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Reflections on ONLINE EDUCA Berlin

December 7th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

For those of you who have not been there, On-line Educa Berlin, which claims to be Europe’s biggest event on Technology Enhanced Learning, is a mix between a party, a meet up, a trade exhibition and oh yes, a conference. this year there were once again over 2000 delegates, which, considering the price of the conference for non presenters is over 800 Euro and the general impact of the recession is impressive. Is e-learning standing up despite financial cutbacks? According to the organisers the largest ‘country group; was the Netherlands, followed by the UK, Finland and Norway – although I don’t know quite what this signifies.

Online-Educa is probably not the place to go for cutting edge research and development. Rather it tends ot rflect what is main-streaming and this make sit all the more interesting. the following is a highly impressionistic account fo this years trends / non trends and general goings-on.

Probably the biggest trend is the movement away from a  focus on VLEs towards looking at the use of social software for learning. And, linked to that, is a growing realisation or concern about the gap between the way (not just) young people are using social software for  communication, leisure, information seeking and learning and the way educational institutions are stumble trying to manage learning through the walled gardens of LMS systems and VLEs. Equally, many speakers pointed out the growing availability of  free resources for informal and self directed learning and the need for institutions to rethink their role and how they facilitate learning. None of this is new. What is new is that the idea has moved from being a fringe or minority viewpoint to at least entering the mainstream educational technology discourse. Indeed, in this respect it is interesting to see the recent Guardian newspaper article by Victor Keegan. Keegan says”

”  … YouTube is developing into a kind of University of the Grassroots. Instead of learning being a top-down process, dictated by institutions and governments, it is evolving into a bottom-up process driven by users.

If you want to learn, say, the Python programming language (often used in mobile phones) then your first move may not be to sign up at a local educational institution but instead to look at one of the YouTube videos and benefit from the reactions of other viewers. Education has been slower than other sectors to respond to the digital revolution but, as elsewhere, the direction is being dictated by users….

It is difficult to predict what effect all this will eventually have on education but it could be profound. It must be questionable whether you need three years to complete a PhD when you have instant access to so many archived books as a result of Google’s book-scanning programme. …But, increasingly, the basic street-wise skills people will need during the digital revolution may more easily, and certainly more quickly, be learned from the People’s University of the Internet than from an academic institution.”

In the sessions I attended, there seemed to be more of a focus on pedagogy or suing technology for tecahing and learning, than using technology as a starting point, as in sessions I attended in recent years. Equally, there was less product placement and less focus on corporate learning than in previous years: whether this is the result of the recession or because of a concious decision by the conference organisers I am not sure.

Last year there was a big buzz around Multi User Virtual environments such as Second Life. The bubble has burst this year: presenters were still enthusiastic about the potential for tecahing and learning but the feeling was that present commercial worlds were just not good enough (in this respect it is interesting that Linden Labs did not even have a stand).

Wandering around the extensive exhibition area there seemed to be little new. One surprising omission was the paucity of attention paid to the potential of mobile devices (apart from Blackboard promoting their mobile platform integration). Despite many of teh delegates sporting their iPhones few seemed to have thought about how they might be used for learning. However, perhaps that just is a reflection of Online-Educa: mobiles have not yet entered the mainstream!

3 Responses to “Reflections on ONLINE EDUCA Berlin”

  1. Bruce Spear says:

    Nice post, thanks!

    I’m wondering where a more critical reflection on the 800eur entrance fee might lead us. I’m wondering, for instance, out of the broad spectrum of technology users, how this 800eur fee (plus flight, hotel, etc.) might have narrowed the spectrum of participants. What percentage have staff positions that depend on the care and feeding of VLE’s? What percentage of participants were students and teachers — what do we call them … “users”? How many IT departments are in the business of giving away travel money to their users? I’m wondering where one might find what I suppose we’d want to call “a political sociology of e-learning”, one that examines technologies as sites of struggle.

    Boy, do I feel like an old ’68er or ’80s champion of pomo saying that, but it’s still a good question, isn’t it? Where is David Noble (Digital Diploma Mills) or Martin Heidegger (50s essay on technology) when we need them?

    For example, where are the studies examining conflicts between administrations who bought into these strongly hierarchical LMS systems and the faculty who had other ideas: how has technology facilitated changes in relationships of administrative and disciplinary authority?

    How about a comparison of institutions where e-learning has been run by the bureaucracies and those run by faculty? How many institutions could produce anything like the Georgetown University “Reimagining Tradition” video:

    What about the role of “e-learning” in the current upset of bildung and ausbildung furthered by the Bologna fiat, the destruction of lehrfreiheit and lernfreiheit associated with the business of “modules” and all the rest that has so rightly upset so many of our students? What happens to the collective ability to talk intelligently when you replace a zillion teaching assistants and endless hours of talk with very expensive LMS systems, modules, and technicians that enforce what we would have to call “loading dock-teaching, -learning, -talk, and -communities?

    Critical stuff like that. Could be fun.



  2. Graham Attwell says:

    Hi Bruce

    Great comment (you get my comment of the year award 🙂 ). I don’t think though that it is just in educational technology or education that political sociology is failing us. It seems to me that sociologists have been very slow to understand the impact of the rapid societal changes driven in part by technology over the past ten or fifteen years. Of course that is partly due to politics – in the UK Margaret Thatcher was publicly disdainful of sociology and Labour seems little better. But I also think it is a methodological issue – it is very hard to understand the ‘meanings’ of many of the new technologies without using them. One of my good friends is a sociologist and keeps going on about how books are better than the internet!!!
    I also think that we have been slow to listen to learners – with such a high fee it is not surprising that there were few to be seen in Berlin.

  3. Graham Attwell says:

    Also just to not mislead people – there are reduced fees for speaker and for students – 250 Euro if I remember right – but of course this is still a substantial barrier for many people. I wonder how we can open such conferences out to a broader range of attendees, whilst still dealing with the practical issue that conferences need money to survive?

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