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Conversation islandaise avec Erla Björk Örnólfsdóttir et Camille Leblanc

Hólar University College, une université rurale, une communauté peu nombreuse et très soudée, où l’on pratique le « blended learning » …

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Francophonie is the prime and major background of DMS, but the journal also pays close attention to developments of distance education in other national and international environments. Its international and French speaking editorial committee is a testimony of this, and DMS has always been interested in sharing experience with institutions from around the world, whether they have recently adopted distance learning1, or have been launched as distant universities right from the beginning2.

And sharing experience is also very exciting when this can be done with a French academic teaching in Iceland, and more precisely at Hólar University College (HUC)3.

Hólar University College in the background of Hólar Cathedral, November 2016.

Talking with Rector Erla Björk Örnólfsdóttir and Camille Leblanc

  • 4 For some contextual elements : Rennie, F., Jóhannesdóttir, S., Kristinsdottir, S., Re-thinking sust (...)

1Last autumn, we had a long Skype talk with HUC Rector Erla Björk Örnólfsdóttir (EBO), and with Camille Leblanc (CL) - a French associate professor and lecturer in the department of Aquaculture and Fish biology at HUC. EBO commented on the development of HUC and explained that “the history of distance education for academic degree was short in Iceland. Some vocational training was offered but not a systematic education towards degrees. We used to seek our education by relocating ourselves”4, and CL spoke about her life and experience as a French academic in rural Iceland, including her own use of “distance” learning.

2First of all I marvelled at the long history of education at Hólar – dating back to the foundation of the Cathedral school in 1106 – although, says Rector EBO, the university is rooted in the agricultural school established in 1882.

3We then focused on present day at HUC, a rural specialised university and research centre for three fields of studies: Aquaculture and fish biology, Rural tourism, and Equine sciences. CL described it as a university with a strong and independent identity, and EBO further explained “what sets it apart from other universities in Iceland is the linkage between the topic of the educational programs and the unique setting of the institution”.

4Rector of Hólar University College, Erla Björk Örnólfsdóttir (EBO): The ideology of the university is based on the vision of faculty and staff that have systematically established and strengthened the fields of expertise from the 1990´s.

5The Aquaculture and fish biology department provides the only education in aquaculture at university level in Iceland. There is a long tradition for international collaborations in aquaculture and aquatic sciences among faculty in this department. Another educational pioneer in Hólar is the education on Rural tourism, which was established just over 20 years ago. The third pillar is the equine sciences department. It takes its origin directly from the agricultural school, which emphasized horse training and breeding. Due to the location of Hólar University College in one of the largest communities of Icelandic horse farming, the department has a strong identity. Many horse trainers and riders have received their education at Hólar, and the school is attracting more and more international students wishing to specialise in Icelandic horsemanship.

Martine Vidal (MV) to Camille Leblanc (CL): I can see how special HUC is, rural in a closely knit community and international too. What made you decide to join it?

I must admit that I did not choose Hólar per se in the first place. I was in the first year of my MSc in France and I was looking for an opportunity abroad to conduct research and improve my English. I was offered the opportunity to do a 5-month internship at Hólar through an existing collaboration between one of my professors in France and the rector of Hólar at that time. I took the opportunity as many students do these days. I of course did not know how much impact this choice would make to my early career, and personal life.

MV. The three academic departments are described on HUC website as being international centres for education and research in their fields. Does that mean that students, teachers, researchers who attend them come from all over the world as well as from Iceland?

6CL. We have a very international group of teachers, researchers, staff and students. It has been especially true for the Tourism and Aquaculture and fish biology departments, but recently we have also had many foreign students coming to Iceland to learn about Icelandic horses.

7Some fact about the Aquaculture and fish biology department:

We have at all time several international interns at the BSc and M.Sc. level coming to us for two to six months to experience empirical research. These are usually all international and mostly European students coming with an ERASMUS grant. We currently have five MSc students (four international and one Icelandic students). We have thirteen PhD students (eleven international and two Icelandic students). We have one post-doctorate fellow from France. We have regular visits from International collaborators, and welcome our international colleagues for sabbatical stay at HUC (one is scheduled for 2017).

MV. Are there partnerships and collaboration with other laboratories around the world? And joint diplomas or degrees with other universities, in Iceland or elsewhere in the world? What make researchers, students, come to HUC? I have seen that there are partnerships with two French universities, in Angers and in Tours.

CL. We do have a lot of collaborations with international laboratories; this is a necessity for a rather small university aiming to do high class research, and educational training. Some of these collaborations have been in place for a long time and others are more recent.

