Monday, 3 December 2007

Online Educa Berlin 2007: Day 1, Plenary Session 2

The second plenary session of the day focused on Social Networking and Web 2.0 in Learning.

Firstly, Sian Bayne of Edinburgh University spoke about how they are using Second Life (SL) in an MSc programme in E-Learning - an online programme, with a distributed group of mostly adult learners. She used Freud's notion of unheimlich (the Uncanny) to characterise Second Life. Unheimlich is the effect arising on the boundary of reality and virtuality. They expedrimented with a number of other 3d virtual worlds in the past, however they are now focusing on Second Life. They have an island called Holyrood Park, Virtual University of Edinburgh (VUE) and are experimenting with using SL in Faculties of Education, Architecture, and Management. Sian emphasised that contrary to the rumors that they spent hunderds of thousands on this, most of their development was done by the Doctoral students and some teachers in their spare time. She did a live demonstration of their SL environment, and then outlined a number of key issues that they faced: skills for using a 3D environment; bandwidth; and cultural issues for avatar appearances (e.g. in African cultures animal heads might have negative connotations since they might be associated with witchcraft and black magic). Then, in light with the recent UK trend of presenting data "in students own words" she went on to read out a number of -rather lengthy - quotes from students elaborating on some of this issues.

Next, Graham Atwell delivered an exciting keynote on Web 2.0, social software, and Personal Learning Environments. He characterised himself as "Andrew Keen’s nightmare – I am a socialist, former hippy, and an anti-authoritarian” :-) He argued that emergent tools are being pushed into the old metaphors of industrial age, and that it is not technology that is challenging but the way people use technology. Key soundbites from his talk:
  • "Universities are in bewilderment at best and most often exhibit downright hostility towards the social software and web 2.0"
  • "Universities risk becoming irrelevant to students"
  • "When we want to learn something we don’t go to a VLE, we go to Google – so why are we sending students to the VLE?!"
  • "Schools resemble factories, with classrooms like factory workshops, teachers overseeing the students, and there are even bells to tell students they are free"
  • "Assessment of learning rather than assessment for learning"

He argued that PLEs can help addresses these issues because the allow continuous learning; allow students to use their own tools; recognise informal learning; are controlled by learner.

Finally, Roger Larsen, CEO of Fronter (claims to be Europe’s largest commercial open source learning platform, with 2.2 million users) spoke about Collaborative Working Environments, which was in effect a sales pitch for Fronter. He argued that PLEs are useful, but that VLEs are still relevant, because "teachers need VLEs for managing educational process and assessment process" . On one point he remarked “We are not pedagogues, we are engineers who built systems”. This is precisely the problem with all these systems - that they are driven by technologists rather than educators. Just look at the amount of vendors that were exhibiting at the conference this year , their number has doubled from the last time I was there. And what do they offer? Endless VLEs, e-portfolio systems, assessment systems that are no different from each other. Lots of "containers", with little thought about what they are going to contain and who is going to need it and how they rae going to use it. His main message was: VLEs are relevant since they can serve as a portal to link all these other Web 2.0, PLEs and user owned tools. I was not convinced at all - why would I prefer a VLE that is locked up and costly - when I can bring together all my tools and resources much more effectively and organically within an open shared platform such as Netvibes?

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