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Thursday, July 10, 2008

ICALT 2008 - A Cottage Conference?

Last week I was at IEEE ICALT 2008, held in Santander,Spain. Last year's conference was a bit of a wakeup call for me, partly because of Mark Eisenstadt's wonderful keynote, and partly because of the realisation of just how quickly Web trends were making much of the presented work obsolete.

This year the community seems to have noticed the change of pace, and although no wonderful answers were presented, at least we heard some of the right questions being asked. The location was pretty fine as well - Santander is a well kept Spanish secret - although, as you can tell from this picture of us outside our hotel, we found the weather tough going (and yes, we really did send that many people :-)

(in fact, there a few people missing from that photo. There were 14 of us from LSL by the 2nd day)

There were some presentations of some neat e-learning tools too, including a tool from the people at the MiGen project for allowing students to construct simple algebraic problems using a graphical editor. It occurs to me that this is actually about teaching abstractions, and might be useful for first year CS and IT students, as well as schoolkids struggling with algebra :-)

My happier assessment of the conference may also have something to do with the fact that one of my PhD students, Asma Ounass, won the best paper award - a brilliant achievement given the size of the conference and the number of papers considered. Asma's paper was on using Semantic Web technology to create student groups, and is available on our School e-prints server.

Probably the most interesting session that I attended was a panel that tried to address the question of 'why technology innovations are still a cottage industry in education' (with Madhumita Bhattacharya, Dragan Gasevic, Jon Dron, Tzu-Chien Liu and Vivekananandan Suresh Kumar).

Some of the panelists took the opportunity to explain why their pet technology or approach was going to save e-learning, however I found Jon Dron's position statement the most compelling. Jon questioned the assumption behind the topic, and asked if having a cottage industry was so bad, and whether we really wanted to industrialise e-learning. The point behind his question is that Higher Education is itself a bit of a cottage industry; a craft with personalised products and highly skilled craftsmen. The danger is that if you wish for industrialised e-learning systems, you may end up with industrialised learning and teaching.

This set me wondering what cottage industries actually look like in a post-industrial society, and whether or not the tools we need for e-learning are similar to the technologies that they use. Thinking about it it seems that they apply mechanisation in the small - administrative tools like MS Office and communication tools like email, web sites, social networks and ebay.

That assessment might be just a result of my own prejudices about e-learning technology, but what the analogy does show is that there may be an assumption driving our e-learning systems: VLEs assume that the industrialisation of learning is a good thing (consistent quality and economies of scale), while PLEs assume that the industrialisation of learning is a bad thing (the ownership of production and inpersonalisation) and rally against it.

What is not yet clear is whether the cloud approach could scale in the same way as a traditional VLE, enabling institutions to support PLEs on a large scale, or whether the diverse set of people, preferences and tools would create unmanageable complexity. I know that this is a concern with our own systems staff, who have to maintain a large number of systems to ensure quality of service, and I've stated before that I feel that the institutional involvement is essential so there's no avoiding the problem by relying on 3rd party systems.

No answers - but at least we've starting asking the questions :-)

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