E-Learn 08


I got back from the best E-Learn in many years last night. Partly it was the great selection of keynotes, partly the fact there were hardly any no-shows (at least in my experience), partly the great people who were there, partly the quality of the papers. A notable improvement in a conference that had been slipping slowly downhill for a long time. I suspect more than a bit of the kudos goes to the conference program chairs Curt Bonk, Tom Reynolds and Mimi Miyoung Lee. There was a freshness and vibrancy to the event that was a pleasure to be a part of.

My highlights

The keynotes and invited speakers were all good, but some were outstanding…

Erik Duval and Wayne Hodgins

These guys are brilliant. A highly innovative presentation including Wayne via Skype from his yacht somewhere at sea, talking about mass personalisation – what they call the 'snowflake effect'. I have to have a certain sympathy for this one as it is what I have been working on for more than 10 years. It is nice to hear that it is now the mainstream. When I and others were applying automated collaborative filters and other social filtering systems to education 10 years ago and more it was very cutting edge stuff. I guess the thing that surprises me is that it has taken so long to reach prominence. Erik and Wayne gave a tour-de-force performance that reached into all sorts of nooks and crannies of the issues  personalisation raises and the technologies that we might use. I have seldom seen such a slick yet creative presentation as this one – a kind of planned chaos that seamlessly integrated the audience but packed in some really important ideas. Erik's great graphics-intensive beautifully designed presentation was delightfully offset by Wayne's helter-skelter Pecha Kucha presentation – 20 seconds a slide, 20 slides, six minutes and 40 seconds, giving plenty of time for a highly interactive and stimulating conversation.

George Siemens

George is always wonderful. We have been working in parallel for many years, but George is so much better at expressing things about how learning happens in networks, collectives, as well as the benefits and effects of emergence and so on than I will ever manage. An inspiring speaker. His talk was wide-ranging, including stuff on amplified change, storing our knowledge in our friends, why we name dogs but don't name cattle, and some good thoughts on the differences between the old and the new: formal vs informal, epistemology vs ontology, structural vs exploratory, open vs closed, pace vs depth and accreditation vs reputation. It was great to talk with George and Erik at a party after their presentations. They are as smart and funny in real life as they are on the presentation podium.

Lucifer Chu

Lucifer is stunning. A man who made millions (in some currency at least 🙂 through translating Lord of the Rings into Chinese and who has ploughed much of it back into improving learning for all, especially in the area of open educational resources. He has such phenomenal energy, enthusiasm and absolute clarity of vision it is hard not to be inspired by him. In fact, I will be posting a blog entry on my particular inspiration that I got from him soon (hint: we should build courses the same way we build open source software).

David Wiley

What is not to love about David Wiley? Here he was talking about the disaggregation of education and, by extension, the end of the traditional institution as we know it. Inspiring. He is another person who coins beautiful phrases to capture what we do. I love the analogies of water polo as swimming on horseback and celebrating the mass in latin to describe how we are transferring old and inappropriate models to a new environment. David Wiley is one of the great innovators in this area. Excellent stuff.

Mark David Milliron

A good solid and entertaining keynote on the generation gaps in online learning and some sensible thoughts on how to fill them. Packed with useful statistics, anecdotes and ideas and some lovely memes. I particularly enjoyed his characterisation of the 'techno cro-magnon' mantra :"technology go-oo-ood".

Richard Baraniuk

A very cool speaker, mainly discussion Connexions and others of its ilk. A call to arms for those (like me) who believe in openness and sharing. Creating, ripping, mixing and burning were the keywords for this one. It was good to see that some really significant things are now being done through Connexions and those like it, with a mature and sophisticated business model.The notion of lenses was particularly powerful – a means of filtering content through more or less trustworthy lenses that reinvents peer review and offers a revenue stream without diminishing the power and strengths of open educational resources.

I liked his distinction between repositories (such as Connexions) and referatories (such as Merlot). I am not totally convinced that the centralised model of repositories is the way to go – I like distributed solutions despite issues of consistency and reliability that still have to be solved. Apart from anything else, the single point of failure of repositories remains a deeply troubling issue if we want to use them for a long time. In such a time of flux as this, no single organisation (even Google perhaps, and certainly not Facebook or any smaller educational site) is trustworthy. I have been burnt too often when relying on external sites to accept that centralisation is the answer. Remember the furore when EduSpaces was nearly lost? Education may be a big market, but individual sites are relatively small and fragile.


I guess the thing that most impressed me about the conference this year was that the ideas I and many others have been playing with for many years have gone through the innovation barrier and we are beginning to see great richness and complexity in real-world applications. We are moving on from 'hey, blogs are cool, look what I've done' or 'wouldn't it be nice if we could pull things together from different places' or 'what can we do to cater for the digital generation'  to a more critical phase of examining how the world is actually changing as a result.  There was a lot of talk of trust, reliability, reputation, security and stability, a lot of discussion about the clash between the old educational cultures and the new open world, the need for remixing and repurposing,  and that old chestnut of top-down vs bottom-up. These remain big issues that have yet to be solved properly but I think we are starting to address them and entering a period of refinement rather than massive innovation.

I think that we are now on the verge of moving into a new phase that hardly anyone is talking about yet: how do we eliminate the tyranny of the system designer? Cursory surface thinkers like Andrew Keen and slightly more credible but technologically blinkered academics like Tara Brabazon look at our new media and despair. They are right to be concerned (even if they really don't get the fact that we are moving into a richer age that outstrips the old in many more ways than it falls behind) but misunderstand the cause. This is a hard one, especially in networks and even more so in collectives. In natural systems, the rules for evolution themselves evolve, but in designed systems the creator of algorithms and interactions usually plays a fixed and determining role, even more than the architect of a physical space. The big and emerging issue for me is therefore how we can prevent, reduce or circumvent programmer/designer control. I have commented before on Wikipedia's problems, but our other main source of instant knowledge, Google, is perhaps even more pervasively and insidiously shaping our behaviour with its family of algorithms that surround the central PageRank. The crowd is only as wise as the means through which it expresses itself and there is still far too much simplistic ranking and deliberate shaping going on. It will all end in tears. We will get stupid mobs if we carry on this way, which is a pity, because the real stupidity is with the system designers, not the people who drive such systems. I have begun to scratch the surface of this problem in my book, but we have a long way to go on this.

I suppose that it is worth mentioning that there are still quite a few people doing the same old dull things with learning management systems and tired old methodologies, but even their sedimentary work is being washed away and eroded by a strong trend towards learner control and a richer view of the world where the teacher is a fellow traveller, not a guide nor (heaven forfend) a sage. I know that we are in the rarified space of stuff that is worth reporting at a research conference and that most of the world is still lost in control-space, but even at the weaker end of this conference the trend is kicking in hard. Ellen Wagner, a very sound thinker, had some good things to say on where we are in the innovation cycle and the tensions between innovation and implementation,research and practice, academic and corporate, product and solution, and traditional and emerging forms. There is still work to be done at the trailing edge and I got some useful confirmations of what I already know at even the most mainstream of presentations.

And of course it was wonderful to catch up with friends and colleagues from all over the place. Sadly not much of a showing from the University of Brighton this year: well, actually, only me and Diana Andone, but at least we got an outstanding paper award. It is sad to think that Brighton was once a significant research leader in e-learning. Hopefully it will be again. On the bright side my main employer, Athabasca University, was a major contributor to the conference, with at least 10 of us presenting, possibly more – I was still running into colleagues I'd not come across before even on the last day. 

Overall, a fine conference.



I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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