Who Dat? It’s E-Learn 2014! Come, Learn, Share, Connect

The 19th annual E-Learn — World Conference on E-Learning took place from October 27-30, 2014 in the sunny, warm and welcoming climate of the city of New Orleans. The conference attracted 670 participants from 60 different countries who enjoyed four days of workshops, keynotes, presentations, symposia, SIG meetings, posters, and, last but not least, informal discussions and networking opportunities during the session breaks.

Conference infographic by Stefanie Panke.

E-Learn 2014–World Conference on E-Learning

What sets AACE conferences apart from other events in the educational technology community is the rigorous peer review process in the selection of presentations. Instead of simply submitting an abstract, AACE requires a full manuscript of 6-10 pages. While writing skills do not always and certainly not necessarily translate into great presentations, the quality of contributions is generally high.

This also makes the conference proceedings (available in EdITLib–Education and Information Technology Digital Library EditLib, http://EdITLib.org) a really great resource for an up-to-date overview of the current state-of-the-art in educational technology. While full-text access to the proceedings is generally restricted to conference participants and subscribers, several papers that were honored with an outstanding paper award are openly accessible:

The best paper awards mirror the diverse spectrum of the conference. E-Learn is a place where educational technology researchers, developers, and practitioners from higher education, K-12, nonprofit and industry sectors meet – brought together by a joint focus on leveraging technology for achieving instructional goals.

My Conference Experience

This conference report is my personal eclectic account of E-Learn 2014. My schedule was packed this year: Not only did I, in a hyperactive mood, choose to deliver three talks, but I also had a symposium and a special interest group (SIG) meeting to moderate and an Executive Committee meeting to attend. Luckily, the overall conference atmosphere, the great discussions during the SIG meeting, and the thoughtful feedback, ideas, encouragement and contributions by numerous conference participants made all of this fun.

Monday: Video Makes the Edustar

My conference week started with a workshop on video production for the flipped classroom organized by Matt Osment, UNC Center for Faculty Excellence. Approximately 25 participants spent Monday afternoon learning the ins and outs of conceptualizing, planning, recording, producing, distributing, sharing and reusing videos for educational purposes.

Lately, flipping the classroom has become an educational imperative on many campuses. To free-up class time for active learning and group work, students need to process content outside of class. Effective instructional videos thus become a central ingredient of flipping. The workshop addressed the needs of instructional designers and faculty involved in delivering and supporting flipped classrooms. The attendees’ backgrounds varied widely, from video newbies to experienced producers.

However, the focus on instructional strategies and strategic planning offered something for everyone. Often, translating workshop exercises into practice is no easy task. Probably the best testimony for the workshop’s effectiveness: A group of participants took what they learned and started recording videos during their stay in New Orleans.

Tuesday: Connect, Connect, Connect – Play Thumb War?

‘Making connections’ may generally describe the motto of this year’s venue. It was certainly the theme of the first E-Learn keynote by Ann Hill Duin from the University of Minnesota. While her invitation to play several rounds of thumb war games with one’s seat neighbors was not everybody’s cup of tea, the general question ‘Who do you connect with?’ together with the invitation to reflect upon one’s personal learning network helped to set the tone for active networking.

She challenged participants to envision their part in a networked future: ‘As the future connects us, how are we handling it? Who do we connect with? As we have all this information out there, what is our role? With all the answers available in networks, what are the most important questions in our field?’

Tuesday’s invited talk featured the dynamic presenter duo Cathie Norris (University of North Texas) and Elliot Solway (University of Michigan). The two researchers focus on K-12 settings, as scholars, developers, entrepreneurs and, most important, passionate educators. They started out with a polemic take on two recent New York Times Magazine cover stories, stating that ‘Public education is under attack.’ As Solway put it: ‘Basically, the impression is that education is so broken that anyone from any background can come in with any idea and try to fix it.’

Image 1: Scaffolding Synchronous Collaboration, recording available at http://youtu.be/REVCodQ1eCY

Image 1: Scaffolding Synchronous Collaboration recording available here.

The next hour was devoted to a simple idea: ‘Technology is pedagogy neutral.” Using new technologies does not equate to innovative pedagogical approaches. Norris and Solway estimate that 80% of educational apps follow the drill and practice approach. As an alternative, they emphasized the need for children to work together in real time collaborative settings with digital technologies, pen, paper, or whatever comes in handy: “Children use whatever tool is appropriate and serves their need at the time. You are supposed to use all the toys in the toy box!”

They predicted that in 2-4 years every website and mobile application will have collaborative elements and shared several examples of educational apps that exemplify this principle.

If you are at all interested in using mobile devices in the classroom, you should really take a look at these apps:

For developers, the platform collabrify IT offers a framework to add synchronous collaboration elements to mobile applications and websites.

Special Interest Group ‘Assessing, Designing and Developing E-Learning’

Curtis P. Ho

Curtis P. Ho, University of Hawaii at Manoa

The lunch meeting of the SIG ‘Assessing, Designing and Developing E-Learning’ was a great opportunity to practice Ann Hill Duin’s advice to grow and cultivate your personal learning network. As SIG chairs, Curtis Ho and I were delighted to welcome 45 participants. The discussion centered on wishes and ideas for future SIG projects and activities.

