Thursday, September 27, 2007

ICL conference in Villach

Villach, Kaernten, Austria. ICL conference (Interactive Computer-aided Learning).

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 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)
Next a movie about shifthappens ( was given. It was of the "Information Anxiety" series :-) but it was certainly interesting.

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.


Marco Ronchetti said...

Today I've got the following e-mail from Taisir Subhi Yamin as response to this post.

Dear Mr. Marco,
First of all, I would like to thank you very much for what you wrote about my keynote lecture in Villach.
What I have introduced is based on research studies that confirmed such arguments.
I do hope you will have the opportunity to read more about gifted education, and the social emotional problems of the gifted and talented.
In addition, I am sure you believe in the educational democracy, or knowledge democracy..if so will you please let me know if we are really should design and develop special provisions for the gifted and talented.
Furthermore, I would like to draw your attention to one of the most important titles. "A Nation at Risk". (see:

I do appreciate what you wrote and do encourage you to write more and is a debate.. and things will be better in the light of critical thinking and constructive criticism.
Thank you again and will be more than happy if I could be of any help.
Take good care and be so happy and so healthy.
Taisir Subhi Yamin

Marco Ronchetti said...

Dear Dr. Taisir Subhi Yamin,

Thank you very much for your reply. I do respect the research that you
and the Renzulli group are carrying on, but I object from a philosophical and social point of view.
I agree on the idea that we should try to give everyone the best
conditions to fully express their inclination and potential. However,
when you push that up to separate people according to their performance, I think that the social damage that this approach creates overcomes by far the possible advantages that the single person might obtain. In your talk you said "gifted students should be grouped in special classes". As I objected in my blog, the next step will necessarily be "let's separate the average ones from the underperformers".
Once you have taken the first step that you suggest, I do not see how
anyone could possibly object to the second step. Now, at least in
Europe the pedagogical trend has been exactly the opposite: let's put together the gifted, the average, and the handicapped. We used to have - until the early 60ies - special school for students with some difficulties. They were Ghettos - and we learned that an approach based on people integration is much better.
The point is comparing what could be best for a single person against
what is best for the society - a difficult and delicate issue that
mankind is debating since ever.

If you start separating - well why not to separate natives from
immigrants? after all, the class pace can be much faster with natives - for linguistic reasons. Why should natives suffer from having their potential limited by the presence of "slower" people? I am sure an approach based on separation can be more effective for the natives, and I'm pretty sure it can be demonstrated scientifically. But what we need today is integration, not separation. Science is not an absolute value: it s an important ingredient in a health society. Remember, also the german V2 were science, and also in concentration camps there were smart doctors who believed they were doing science.

Thanks for having responded to my objections. As you do, I also
believe that a confrontation and a debate are a health and necessary
thing. Wishing you all the bests


Marco Ronchetti said...

This is the reply by Taisir Subhi Yamin, I'm posting it here on his behalf.

Dear Friend Marc,
I thank you again.
Your e-mail made up my day, because I realised that there are human beings who do care about the consequences of any step or action. Form social, philosophical and scientific point of views. We need such strong voices who prevent and avoid any sort of discrimination. I do agree with this point of view and it is part of our aims and objectives in the International Association of Educators for World Peace, and the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children. In both organizations, we believe in what you defending today.
On the other hand, I would like to confirm again that Renzulli Learning System is for all students (bellow average, average and the gifted and talented children). As you remember my friend that I introduced the conception of Giftedness, then the conception of Enrichment and followed by the conception of Differentiation. Renzulli do believe strongly in the schoolwide enrichment and do believe in mainstreaming as you suggested, but when I talked about ability grouping and enrichment clustering i never mean to defend and push towards elitism. But, when you talk about enriched differentiated materials this implies that you will have educational opportunities up to the level of students' abilities, interests, motivation and learning styles.In addition, we should care about the social aspects of our programme (e.g., values, attitudes and social role). I was involved in establishing a special school for the gifted and a national centre for research on the gifted and was my intention that we should care so much about the social aspects of such a programme. It is one of the approaches, and what you are talking about is another approach. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and both are available.
This discussion do enrich the topic, and gives me the opportunity to include it in my talk.. and could be part of our debate.. I also thank you if these two e-mails will be posted on your website as a comment from me concerned itself with your impression concerning that keynote speech.
Take care my friend, keep doing very well and make sure that I am more than happy when I have such intelligent conversation with people like you.
Have a great day.
With very best wishes and warm regards.
Taisir Subhi Yamin

Unknown said...

This guy organised a recent conference which was planned to be conducted in English. Please see his response to my disappointment that the conferecne was not in English at all:

Good morning Ms. Mandy,
It seems you are not willing to understand that the conference includes both presenters (English speaking and Arabic ones). It is not designed for you only!!!, and we had the top leaders in Excellence in Education and gifted education.
Will you stop such e-Mails and stop communicating with us. I am not willing to keep wasting time with people like you.
We got feedback from many people and this is good.
In addition, I know how we designed the conference.
So, I will not be destroyed or bothered if you come-up with such conclusion.
The fees you paid just the cost of the food and coffee breaks.
Please, stop your communication with us.
The only thing you should have now is the conference proceedings. nothing more.
We are not supposed nor expected to please every one.
Taisir Subhi Yamin

Marco Ronchetti said...

Hi Mundy,

once it happened to me in Spain that a so-called "international" conference had half of the talks in Spanish, and yes, it is not fair...

What I find intolerable however is the way Taisir responded to you. I think no further comment is needed.