The 17th annual ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN, the world’s largest e-learning conference for the corporate, education and public service sectors took place from November 30th to December 2nd, 2011, and with the theme of New Learning Cultures, the conference was fruitful ground for discussing, debating and exploring the technologies and trends that are driving formal and informal learning and training. With 2154 participants from 96 countries in attendance, the event featured scores of dynamic presentations and interactive sessions led by international e-learning experts, educators and corporate trainers.
Whilst ICT use is now a fixture on the educational landscape, the rapid pace of technological advancements means that the work of integrating these tools into education and training is never done, and there is still much scope for fully realising the potential of the digital revolution. In her opening plenary speech at OEB 2011, European Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said, “My goal in the EU is clear: to get every European digital. That has to include education and training. We need every teacher digital, and every student digital. Right from the very start of formal education, and as part of lifelong learning.”
This digital dream is being realised from the ground up as was made clear in the series of presentations in the dynamic School Forum which drew 190 teachers and head teachers. One of the 11 speakers was Tim Rylands, a veteran educator and e-learning expert who uses ICT to inspire teachers and students alike. Using examples of teaching tools and software readily available online, he explained the ease with which games-based learning can be integrated into the primary school classroom, particularly for group and class projects. He demonstrated how Riven Games, Switcheroo Zoo and Google Earth SketchUp can form the basis of interactive lessons that will have young learners inspired and eager to explore further on their own.
In a session on the Future Classroom, Jolanta Galecka explained that games must be differentiated and imbued with suspense so that the pupil is never bored. “In adopting games for learning, one must consider all areas of development and ensure that the child is receiving a wide range of skills,” she said. The challenge is to continue to educate the educators, a recurring theme in OEB 2011.
In a session on students’ perspectives, the university students on stage lamented the disinterest that some of their instructors show for e-learning tools such as Moodle, and they called on the use of Facebook in university curricula. These near-digital natives were largely in favour of letting their learning happen in the virtual space.
Pierre Dillenbourg of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne took a different approach in his upbeat, humorous and thought-provoking presentation entitled “Orchestrating Technologies: Empowering Teachers in Creative Classrooms.” He argued that whilst we are now spoilt for choice in our technology-rich environment, we must not forget that we are still human beings who need the counsel and experience of teachers. “It is a joke to say that teachers are important these days. Teachers have to fight for students’ attention, and the teacher is shifting from a sage on the stage to a guide on the side. Relegating the teacher to the side-lines is counterproductive because the learners still need guidance in navigating and filtering out irrelevant information. The teacher still needs to be at the forefront, and it is a matter of educating and empowering the teachers to incorporate e-learning practices creatively.” He further argued that technology can be used to bridge the divide between school and the workplace and that though we have virtual tools at our disposal, we still live in a physical world and must show diligence in our appropriation of technology.
This line of argumentation resounded with the assertion of keynote speaker John Bohannon, a biologist-turned journalist who has worked with Harvard’s Cultural Observatory in documenting trends in human culture over the centuries. At OEB 2011, he spoke about transactive memory and our increasing reliance on online resources and networks. “The Google Effect is changing education dramatically,” said Bohannon. After detailing a number of recent experiments on how students access information, he said, “Increasingly, students don’t necessarily know the answers to questions, but they do know where to find the information they need.” In essence, a new learning culture has been defined, and as Bohannon says, “The tools we use shape our minds.”
In the session entitled “Twitter and Blogging: Is This Education?” there was standing room only as participants flocked to learn more about how Web 2.0 tools can be integrated into classroom and workplace routines. Social media have been adopted widely by ordinary Internet users, and the present challenge is how to use them effectively in education and training. Sharon Stoerger of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee presented concrete examples of how she uses Twitter for information visualisation with students, while Kjell Atle Halvorsen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology argued that blogging lends an interactive dimension to learning, thus creating a new learning culture that can be used in formal and informal learning.
In the security and defence realm, teaching and learning practices are pioneering e-learning trends geared to meet the new security environment that has arisen over the past twenty years. Harold Elletson, the Chairman of the New Security Foundation, explained that the new security environment can be traced back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. New vulnerabilities have arisen in the advent of the Internet and 24-hour rolling news. “The tragedies in Norway and Kenya show just how easy it is to create carnage and get publicity. We have also seen how the revolutions in the Arab world were driven by social media, as were the London riots,” he said. Implementing training programmes for the security and defence industry must therefore take into account the new information culture and the ease with which news spreads. He argued that security is the first and most fundamental step towards a functioning society and that creativity in implementing training strategies is needed. “Many innovative learning systems, most notably the Internet, developed out of security and defence concerns,” he said.
The topic of tailor-made security training was tackled further by Alan Bruce in his paper “Innovative Learning and the Impact of Crisis: threat, opportunity, and demographic time bombs”. He said, “We need effective planning and the careful allocation of resources as we come up with innovations that meet present and future challenges for our multicultural future.” Learning sustains innovation, he argued, and creating a positive space for training is of particular importance in conflict situations and in ridding society of intolerance and targeted victimisation.
While the security experts presented their research findings and ideas for further exploration, the corporate speakers at Business EDUCA likewise gave real-world examples of the effective new learning cultures they have adopted in their companies. Sann René Glaza of Toyota Motor Europe (TME) gave insight into how learning technologies are driving development in the automotive sector. With nine plants and around 80 000 employees scattered throughout Europe, TME is forever on the lookout for innovations that will reduce knowledge transfer between headquarters and the company’s extensive dealer network. She detailed the training approach used for the Toyota Touch & Go multimedia systems and said, “We favour a competency based model for training our technicians.”
Paying heed to learner competence is a theme that Professor Douglas Thomas of the University of Southern California raised in his keynote speech where he described a new learning culture whereby education is much more than knowledge transfer from the teacher to the student. “We are moving from a world of content to a world of context,” he said. “We need to look at change as something that needs to be embraced,” he said.
So from Kroes’ dream of a digital Europe to the discussions of formal and informal learning and the analyses of trends in corporate learning cultures around the world, the meeting and mingling of disparate views made for a worthwhile learning experience at OEB 2011.