Why I’m here

This will be the first of several posts on this year’s Online Educa Berlin conference. This is the first time I have attended since 2001, and I am here for three specific reasons:

1. to see what the public post-secondary education sector can learn from the use of  online learning in the corporate training sector

2. to identify interesting developments in European online learning, and in particular the individuals or institutions driving change

3. to re-establish connections with European colleagues, since it is five years since I last worked in Europe.

I need to write up my experience anyway, so I thought I would share it with those who are interested but unable to attend.

Who else is here

2,000 participants from over 100 countries, with 360 speakers. The mix of participants is particularly interesting (figures from last year):

41% from the public education sector

38% from the business sector (including both corporate trainers and e-learning suppliers)

21% from other sectors (government, NGOs, not-for profit organizations).

This is a unique mix and one of the few places where both public and corporate e-learning come together on a roughly equal basis.

It was announced yesterday that the three countries with the largest number of participants were as follows:

Netherlands; UK; and Finland. This is interesting because both the Netherlands and especially Finland are relatively small countries in the European Union. This is a crude but helpful indicator of where the e-learning action is in Europe.

One interesting development was a relatively strong presence from Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt, for instance).

The program

The conference program is 158 pages thick! Wednesday there were pre-conference workshops (which unfortunately I was unable to attend). On each of the other two days there are the following:

  • plenary sessions (more on this below)
  • three time blocks of 15 parallel sessions each day (nearly 90 sessions in all), most with three speakers, arranged under 10 themes (e.g. assessment, business, policy)
  • a bewildering range of special and interactive sessions (e.g. hands-on labs, interactive discussion groups, best practice showcases)
  • a very large exhibition area with just under 100 companies or organizations with stands. Pearson was the conference platinum sponsor, and its Learning and Blackboard were gold sponsors. The National Centre for e-Learning and Distance Education of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one of several silver sponsors.

I describe this in detail, because in two days it is possible to participate in only a small part of the conference (less than 7%) so you have to be very focused. Thus my reports should be read in this context.

The main plenary session

There were four speakers in a 105 minute session, introduced by Talal Abu-Ghazaleh.

Talal Abu-Ghazaleh (Jordan): president of a business school in Jordan

  • There is no world crisis, only a Western crisis (so much for globalization)
  • we have to move from being teachers to being learning facilitators
  • we don’t need educational reform, but new education systems
  • we need to educate for citizenship
  • Saudi Arabia spent $35 billion on education last year, 25% of its overall budget

Neelie Kroes: (Netherlands), Commissioner, the Digital Agenda, European Commission

  • Digital education is important. We must do more, and do it better. Over to you.
  • Memorable quote (from a 16 year old she interviewed designing apps): ‘Sharing makes you a better competitor.’

Peter Novak: (Canada), a journalist and author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers

  • despite Occupy Wall Street, the world overall is getting richer; poverty (defined as income of $1.25 a day or less) is dropping dramatically world wide
  • this means a massive expansion of people demanding education: 8 million more teachers needed by 2015
  • demand can’t be met by the traditional classroom model
  • entrepreneurial learning is needed; adults teaching each other; learning is in our DNA
  • memorable quote (illustrated by Lady Gaga): ‘ ‘Quality is not a pre-condition for self-expression.’

John Bohannon: (USA), a journalist and writer for the journal Science

  • Google Books now holds copies of 15% of all the books ever published;
  • this is a gold mine for large-scale analytical research, e.g. analysis of names suppressed or promoted during the Nazi period, or during Macarthyism in the USA (providing you can get access)
  • Wikipedia is messy, often dangerously misleading, but still extremely valuable if used properly (i.e. checking sources): examples:
    • civilian casualties in Afghanistan; reliable sources not taken account of in commentary although listed in sources
    • the sections on psychology were very poor, until a US university professor got his students to do research and update the entries.
    • arguments between just a couple of ‘unqualified’ contributors can seriously distort entries

Jeff Borden: (USA), Senior Director of Teaching and Learning, Pearson

  • formal education needs learning frameworks to help organise teaching, e.g. tell, show, do, ask/review
  • use of social networking for solving problems, e.g. InnoCentive
  • learning analytics will be BIG, e.g. analysing who is talking to whom in online class discussions

Video recordings of the keynotes can be downloaded from here.

Comment on the plenary session

Yes, you have to have a European Commissioner and you have to have a speaker from the platinum sponsor, but I can’t express how disappointed I was with the plenary session. There must have been over 1,500 people present, and almost all the presentations were shallow and only barely on target for the audience. What a missed opportunity.

It would have been better to have had two or at most three speakers with more time to bring depth. Jeff Borden in particular was rushed because the session was late starting and running over time, and as a result, he came over more as a preacher (as the chair of the session noted). As a result his session was just very short ‘images’ of what looked like really interesting e-learning applications but there was no time to explore any of them. If you are going to bring speakers in from outside the field, they must have something very special to say, and all must have sufficient time to say it.

Peter Nowak’s arguments in particular need to be challenged. I think Western commentators should be very careful in suggesting educational solutions for the rest of the world. Suggesting radical changes to education for new economically emerging countries is not  a good idea when we are unable to make such changes in more economically advanced (but maybe declining) countries. There is a danger of suggesting solutions that we ourselves are not prepared to implement on a large scale. There is a good deal of innovation in e-learning in Africa these days and economically emerging countries will find their own solutions, as have South Korea, Singapore and increasingly India already.

So, in summary, a few good ideas and points were made, but it could have been much more.


Don’t despair – I attended some excellent parallel sessions, which I will discuss in the next blog.

For a more comprehensive and detailed set of notes on the presentations, see Hans de Zwart’s Technology as a Solution…


  1. Thanks for the updates on the Online Educa conference. I will attend virtually thru you!

    Looking forward to hearing about students’ self-regulation of learning (how much freedom/flexibility students should have as they progress thru a course in which accreditation is the outcome), online course quality, and the use of open learning resources.

  2. Tony

    Thank you for an intelligent blog.

    I thought Talal Abu-Ghazaleh spoke well but would have liked to hear more from him. It is an interesting concept that the “global” financial crisis may just be Europe and North America moving down the pecking order in countries in the world. A big strength of Online Educa seems to be that everyone is here, and you can meet a lot of people between the session.

    John Kleeman

  3. […] I realise that there’s only one thing more ‘dead’ than yesterday’s newspaper and that’s yesterday’s conference, so I apologise for the gap of two days between the end of the Online Educa Berlin conference and this report, but it’s a long way from Berlin to Vancouver, and like many other things in life, jet lag and travel fatigue get worse as you get older. Anyway, enough excuses. (For my first post on the conference, see Posts from a foreign land: Online Educa 2011, No.2) […]

    • Dear Tony,
      it was a pleasure meeting you at Berlin. This little highlight contrasted with the low level of some plenaries. I listened to a session about evolving a learning culture on friday morning. The chaiman correctly resumed the essence of the presentations. Ruth Martinez explained that she is a young Spanish woman, which was obvious, and that change comes from inside yourself. The second lecture had the important message that the human factor is important. The third speaker explained how he wakes up with an alert from google. The forth speaker I had no chance to follow up to the end, perhaps I missed somehting relevant because so far the presentation content was not really rich of insights. I wonder how such a big audience can clap her hands for receiving such “fundamental messages”.


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