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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ICALT 2007 - Two steps behind

So the ICALT conference is over for another year. It's an interesting event that tries to bring together researchers from both east and west, and for the most part it succeeds - the mixture of presenters is about half and half and there is a lot of opportunity to meet people from countries that in the past have been under-represented in international academic research.

Of course there are some problems too. English is the conference language but not all participants have strong English skills which can make communication difficult (I probably experience this most jarringly as a native English speaker, but can guess that it is frustrating for everyone else as well).

But probably the most disappointing thing for me is that all the researchers, east or west, still seem to show undue reverence to the e-learning techniques, technologies and methods that have been built up in the last ten years or so. Many papers continue to look at standards such as SCORM, and systems like LMSs as if there existence was pre-ordained and their execution canon. What I'm really hoping to get out of a conference is an exciting dialogue or two, sounds of dissension and dissatisfaction, and if I'm really lucky some ideas for innovative new solutions.

In ICALT I really only got that feeling in the three keynotes, which were all rather good. Perhaps the best was from Marc Eisenstadt, entitled "Does e-learning have to be so awful?".

Its difficult (and never that accurate) to sum up someone else's argument, but the main message that I took away from Marc's talk was that if we want to understand how student's might make use of new technologies then we need to be using those technologies, and if we need to understand the issues then the best way is to have those issues ourselves. This extends to the wider case as well, and Marc argued that to gain a proper understanding of how those technologies effect learning we need to roll them out to real students on a real scale and experience the results.
I personally felt that given his provocative title Marc was pulling his punches a bit. There was an undercurrent of real dissatisfaction throughout his talk, a subtext of couldn't-we-do-better, and I think he's right to draw attention to the misalignment of our research on e-learning and our real world teaching. What I found frustrating about this conference was that everyone (and on reflection I am probably just to blame as everyone else) is about two steps behind where they should be. Two whole steps!

The people on the bottom step are the ones who haven't realised that the stone is already rolling and that the world is moving on. These folks are still working with the temporary solutions that are LMSs and ITS systems (temporary in that there existence is only justified in the narrow technology deficit decade of 1995-2005 - where IT skills were playing catch up).

The people on the first step, and I like to think that this is where I live, are focused more on the reality of students today, they are excited about social software and radical new ideas like Second Life (radical in the non-fictitious sense anyway!). They enthuse about the wisdom of crowds, loosely coupled systems and mashups. But even these people aren't really in the right place, because this stuff is happening anyway - there are teachers out there using second life, lecturers building learning communities on Wikis, students sharing their experiences on the blogosphere. The people on the first step don't have to enthuse, this is the reality.

So what's the second step, what should a conference like ICALT be serving up on its east-west plate? I think that we all need to move forward to a place where we can set the enthusiasm aside and begin to think more critically about social software and the consequences of all this can-do power in the hands of our students. At the minute we're so busy trying to persuade everyone that the rolling stone is right that we can't take the time to reflect on the times when it rolls down an inconvenient gully, or crushes a pedagogy when no-ones looking. How do we deal with the sidelining of experts, how can assessment cope with so much sharing, how can we manage cultural differences that might disadvantage some students in online settings?

As we left Japan I realised that despite Marc's excellent talk, this is what made me so dissatisfied with ICALT this year. No-one seems to be asking these difficult questions - and surely that's what the academic community is for?

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