After last week's EDEN conference in Zagreb I had an interesting discussion with a colleague that got me thinking. She had not been to so many conferences in the field of e-learning and although we agreed that this conference had been rewarding she found the lack of focus rather disconcerting. The problem was that most academic conferences focus clearly on a specific discipline or more likely a specialised area of a particular discipline. If you go to a conference in pedagogy you can safely assume that the participants will be professionals in that field and will have common reference points. However in the field of e-learning we tend to gather people from many disciplines who have a common interest in e-learning but who otherwise have few common points of reference. In most e-learning conferences you will meet specialists in pedagogy, IT, management, psychology, policy, administration and others. The result is that the sessions contain a wide range of disciplines and it is hard to see where the focus lies. A session that seems to deal with pedagogical questions can be lead by specialists in other areas and this can seem very messy for those accustomed to mainstream academic conferences.
I see clear parallels with independence movements in politics. Being Scottish this is a highly topical matter but if you look at similar political movements you see the pattern. The common objective is independence and as long as that lies in the future the movement unites a wide range of political shades. However once the objective is attained the movement may then split into its constituent parts since the common glue no longer exists. As long as e-learning and related concepts are still not mainstream in education we have a common goal to strive towards but when we have achieved that I suspect we will all return to our respective disciplines. The advantage of the present e-learning movement is that it brings such diverse groups together and that can be very productive and invigorating. However it does mean that discussions can be messy with non-specialists leading discussions on fields they have not fully studied and that can lead to misunderstandings when specialists and generalists mix.
As for me I generally call myself an enthusiast and am one of those who knows a bit about most things but have no particular speciality. Therefore I enjoy the multi-disciplinary tone of these conferences but I do understand why the specialists can find the rainbow e-learning movement rather unfocused. Maybe we have to be clearer about declaring our specialities (or not) to avoid disappointing.