Universiteit Leiden

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Ferdinand Harmsen: ‘I have been restless for a long time, but that is over now’

Ferdinand Harmsen (49) is an ICT and Education Coordinator. He helps study programmes that want to use ICT to improve their education. He has been working with IT all his life, although it wasn't his initial calling: 'It turned out to be a very nice instrument to do what really fascinates me'.

Parrot software

'I help teachers with using IT (Information Technology) for language teaching, so that students can, for example, practice at home. I don't develop programmes myself, but I help with setting them up, supervising and completing projects. Teachers often have a programme in mind that they would like to use, and sometimes they develop one themselves.'

'Teachers notice that students sometimes get better results after using a computer programme, but that doesn't mean that every project is immediately a success. Within our university we have developed, for example, the Lorre software, which allows students to practice their pronunciation. Students record their speech and their pronunciation is compared to the original pronunciation. That sounds great, but the software doesn't always come to the right conclusions. We received student feedback that sometimes when the teacher records something, the software tells them it's incorrect. The teacher is, of course, infallible. A student indicated: "If the teacher's pronunciation is not calculated correctly, what kind of software is this?"'

IT as common thread

'I've worked for many different organisations, but always within the field of IT. I've been working in IT since my first job; it's the only common thread in my career. My mechanical engineering studies at the University of Twente even included some IT. After that, I studied philosophy for two years and wanted to become a magazine publisher. They were looking for IT professionals at the medical publisher I ended up at; the publishing world was changing a lot at the time due to the rise of the internet.'

'Twice I've started my own startup. Fortunately, they currently don't exist anymore, because it is an enormous administrative burden. My wife works for Foreign Affairs, so we have lived abroad several times, including in Slovakia and India. In Slovakia I developed a startup: a tool with which several people could work in one notebook. This tool was used in education, among other things, which gave me an affinity with IT in education. Once I returned to the Netherlands I was looking for a job and because I went to live in Leiden I thought: "Let me take a look at the university". I've been working here for three years now and I like it very much. I've been restless for a long time, but that is over now. I'm at the right place here.'

Dirty toilets, noisy airplanes and human stories

'In my spare time, I play an active part on the boards of two foundations. One of the foundations, World without Obstacles, is involved in arranging proper toilets at schools for girls in India. I have lived in India and noticed how this leads to less girls attending school there. As soon as girls get their period and there are no good (women's) toilets at school, they are kept at home by their parents for reasons of hygiene and safety. World without Obstacles is mainly concerned with arranging funding; another foundation in India is responsible for the executive part.'

'The other foundation in which I am active is Oegstgeest zonder Vlieghinder. Since about a year I live in the Merenwijk, a quiet green area, but the peace and quiet is disturbed by many noisy airplanes. We want to use measurement data to show exactly what is happening here. I mainly do political business and lobbying with municipalities, provinces and the Lower House of Parliament.'

'For two years, I've been writing stories. In short, they are about people and how they relate to each other. I haven't called any publishers yet, but sometimes I send my stories to friends for feedback. I think it's a great hobby and wouldn't mind if it stayed that way, but of course I hope people appreciate my stories.'

* The Lorre software has been adapted using the feedback of students and turns out to be useful for education: by using this software, students learn to listen to their own pronunciation better. 

In the Humans of Humanities series, we will do a portrait of one of our researchers, staff members or students, every other week. Who are they, and what do they do? You can find more portraits and information on this page.

Lieke Bakker

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