Dec 062009

I had a great time at the VI International Seminar on Open Social Learning (UOC, Barcelona). For me, this kind of small scale events is a lot more interesting than big conferences. Bleeding edge ideas and projects and a lot more dialogue than the lecture like format of many conferences. So here’s some (very subjective) highlights of what I appreciated the most.

George Siemens was excellent, again. There seems to be a slight evolution in his thinking (but I may be getting it wrong), by going from “the network is the learning” to “let’s focus on connections, not networks (…) A network is an expression of connectedness – a pattern”, but the main core was there: the importance of connections, the changing nature of knowledge, the need to organize leaning in an open way and within a social, networked context, the importance of diversity and individual choice and interests, fluidity and “adaptiveness”, etc. There’s this underlying idea that in terms of our relationship with knowledge and information we’re going through a change from the same magnitude as the one that happened from orality to writing, when he sees the possibility of knowledge residing in non-human devices, thus freeing our brain, in a world of massive abundance of ever-growing information, to concentrate in connection-forming and in sense-making. I’m guessing this is why he seems so interested in adaptive technologies as the new “augmented personal context” in which we are starting to operate. I may be wording this in a clumsy way, since I don’t even pretend to fully understand the depths of connectivism, but I don’t think this is a wrong assumption.

Another interesting path Siemens is trying to pursue is the role that Universities and teachers will play, or have to play, if they want to remain relevant in the networked learning era. His New structures and spaces of learning: The systemic impact of connective knowledge, connectivism, and networked learning, presented at Universidade do Minho, Braga, on October 2008 is a must read to that respect. This time he concentrated more on course and curriculum, putting forward some ideas of how they should be organized and what the role of the teacher ought to be. The slides of his presentation can be found on Slideshare and there’s even an elluminate recording of his talk that includes the Q/A section.

Stephen Downes was another top player invited to speak, and he did deliver. He went through some of his frequent topics concerning learning, (connective) knowledge and personal learning environments, and then tried to match them to a new approach on open educational resources. The Q/A section made obvious the traditional difficulties when trying to apply connectivist principles to formal or highly structured learning situations: he struggled a bit, to say the least, to answer Joel Greenberg’s (Open University) question on a practical learning situation. He did say some interesting things, but wasn’t able to produce a clear answer. Slides and audio can be accessed here.

Luis Pedro and Carlos Santos, from Universidade de Aveiro, made quite an impression with the SAPO Campus Project. They are getting a lot of attention (and deserved praise) from the likes of Josie Fraser, George Siemens and Jay Cross  (to name a few “big” names). They have a very innovative approach on what they call “an institutionally supported personal learning environment” that seems to be going through a very sound and well thought out implementation. Their excellent presentation is available at Slideshare.

There were, certainly, other interesting presentations. Joel Greenberg talked about the SocialLearn initiative at Open University, which basically is an experience to provide a social networking context for learning at OU. It is somewhat related to the OpenLearn initiative,  but there are not many details at the moment (or at least I couldn’t grasp them well). Alejandro Piscitelli (University of Buenos Aires), a really lively character, made a very energetic presentation of their Facebook Project. I can relate with his view of teaching and learning – cut lecture time to a minimum, invite external experts, learn by doing, use the network, etc. – but frankly I’m not a big fan of Facebook as a (serious) learning environment. Two projects in an African context – George Siemens & Kathleen Matheos (University of Manitoba) and Laura Czerniewicz & Tony Carr (University of Cape Town) – raised some interesting questions regarding cultural differences, technological constraints and learners’ expectations. Jay Cross, I have to admit, was a bit of a let down. The title was compelling – “Meta-Learning: Process of Learning in the Network Era” – but the conversational tone adopted, IMHO, never really took off into a stimulating presentation, despite some good moments/assertions. Maybe my expectations were too high, maybe he wasn’t in the best of days, I don’t know. “TwHistory: Historical Reenactments with Twitter“, presented by Tom Caswell and Marion Jensen, from Utah State University, looked innovative, creative and surely professional, but I am yet not comfortable about using Twitter for this kind of purpose. They also did a great job in helping organize the Twitter back channel at the seminar, which went great, I think.

For a full account of all the presentations (with summaries), see; Antonella Esposito has collected a lot of useful resources from the seminar using Cloudworks; and if you search for #elChair09 on Twitter you can find plenty of useful information on the seminar.

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