I think Iceland and its nature are very attractive to students and researchers in the first place, and the fact of coming to do research in a small and relatively remote location is very appealing for some students. Also if coming from a European or Scandinavian country, the emigration is pretty straightforward as long as the stay does not extend over six months.

We get several undergraduate students from France every year for two to five months internships with us. They come from these two universities you mentioned but not only. We do have two staff members that are French in the Aquaculture and fish biology department. We also have a partnership with HAS University in the Netherlands and have welcomed up to eight of their students every year.

Hólar provides several courses at both BSc and MSc levels from which students can earn ECTS. In our department we have at least four MSc level-courses that are open to all students (HUC and other Universities in Iceland and abroad), and a PhD in biological sciences in collaboration with the University of Iceland (Reykjavik). HUC does not have the right to deliver PhD degrees. However we do have a lot of students in this collaboration of whom many are based exclusively at HUC. We do have exchange programs with universities abroad such as the University of Guelph in Canada for senior BSc students and MSc/PhD students.

MV. That points to the question of distance or blended learning. If a teacher teaches in several different Universities, can he do it remotely?

CL. In fact most of our courses [in the Aquaculture and fish biology department] are remotely taught. We do have one on-site visit for almost all our courses that allow the students to meet with their fellows, the teacher and do practical work.

Blended learning (distance learning with on-site visits) started in 2008 in our department (Aquaculture and fish biology). The one-year diploma in aquaculture started to be taught remotely then. This decision was taken because the numbers of students attending/graduating was low or very irregular from one year to another and we realize that people needed to work at the same time as continuing an education. 2008 was also the financial crisis in Iceland, after which a lot of people went back to school to get or further their education.

The blended learning involves an intranet system (UGLA), pdf and video recordings, discussions and workshops through UGLA for groups of students, and or teachers. The students are assessed during their on-site visit (individual or in-group oral presentation, report from their visit …), plus several assignments during the course. For our department we have it designed so that only one course is taught at any given time. Each course lasts for three to four weeks, so the students focus on one topic at a time. This is true for the diploma in aquaculture and some of our graduate courses. However we try to be flexible with the graduate courses as people from outside HUC are commonly joining in.

EBO. In the department of Tourism the courses are offered as blended learning, with on-line material and on-campus sections. The material is remotely taught, through means of freeware, for example Moodle, UGLA or other means, and you can, watch the presentation as often as you want and it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, though most of our students are in Iceland. Currently there are four Icelanders abroad, enrolled at HUC, but they are expected to attend on-site sessions.

MV. May people attend the courses without having to take the exams? Can the courses be considered as “Open resources”?

EBO. No, in order to access the lectures and the material you have to be enrolled as a student. There are no courses offered where you can enrol without evaluation.

MV. Can a student start a degree at HUC and go on at another Icelandic University? Are the degrees or diplomas recognised between Universities?

EBO. In the Icelandic university system, our students can enrol in courses in any of the other public universities, as long as the department one is enrolled at agrees to it. So basically you could, if you wanted to create your own degree, attend all four public universities. However, the majority of our students choose to attend their program at HUC, rather than to choose courses from other public universities.

MV. Distance learning is now very often seen as a way of studying, not as an answer to geographical distances. Is this also the way of practising “distance” for you?

CL: Most of my teaching is distance teaching, which at first was a little uncomfortable because I had very little experience with this as a student myself. I experienced it in the USA when I was finishing my PhD, but it was a very small proportion of all courses I took at university level, where it was mostly traditional, sitting in a classroom with someone physically delivering knowledge to you.

I am more at ease now, after several years using blended teaching, although I could always use some training with new teaching technologies. There are a lot of resources available, and I had also colleagues who gave me good advice. I think the fact of meeting the students at least once during the course is really helpful, and this is true for both, the students and the teacher. I try to do that very early in each course, so that a connection between the students themselves and the teacher is established. I think this is helpful for the students when they go back home, back to their daily routine, and have to motivate themselves to study late at night. Because, let’s face it, this is the reality in Iceland: most of our students have a 100% job, and families to take care of.

This is especially true for the students in the aquaculture diploma who come from all over Iceland; some of them come from the Westfjords which is rather remote especially in winter. Their contacts with the other students are very limited and they need to have that group dynamic to help them to study. If you can create this dynamic in your teaching, between you and the students and the students between themselves, then you are on the right tracks. Then, for the teaching you can use video: I use a blended way of delivering the material with video and PDF but it depends on the course.

Ultimately we have to do a self-evaluation of each of our courses. There we evaluate what worked and what did not work well. We try to improve, or change our approach, and that is very good because you always have to be on your toes and adapt your teaching to your audience, and to the number of students in the group. I think it is a very dynamic teaching actually.

