Running a conference (or better, many) can be a business. There are associations that charge you a lot for participating and then they give you minimal support. I remember going to a IASTED conference, and for 600 Euro we almost did not even have coffee during coffee breaks. They had promised printed proceedings - but then they discovered that shipping them to a Greek island (the conference was in Rhodes) coasted too much - so we never got them. The conference was good - in the end a conference is as good as its participants make it - but I felt ripped off. (BTW, there were also "special" hotel prices that were higher than I could find - in the very same hotel - in a travel agency...).
This conference is not of that sort. The organizers made a remarkable job in finding sponsors and covering some lunches and dinners, even at a lower-than-average participation fee. I do have some experience in organizing events, and I know how that can be difficult.
I wish they did the same good job in the selection of the keynote speakers. Well, on paper they made reasonable choices, but in practice the start wasn't that good, and the end was even worse..
The first three keynote speeches were... well, depressing. I’ll omit their names here.
The first stated that XML allows to address the issue of having semantic indexing of the content, and to make the content machines understandable. Well, maybe if you add a couple of other layers on top of XML it might be true… Embarrassing, maybe he should go back and take a look at the layers of the Semantic Web. He also said that with mathML you can do calculations - e.g. take derivatives of a function. I believe it's only a markup language, not an engine...
Another keynote gave a talk about the evolution of e-learning, from web pages to Learning Management System (LMS), to Managed Learning Environments (MLE), to Personal Learning Environments (PLE) to a future Collaboration Environments. These last should be based on the emergine of web applications (like the google office suite). Well, the whole issue was very much technology-oriented and rather blurred . He did not comment on the how and why this technology should deliver more efficient collaboration models, and spent his time demonstrating that you can edit a document, or even open a browser, in a browser's window. Well, fun and exciting, we know that network computing will probably be the next big thing, and that Bill has nightmares about that, but terribly out of focus.
The third keynote was supposed give a talk on how Web 2.0 will enhance e-learning.
The first statement was a sign of the confusion that is often present when people speak about Web 2.0. When comparing the two approaches, he mentioned that “Web 1.0 is static while Web 2.0 is dynamic”. Ouch, CGI? He continued saying that “Web 1.0 is based on client-server paradigm, and Web 2.0 is based on Web Services”. Irritating, why do people talk about things they do not know? And this nonsense was more or less all he had to say about Web 2.0. The rest of the talk was a quick run through what they do in their labs, including an applet-based (web 2.0?) collaborative environment and a virtual reality system (in a joke (?) defined as Web 3.0).
Luckily then the series of weak keynote speaches was interrupted. Nicholas Balacheff gave a good talk. among his points was that learning is a change of behavior, but real learning is in the rationale of the change of behavior. Among the things he has worked on there is Aplusix , an Algebra Learning Assistant.
The fifth keynote, Di Paolo from Stanford, gave a very good talk about the transformations that a University has to go through to support LongLifeLearning. His slides are available at scpd.stanford.edu. The parameters that are important according to him are:
- provide a quick response
- students expect to work in a workgroup
- availability 24/7/365
- learning by searching
- from connectivity to collectivity
- provide customized learning
- be aware that there is a strong interest in international interactions
- provide challenges
- give the prossibiliy to preview courses and read students evaluation before registering
- view students as customers: eliminate delays and inefficiencies
- be ready to deliver technology smarter,smaller, faster, anywhere
- always give up-to-date information (time stamp every token of information you provide)
On the following day, the next keynote was for me the worst surprise (but wait, read also the long discussion in the comments to this posting!).
Taisir Subhi Yamin’s talk (Ulm University, Germany) was pushing the idea that e-learning’s mission is to help the “talented and gifted students”. There is even a pedagogical method and a system that has been put in place to pursue this idea: the Renzulli Learning. Sounds odd to me… My experience is that (at least at the University level) there is not much you can do to help very good students: they find their own way. Sure, advising helps, but I do not believe e-learning can effectively do that. And after all it’s only 10% of the students, and it is a joy to wok with them…
Also with very bad students (e.g. students with serious problems in their background knowledge) there is little hope to have an impact. Where the teacher (or e-learning) can really make a difference is in between: with the large mass of average students.
Ok, things may be a little different in primary and secondary school, BUT Yamin pushed his argument to say that “gifted students should be grouped in special classes”. I VIOLENTLY OBJECT TO THIS VIEW! The next step would be to create special classes for students with problems, and it took us the last 50 years to understand this is WRONG. The road outlined by Yamin is more than wrong: it’s frightening, and to me it even evokes bad memories from the fist half of the last century…
The last keynote (Ulf Daniel Ehlers, Vice President of the European Foundation for Quality Elearning) was -of course- on quality in e-learning. Good part of Ehlers' talk was on serendipity, continuous innovation, perpetual beta. Most of the content of the talk can be found in form of a summary here. It wasn't the kind of talk that changes your life but it was a honest and reasonable talk. Among the things I found interesting was the notion of transition from Transmissive Learning (distribution of learning material) to Expansive Learning (collaboration and reflection). Kind of obvious but nicely wrapped!
On the same line, he was quoting Schulmeister 2005 - but I was not able to find document he was referring to, not even through Schulmeister's home page. During my search through Schulmeister's publications however I found an interesting classification of Interactivity in Multimedia (in German!).
Later on I discovered that Ulf Daniel Ehlers maintains a blog on quality in e-learning.