E-Learn 2012, Montreal: another earth-shaking conference.

I’ve just returned from an enjoyable week in Montreal attending the E-Learn conference. There was, of course, an earthquake, albeit so minor (3-4 on the Richter Scale) that I didn’t even notice it. Not as earth-shaking as E-Learn 2006 where a much large earthquake took out the power in Waikiki for a day, nor ICALT 2007 where an earthquake left me stranded in Tokyo and steam escaping from a nearby nuclear power station. 

E-Learn is usually a great opportunity to catch up with many leaders and friends in the online learning field, but numbers were down this year (about two-thirds as many as at the conference’s peak) and there were not as many familiar faces as I would have liked to see. It was good to catch up with folk like Theo Bastiens, Gale Parchoma, Norm vaughan and our own Andrew Chiarella & Linda Chmiliar, who had a fine short paper on the use of CoRead, a stigmergic annotation tool. Sarah Duke Benson did a brilliant job of coordinating the cats, if not exactly herding them. Also it was good to meet Myk Garn, Punya Mishra, Dale Stephens, Saul Carliner and many others who provided stimulating conversation and some fine presentations.  However, whereas I usually expect to see at least 50 people that I know fairly well, this year they probably numbered less than a dozen. It’s not just that I’m an old fogey and the new generation was coming in: though there were a good many students and younger researchers (as usual), many attendees were (amazingly) older than me and had been doing this for years. We talked a lot about this at the exec committee meeting and agreed that the pattern repeated across the board for most conferences thanks to the economic pressures most academics are under. I suspect that this is far from the only reason though: the information about the latest research that I used to get from conferences (and hardly ever got from journals) is now available in a far more timely fashion on the Web. It is notable that, apart from a few of us talking about them in keynotes etc, MOOCs were hardly mentioned at all, despite being perhaps the hottest topic in educational technology right now. I still like to get to talk with and connect with people at conferences as it is more likely to lead to lasting connections and friendships, but that’s pretty much it: if I want to be inspired by the latest and greatest things in the field, I get it in my newsfeeds. AACE has made a good job of putting together an online social framework around the conference and its proceedings and it has some online presentations, but I think the only way such conferences will survive is by innovatively capitalizing on the connections people make in person. Tricky stuff.

Unexpectedly, I wound up participating in a keynote panel thanks to some unexpected schedule clashes (three keynotes only able to speak on one day, unfortunately the same day) in which we debated the future of online and distance learning, covering issues such as the future of formal education, the rise of MOOCs, the relationship between pedagogy and technology and a whole lot more. I may be biased, but I reckon that it was maybe more generally stimulating than the usual single speaker, especially as we made a point of taking views and questions from the audience.

All the usual suspects turned up in the themes of the papers – blended learning, higher education, teaching, learning environments, social media, a bit of mobile, and a good dose of technologies in general. E-books and iPads were a popular topic but oh so uninspiring (most of the time). This is a rough and ready tagcloud (produced via tagcrowd.com) of the titles, which gives a pretty good clue about the themes:

E-Learn 2012 paper-title tag cloud

Although I did make a point of seeing a few selected presentations, I was trying a new conference technique of deliberately attending some presentations that were in subject areas of little interest to me. This was on the grounds that most of the ones in areas I knew about would just confirm what I already know while those in different fields might inspire me. It worked a bit – I did get one or two new ideas – but I think I might go back to my old approach in future as the hit rate was not that high. Among the highlights for me were:

  • Punya Mishra’s keynote: so much common sense and a really enjoyable presentation style. I’ve come across his TPACK framework before and found it to be a useful reflective scaffold but lacking in coherence. Chatting with him, I think his ideas about learning technologies are much closer to mine than I’d originally thought.
  • Saul Carliner’s keynote: less that I agreed with than Punya’s keynote, but a wealth of wisdom and sound thinking, wrapped up in a friendly and delightfully approachable presentation style.
  • Yuhei Yamauchi et als paper on using Facebook to connect students and working adults – wonderful idea, great research, impossible to implement in Canada or Europe thanks to privacy legislation.
  • Joséphine Rémon’s paper on risk-taking in language learning: some great use of signals to identify risk-takers vs grade-seekers.

My own refereed paper went down OK. I was talking about one of my courses, describing the ways I have tried to make it both self-paced and social. My slides are available here on the Landing.

At the airport I bumped into Stephen Downes chilling out in the VIP lounge, on his way back from Germany.  Small world.

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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