The attendees came up with several compelling suggestions:

  • Create a website/website template for AACE SIGs to use to present themselves and their members.
  • Team up for a shared project in the public health and government sector by developing a web-based resource for the homeless population.
  • Work on identifying shared challenges among instructional designers.
  • Start international research and writing collaboratives around specific topics.
  • Organize Google Hangout webinars and discussion panels.

Wednesday: What’s in a Name?

Wednesday started with my favorite keynote: Ellen Hoffman, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, looked at the E-Learn community from a linguistic perspective. Talk story, a Hawaiian way of meaning making, guided her approach to the keynote. She shared the story of her own department’s name changes that spanned almost 50 years of information technology history.

“Usually, a department is more likely to die than change its name,” Hoffman stressed. She pointed out that other disciplines, for instance educational psychology, never adjust their label, whereas the field of learning and technology seems to reinvent its branding every decade or even more frequently.

As an anthropologist and linguist, Hoffman’s perspective on language change is characterized by pragmatism. It’s not just technology, but also language never stands still. This does not mean that our language choices are arbitrary: Language matters, and it shapes our identity. ‘The language of technology is not just about technology, but how we see ourselves as humans in the social world.” Hoffman argued that changes in language should be perceived as productive: “Language change can facilitate the use of new technology.”

Hoffman encouraged the E-Learn community to take an active role in shaping the terms that we use to make sense of technology: “People who are experts will have more refined words to describe their field,” she explained. Inventing new terms is a catalyst to enrich the perspectives of technology users and researchers.

Wednesday’s invited talk was my personal conference highlight: Susan McKenney(University of Twente) presented findings, theoretical concepts and practical lessons learned from design-based research and research-based design. I was intrigued by the balancing act of applying rigorous research methods to products and processes that accommodate real, not ideal, situations. In most organizations, research and development processes are separate and not intertwined. Through many compelling examples, McKenney illustrated how integrated approaches create synergies and open up new opportunities for agile development. In these settings, research-based design can inform design-based research and vice versa. Both approaches are likely to surface tensions between stakeholders and are certainly resource-intensive regarding time, money and expertise needed to complete the research/design process. According to McKenney, the additional resource allocation pays off in the end by meeting goals in sustainable ways, with often unforeseen benefits.

Thursday: Educational Technology Through the Ages

Thursday’s keynote by Johannes Cronje (Cape Peninsula University of Technology) used Shakespeare’s seven ages of men as an analogy to explore shifts in attitudes and use patterns towards technology in education. I really liked the interactive elements Cronje integrated into his presentation through polling, using the online presentation environment everyslide.

A particular treat for graduate students and PhD candidates was offered at the end of the talk: Cronje’s ‘free online doctoral program,’ an easy to read step-by-step guide with many useful tips and tricks on how to come up with a relevant research question, how to conduct a comprehensive literature review and how to choose your research design.

The invited talk by David Perry (St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia) focused on the benefits of open access. The presentation ‘Steal This Syllabus’ started with a reference to the 2008 lawsuit of three academic publishers against Georgia State University. Perry delivered a dystopian prophecy: ‘What is at stake is not whether or not if professors will keep their jobs, as the publishers argued, but if professors will be able to DO their jobs.’

With a historic overview, Perry set out to make his point that “knowledge and information is more valuable to a culture at large the more it is shared.” He explained: “At two key moments in the Internet’s history, the academic community chose open access over monetizing knowledge – this was a choice, not a given. Imagine what the Internet would look like today if every time you loaded the website you had to pay access fees.”

As an open access missionary, Perry practices what he preaches: “When I went up for tenure, everything I submitted was open access and #FTW – free to the world,” he assured his audience. The same open access culture should apply to teaching, claimed Perry. ‘The more we share, the better we are as teachers. One of the things that we are good at in academia is referencing and crediting the work of others. We should take this approach to teaching materials.”

The role of the villain in Perry’s talk was reserved for learning management systems in general and Blackboard in particular: “Since syllabi are locked behind the walls of learning management systems, it is difficult to look at colleagues’ works. The learning management system exists: It is called the Web.”

While I followed the argument for open access publishing more or less, Perry lost me with his radical views on learning management systems. It was fairly obvious that he had simply never used one and was neither familiar with typical LMS functionality nor with open source platforms such as Moodle and Sakai.

Favorite Talks

Often, your conference schedule is dominated by keynotes, invited talks, and award-winning presentations.

Thus, I always try to make room in my schedule for serendipitous discoveries. Here are some personal highlights:

  • On Tuesday, I attended a great talk on digital storytelling in language education by Naoko Kasami. As an EFL assignment, students developed videos that teach concepts of Japanese culture to foreigners. This significantly raised the learners’ language confidence – and resulted in some stunning and fun YouTube videos that were very well received by the conference audience.
  • On Wednesday, I enjoyed the brief paper presentation on infographics by Lyn Ackerman. The presentation offered a well-structured, systematic overview of the concept of infographics – which gave me the idea to include one in this conference report.
  • On Thursday, I really liked the talk by Marc Beutner on the classroom response system Pingo. Even though the demonstration did not work out as anticipated, the overall concept is sound and innovative – to learn more visit the Pingo website.

Good-bye New Orleans, Aloha Kona!

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First published at ETC-J

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