Online Educa Berlin 2014 in review

Although not a huge fan of mega-conferences and trade shows, I have to admit that this year’s Online Educa Berlin was a refreshing change of pace.

Yes, there was a lot of the same, old same-old: the same large platform providers, the special tools developers, and a fairly wide range of public bodies all pushing the traditional theme of « more (technology) is better ». On the other hand, there were a number of presenters who were willing to take a more future-oriented approach and ask critical questions about just what we’re doing with all this technology.

No one was saying, « It hasn’t proved its worth, let’s get rid of it. » What could be heard, though, were questions such as « Are we using what we have effectively? » « Have we been missing something in our rush toward technological solutions? » « Is the purely technological answer always the best answer? » and the answer is simply « no ».

There are serious and important changes going on all about us. While some would maintain that the actual technologies are changing, it seems more to me that they are primarily getting faster and more detailed. It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees. And while there has long been talk in educational technology circles that the learner is king, it was just this year that we started hearing — from some, not from everyone — just what that means. A few examples:

  1. In his opening keynote, Howard Rheingold not only differentiated between technologies and purposes (e.g., blogs for the individual voice; forums for a group voice; wikis for collaborative production) he went on to show how mind-mapping and other techniques are also available for collaborative work. Learning from one another; treating students as « co-learners » and his notion of « peeragogy » are having dramatic impacts on education in general.
  2. Mark Stevenson gave us a very entertaining talking-to. He correctly noted that we tend to see too many things too narrowly: we don’t have an energy crisis, we have an energy-conversion crisis; that learning is not a place, its a natural state of mind and goes on whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. The shift occurring across the digital world in shifting power to the masses, but he questions whether we’re up to the challenge. Most importantly, he pointed out that humanity is by its very nature co-inspirational, and if we don’t soon understand what that means, we could be in for potentially disastrous consequences.
  3. This theme was picked up on and further developed by Stephen Downes, a long-time worker in the field. He broke it down into practical terms: being producers as well as receivers of knowledge and products, we need to reclaim our personal power. While the technological product-providers like to stress how their tools can personalize things, it is actually more important to recognize what is personal and allow the person to decide what’s to be done with his or her own contributions. We’ve turned the learning model on its head.
  4. That we tend to get things backward was also the point of Ola Rosling‘s plea for developing a fact-based view of the world. While we think things are getting worse, the data shows us that in general things are improving; we think sharks are killers but they kill so few people that it’s almost not worth mentioning. In other words, we tend to generalize where it is not applicable (from one’s own personal experience to the world at large) and exaggerate what we fear. His entertaining, practical portrayal of the Ignorance Project brought the message home.
  5. Jef Staes, finally, made a passionate plea for all of us to find our passion and talents and use those to steer our own learning lives. If we’re teachers, it’s our existential obligation to awaken our students’ passions and talents as well. Our current social, educational and economic structures serve primarily to drive our passion, talent, and creativity out of us, making us more manageable for those in charge. To his mind, this is why too much education and corporate training is simple ineffective. It’s time for us to take our fates into our own hands, exercise our own power and do what we each do best, because it is the right thing to do and it ultimately benefits everybody.

These are only four of the dozen or so talks and presentations I was able to attend, but there was a lot of challenge in each of these. Making things meaningful, not just technologically snazzy, is our current big challenge. Are we up to it?