MV. Do the students organise themselves at distance, in collaborative learning groups? With forums or other means of collaborating at distance?

CL: They could and should, but I don’t think they always take full advantage of this opportunity. They really work as a group when they are on-site. I think they keep in touch, but I don’t think they use it to the full in terms of studying. When they leave the on-site session they go back to their lives and they study on their own. This is my personal feeling in the courses I am teaching.

MV. It would be interesting to be able to see how much the way you are organised has to do with numbers, with the scale of the university.

EBO Yes, I guess you would find out that we are a personal university where each individual can get the attention they need.

MV. Considering the number of students, do you need tutors to work along the teachers?

CL: In one course, one of my graduate students supervises a practical work when the diploma students come on-site. It’s not tutoring; she actually takes some part of the teaching (half – day), where she teaches students about what she knows and studies. She gets a teaching experience and gets to explain her project, in a simple way, to the students. I think she actually enjoys it! And for me as a teacher it gives me a half - day to catch up with other academic duties during the on-site teaching [on-site visits in the aquaculture diploma are 3 days every 3 to 4 weeks]. I guess this is only possible when you have graduate students in a department, and they specifically work on a topic you are teaching.

MV. After this short trip into present day HUC, my next question is to Camille: how does it feel to be an academic in Iceland?

CL. I think being an academic in Iceland is a great opportunity for both young and senior scientists. My academic freedom is respected, and the academic pressure is bearable (no “publish or perish” as long as you get grants and deliver good quality work). If you are independent and research-driven then the research doors are open! I will even say that you are encouraged into taking new paths and explore new avenues in your research.

An important aspect in the Icelandic rurality (I can only speak about this as I have only lived in the countryside) is that people value the fact that you have a personal life, regardless of your job. This was also the case as a student actually! When I was a PhD student my Icelandic supervisor (Skúli Skúlason, previous rector of Hólar at that time) would always start our meeting by “how are you doing?” And he meant it… He wanted to know where I stood in my life, how I felt about living here in a small community. He valued me as a person before being his student and he expressed it. This was very revealing to me. It turned out he was not an exception. I experience this quite often with my Icelandic colleagues. Now that I am an established scientist and I have built a family here I see it even more. If your kid is sick or the weather is very bad [like today!], you better stay home because it is very likely that your colleagues will not make it at work either, or you will have no day care! In fact there is a place for family and personal life because Icelanders value this before anything else, and this is reflected in the way we live in the rural area.

Being an academic in Iceland is totally doable, and you can climb up the academic ladder pretty fast (getting your own grants, supervising graduate students, develop your teaching skills, etc. …). They also recognize that international collaborations are extremely important, considering the rather small size of our university.

Finally but not least, being a woman in an overwhelmingly man dominated sector is accepted and common in Iceland. Yes the gender bias is clear, but I have never experienced discrimination because of being a woman in my work. This is not perfect but my academic environment is pretty good!

Some figures about Hólar University College as of November 2016:

215 students are enrolled including:

51 international students attend courses

26 international students enrolled in the Equine Sciences Department, or 44.8% of all students in the department.

22 international students attend education in Aquaculture and Fish Biology, of which 12 are visiting students (exchange students)

PhD students are not registered as Hólar students, but are physically at HUC on a daily basis and mentored by faculty. They are not included in these figures but are currently 13.

Hólar University College, hier et aujourd’hui, brève approche en français5

Le sceau de Hólar University College, portant mention de l’année 1106

8L’éducation joue un rôle important à Hólar dans la vallée de Hjaltadalur, et cela, de longue date. L’école religieuse fondée par l’évêque Jón Ögmundsson en 1106, deviendra un établissement d’enseignement classique (« latin school ») après la Réforme en 1550, et restera en activité jusqu’en 1881. En 1882 une école d’agriculture est créée à Hólar, d’où le nom actuel Hólar University College (HUC) tient ses racines. Ces quinze dernières années ont vu l’école traditionnelle d’agriculture d’Hólar se muer en une institution universitaire moderne. En 2003, le « college » a reçu l’autorisation de délivrer des diplômes de niveau Master, et le 1er juillet 2007, Hólar University College (HUC) a officiellement ouvert en tant qu’université.

9Un peu d’histoire

10HUC préserve ce qui représente toute l’histoire architecturale de l’Islande, depuis les maisons en mottes de terre jusqu’aux constructions contemporaines. Le bâtiment principal de HUC, où est situé le département de « Tourisme », est l’œuvre de deux des tout premiers architectes islandais, et date de 1920 et 1927. Sur le plan architectural, la cathédrale, consacrée en 1763, est l’un des monuments les plus importants d’Islande. C’est la plus ancienne église en pierre d’Islande.

