, all ready for the new social distancing world of the coronavirus era.

The complete product will be available in September.

PARENTS TOO

The plan includes a role for the parents. “The platform includes a back end that allows the parents to follow what is happening – and it can be envisaged that parents and children can learn Greek together.

A study guide has been produced, Krallis said, “so any school that would like to use our platform could integrate it however they want to. They can pick and choose what they want and we can support them as they integrate our platform into their curriculum.”

THE POSSIBILITIES ARE ENDLESS

Krallis told TNH “we hope to next work on a project that gradually gives the same treatment that we give to language learning, this playful gamification, to update the way we teach any kind of material, Greek culture in general. It is much easier to draw a third generation kid of Greek origin towards the Greek language if you get them excited about Greek history and culture. We can take, for example, Byzantine history and make it accessible to a young learner in a way that makes it universally interesting – knowledge he can share with his American friends. Both can say “oh, that’s cool!” as they learn about Greek Fire, precursors of steam engines, mechanical lions roaring in the Imperial Palace, and the rest.

And technology keeps opening doors. Last Fall the team created augmented reality reconstructions of archaeological spaces at the Museum of Vancouver, and they have worked with virtual reality. It is not believed they are classroom or cellphone ready, but they are coming, said Krallis, who as a trained historian combines world class scholarship with tech savvy.

Born and raised in Athens with roots in Molyvos on Lesbos, Krallis responded in 2006 to an advertisement for a Byzantinist – he has published mainly in Middle Byzantine, but also Early Byzantine history. “Dr. Gerolymatos was looking to better connect modern Greek history with the past and he saw Byzantium as a pathway to that. I was lucky. I applied straight out of my PhD program,” he told TNH.

ELEMENTS OF THE NEW GREECE

“One of the exciting elements for me is that the instructional videos are created by a team 25-35 years old Greeks operating out of their homes all over Greece. It tells us a lot about the opportunities that are available for collaboration between talented individuals in Greece and the Diaspora – and with non-Greeks,” he said, adding that he believes it’s a model “for how economic and educational development could progress, if you want a reformed New Greece.”

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