Thursday, June 23, 2011

EDEN - mismatches and challenges

I've just attended the annual EDEN (European e-learning and distance learning network) conference in Dublin and it's time for some post conference reflection.

The standard of the keynote speakers at the conference was very high and all made excellent contributions but the strongest impression in my opinion was the address given by the Irish President, Mary McAleese (read the speech). The fact that the country's president addressed a conference on e-leaning was highly significant but what really mattered was that she spoke with a clear understanding of what we work with and with a shared view of how technology can radically change education by reaching out and empowering people in new ways. I've heard many dignitaries (principals, politicians etc) opening conferences with glossy platitudes and sound bites but this time there was a clear understanding behind the words. Her address was as much a keynote speech as the other experts. Getting the chance to briefly meet her afterwards put the icing on the cake. My favorite president! Read more on this on Steve Wheeler's blog.

The main theme of the conference for me was one of mismatches. The opening keynote by Sir John Daniel set the tone by offering both good news and bad news. On-line and distance learning (ODL - yet another TWA, three word acronym) is booming all over the world yet opposition is also growing. Universities are offering online courses but have seldom any clearly stated goals or strategies for the field. Quality controls are often sadly lacking and it's no surprise therefore that success rates are low. This ad hoc attitude to ODL means that potential cost savings are not realized and often the online courses end up costing more than they should leading to increased criticism from traditionalists. Daniels urged the conference to focus on eliminating the rotten apples and focusing on quality.

There's another mismatch in this question. Even if we have ambitious European quality initiatives for ODL such as UNIQUe and OPAL (Open educational quality initiative) there are extremely few institutions interested in becoming certified. Maybe the reason is that the major university rankings are based on research rather than teaching and so they focus all efforts in climbing the rankings by attracting more research funding. Until quality assurance for ODL is widely accepted and implanted there will always be a credibility debate. Daniel closed with a provocative statement that we may see a future where public institutions focus on research and the teaching is left to for-profit institutions, as is beginning to happen in the USA to a certain extent.

Another mismatch often discussed is that although ODL demands new skills and expertise it is often assigned to the least experienced teachers. This, combined with the points above, also leads to quality issues unless clear strategies, routines and support are in place to support the responsible staff.

On a slightly more mundane note a further mismatch was that this conference, brimming with laptops, mobiles and iPads, was held at a venue that had a severe lack of power sockets. Lecture halls had a couple of sockets at the front for the lecturer but otherwise you were unplugged. This meant that even the most hardened net-enthusiasts were sometimes forced to take out the old pencils and paper. Time for universities to embrace the opportunities the net allows for education. Lecture halls are built for one way communication and we need more rooms for dialogue (both face-to-face and online) instead.

I'll compile a list of quotes from the conference in the next post so stay tuned.

Read Sir John Daniel's keynote: 20 year of distance education in the garden of EDEN: good news and bad news.

See all the keynotes: 20 June, 21 June, 22 June.

All keynote presentations (slideshows)

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