11Une première église avait été construite au milieu du XIe siècle, puis vers 1100, un évêché fut créé pour le nord de l’Islande, et Illugi Bjarnason, ecclésiastique propriétaire de Hólar, fit don de cette terre pour qu’il y soit édifié une cathédrale. Hólar sera le dernier bastion catholique à l’époque de la Réforme. Jón Arason, dernier évêque catholique, et poète, installa la première presse d’Islande à Hólar vers 1530.

  • 6 Guðbrandur Þorláksson (ou Gudbrandur Thorlaksson)  (1541, 1627), mathématicien, cartographe et eccl (...)

12Pendant près de sept siècles, de 1106 jusqu’à sa vente en 1802, Hólar est resté le siège de l’évêché. Pendant toute cette période Hólar fut le véritable centre de l’Islande du nord, et l’un des principaux centres culturels de la région, en partie grâce à l’école, en activité pendant pratiquement toute cette période. Guðbrandur Þorláksson6 publia en 1584 la première traduction de la bible en islandais, dont on pense qu’elle a joué un rôle crucial pour la préservation de la langue islandaise.


14Hólar University College et la communauté d’Hólar - peu nombreuse et très soudée- se sont développés de concert. Le campus de l’université héberge des résidents individuels et des familles, ainsi qu’une école maternelle et une école primaire, fréquentées par les habitants d’Hólar et des environs. La plupart des étudiants de HUC et des autres institutions locales vivent sur place.

15Mais si Hólar est une destination touristique populaire et si les touristes y trouvent le nécessaire en été, la ville la plus proche, Sauðárkrókur, avec des magasins et des restaurants, est à 30km. Une cafétéria est cependant ouverte toute l’année pour les étudiants et le personnel à Hólar.

16Trois départements constituent aujourd’hui Hólar university college

17Le département d’aquaculture et d’écologie aquatique (Aquaculture and fish biology), centre international de recherche, d’enseignement et de formation continue dans ces domaines, promeut le développement professionnel de l’aquaculture dans une logique de développement durable. Pour ce faire, il favorise fortement les relations entre recherche et enseignement, d’importantes collaborations avec d’autres institutions d’enseignement supérieur, avec l’industrie, et la flexibilité permettant aux étudiants de contrôler leurs propres études.

18Le département de Tourisme rural (Rural tourism), dont la mission est la formation professionnelle des étudiants. Le département les prépare à prendre part activement aux décisions politiques concernant le développement du tourisme, ainsi qu’à la recherche, au niveau Master.

19Le département des sciences équines (Equine studies), centre international pour l’éducation et la recherche dans le domaine de l’élevage des chevaux islandais, du dressage, et de l’équitation. Au fil des années, ce département a gagné et conserve une notoriété internationale dans toutes les formations professionnelles liées aux chevaux islandais. Il promeut également la profitabilité de ce secteur, le développement des activités équestres et le bien-être des chevaux.

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1 cf. DMS-16/2016 : Flores and Rodriguez,, Paquelin,

2 cf. DMS-14/2016 : Peraya,,, DMS-15/2016 : Pulker,


4 For some contextual elements : Rennie, F., Jóhannesdóttir, S., Kristinsdottir, S., Re-thinking sustainable education systems in Iceland: The Net-University project. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, [S.l.], v. 12, n. 4, p. 88-105, may. 2011. ISSN 1492-3831,

Musset, P. and Castañeda Valle R., “A skills beyond school commentary on Iceland”, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, April 2013,

Agustsson, Haukur, “Status of Distance Education in Iceland, A Bit of History”, March 2000, (extract from a longer document) by, March 2000, Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri, 600 Akureyri, Iceland,

5 Extraits traduits du site de HUC,

6 Guðbrandur Þorláksson (ou Gudbrandur Thorlaksson)  (1541, 1627), mathématicien, cartographe et ecclésiastique islandais. Il a étudié à l'école de la cathédrale de Hólar puis à l'Université de Copenhague. Evêque de Hólar de 1571 jusqu'à sa mort en 1627, il a publié, plus de 80 ouvrages pendant cette période, y compris la bible en islandais et le code juridique islandais. 

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Légende Le sceau de Hólar University College, portant mention de l’année 1106
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« Conversation islandaise avec Erla Björk Örnólfsdóttir et Camille Leblanc », Distances et médiations des savoirs [En ligne], 17 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2017, consulté le 24 avril 2017. URL :

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