Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rockstar keynotes

One of the most prolific keynote speakers at educational conferences in recent years has been George Siemens of Athabasca University in Canada. As the founder of connectivism and one of the pioneers of the MOOC movement his research and practical experience in the pedagogical use of educational technology has made him one of the most sought-after keynote speakers on the international circuit. His air miles total for the past 5 years must be mighty impressive.

In a new blog post however he has announced his retiral from the conference limelight, Done doing keynotes. He understandably wants to return to teaching and research and contribute to the educational discussions from that perspective rather than from the spotlight of the conference stage. An excellent example of knowing when to step back.

One paragraph in the post caught my eye in particular. Keynote speakers in education are gaining rockstar status and that creates an uncomfortable tension.

"I’ve long held that once something becomes routine, rather than innovative and challenging, that it is time to rethink what I’m doing. Additionally, there has been growing creep of “rockstar-ism” in education where we look for “the person” to give us “the solution”. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the view that the answer can be brought to us by someone outside of our system. This view is appealing but completely false. I’ve answered many questions from audience members with “I don’t know” and “that depends”. People seem to find this unsatisfying. We like our so-called rock stars in the education and technology field. We like clear answers. And it’s not healthy for us or for our field."

Of course the role of a keynote speaker is to challenge, inspire and create a buzz in the conference hall that will then permeate the rest of the sessions. However there is the risk that Siemens states that we expect them to have all the answers. I experienced this first hand in the summer when I attended the EDEN (European Distance and E.-learning Network) conference in Oslo. Two of the most prominent keynotes in the business, Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra, were appearing (Robinson via videolink from Los Angeles) and the buzz in the hall before the performance really felt like a rock concert. They are both inspirational and polished performers who challenge many fundamental beliefs about education and are naturally excellent at getting a conference off to a flying start. However I got a strong sense of the rockstar-ism that Siemens mentions in his post as we all laughed at the jokes and enjoyed the keynote ride as we would if our musical heroes were performing their greatest hits. No disrespect to the speakers, it's more our own need for figureheads and gurus who can provide the answers we seek.

The answers are within us rather than on the conference stage.

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