What you missed if you missed Online Educa Berlin

Last week the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin was descended upon by 2,000+ motley e-learning types, all attending the annual Online Educa Berlin (OEB) conference. It was an extremely well-run conference (just as you’d expect in Germany), and had some memorable moments (just as you’d expect in a gathering of that size with people from over 90 countries present, all of whom are doing interesting things in e-learning). So I thought I’d share my potted list of highlights – bearing in mind that it was only possible for one person to attend a fraction of the sessions, so the list may appear a bit random.

The keynote addresses were without exception stimulating. On Thursday, David Puttnam showed us some moving extracts from a recently released film, We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For, and made a plea for educators to use moving images in their teaching, and to encourage their students to create moving images. Brian Durrant gave an impressive overview of how the schools in London are all linked up on a single, streamlined platform, which is enabling collaboration amongst teachers and students, as well as giving students the opportunity to access more materials from home. The system has been enthusiastically received by students and teachers, and the combined platform has been a huge cost saver for individual districts. Zenna Atkins spoke entertainingly and persuasively about the need to recognise both the needs and contributions of children who have grown up ‘digital’. With deliberate and delicious irony, she contrasted her experience as a mother with that as Chairman of Ofsted, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the limitations of the school inspection body in effecting meaningful change in the education system.

On Friday, the University of Leicester’s Gilly Salmon gave the first keynote address, along with student representative, Aaron Porter. Gilly’s metaphoric ‘tree of learning’ showed beautifully the long way that education has come since our forefathers made cave paintings, and she had the audience twittering about her question as to the two great wonders of education… (Answers anyone? The famous library at Alexandria and… the Internet.) Artur Dyro, from Young Digital Planet in Poland, successfully resisted the temptation give a sales spiel, and spoke engagingly about what the publishing industry can learn from today’s learners. (And it wasn’t what your run-of-the-mill, copyright-defending commercial publisher would want to hear…) Lizbeth Goodman then showed some intriguing footage of people in wheelchairs dancing with able-bodied people, demonstrating how technology can empower disabled people. This went down well, although her decision to read a rather sentimental voice-over, apparently for atmospheric effect, caused some mutters on twitter. (Twutters?)

The Beyond Distance team from the University of Leicester had a rather visible presence at OEB. Apart from Gilly’s keynote address, she also led a half-day pre-conference workshop with Sandra Romenska, in which delegates looked into crystal balls to glimpse some insights into learning futures, guided by preliminary findings from the CALF project. The Beyond Distance team also led a Learning Café, in which several of our research projects were described, giving audience members a brief taste of everything from the use of e-book readers in higher education, to what Psychology students can learn from evacuating a burning oil rig in the virtual world, Second Life. Finally, the OTTER project (putting the University of Leicester’s teaching materials on the web under open licences) and IMPALA (podcasting) project were described in more detail in longer presentations. All the slides from these sessions are available here.

The most provocative session of the three days was the Big Debate, in which Aric Sigman zealously warned the audience against the harmful consequences of too much social networking on children’s brains, and was capably countered by Donald Clark, who identified numerous points of false logic in Aric’s argument. I think the defining moment was when Aric, with some pomp and ceremony, showed us photos of some kids at school in North Korea and Bhutan (the latter playing with guns) and held them up as example of “well disciplined” school children, supposedly better off than kids who have easy access to the Web. This really doesn’t warrant any comment here, but if you’re interested, you can read Donald’s detailed version of the debate or an abridged account (written with feeling) by another OEB-attendee, Iain.

A couple of other highlights were Clive Shepherd talking about the nonsensical way in which many corporations have implemented e-learning for so-called ‘compliance training’, and Inge de Waard talking about the value of Web 2.0 applications that exist outside the ‘walled gardens’ of our institutional VLEs. (I heartily agreed – and was particularly excited to meet Inge, being a long-time follower of her blog.) Another exciting session was the one on breaking down intercultural barriers in e-learning. I was particularly impressed by Thorsten Randel‘s description of the ambitious Scoyo project, in which a virtual team comprising members from India to Germany to South America, and many countries in between, worked for a year to produce 12,000 hours’ worth of language teaching materials for children. Randel’s project management process included solving 60,000 ‘issues’ during this time!

Unfortunately I missed the Battle of the Bloggers session, which promised to be interesting, but I see Clive Shepherd has already blogged on it here.

Apart from the sessions described, my main take-home from the conference was a new understanding of the role that twitter can play at such a massive gathering. I found myself getting quite hooked on the twitter stream (when I was able to get a connection, which wasn’t all the time), both to read the running commentary on the session I was in, and also to see what I was missing in the other sessions. There was one attempt at getting the audience to use a separate back channel (Cover It Live) – presumably to prevent the distraction of tweets from other sessions, but it was only used by a handful of people, and when audience members wanted to write less-than-positive comments in this session, they reverted to twitter (which I found interesting!) I gathered via twitter that at least one conference member was sitting in one session and watching a second session that was being streamed live, simultaneously. That kind of thing does my head in, just thinking about it… Oh, and one last thing: twitter lived up to its reputation as a subversive element, being used to recruit people to a more interesting session after they had tweeted their dissatisfaction with the sessions they were in…

Gabi Witthaus / 7 December 2009

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