This is the last of three posts on the Online Educa Berlin 2011 conference and here I focus on the three education sessions I attended. (The other two posts were on the main plenary session and on corporate training). I also provide a brief wrap-up of the conference, from my perspective.

Evolving a Learning Culture

The opening of the second day of the conference offered two options: a ‘half plenary’ on ‘Evolving a Learning Culture’ and a ‘half plenary’ on Developing a Performance Culture (the latter was part of the Business strand). Although my main focus for the conference was on corporate learning, I have a strong personal interest in the interplay between university cultures and the implementation of learning technologies, so I opted for the Education strand. It was a mistake.

Ruth Martinez, ELEARNING 3D, Spain

The session was opened by a Ph.D. candidate, who began with the statement, “I don’t know why I’m here.” Since this is a question that has plagued philosophers since humans could speak, I looked forward to her answer. I think the reason for her being there was because she was a young female student, who would speak about the human factor in online learning, which she did, quite well.

Douglas Thomas, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California, USA

The reason Douglas Thomas was here was obvious. He is the co-author with John Seeley Brown of the book, A New Culture of Learning. I must admit I learned more about what he had to say by reading the blurb of his book than by listening to his presentation, so rather than waste my time trying to summarise his talk, I suggest you click on the link to the blurb for the book.

Huw Morris, University of Salford, UK

This was an account of the University of Salford’s embrace of new learning technologies, which again was at such a general level it became more of a PR job for the university than an analysis of new learning cultures.

Alastair Cameron, its Learning, Norway/UK

This was for me the most interesting and articulate of the presentations. It focused on the vexing issue of the practical difficulties of assessment for personalized learning. The numbers are the problem: a single teacher needing to assess the learning of up to to 170 students a day in a high school if assessment is to provide support for learning at an individual level. In the end though it became an argument for computer-assisted assessment to cut down the paper work. That will help, but doesn’t deal with the question of how best to assess students in a personalized learning environment.

Videos of the keynotes can be downloaded from here.


This was another plenary session that suffered from too many speakers with too little time. You have to be really focused on a maximum of three main points in 15 minutes. The result was superficial treatment of a subject that is easy to support at an abstract level, but much more difficult to implement in practical terms.

Although I support the general idea that we need to change the culture of education, that we need to focus on learner-centered teaching and learning rather than didactic information transfer,  this new culture needs to be grounded in the reality of mass (higher) education. How to provide learner guidance and support, how to find better ways of validating and assessing learning, and how to facilitate quality learning outcomes, in this new culture? These difficult issues were not really addressed in this session.

Free Research, Useful Research in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL)

I couldn’t resist this parallel session, which was to be a discussion of ‘current and future policy priorities and needs in the field, as well as relevant and innovative issues emerging from TEL research.’ The session in fact was organized by STELLAR NoE, a European Commission project which ‘aims to set a mid-term agenda for research in TEL ….policy and decision-making, so as to make TEL research relevant to the policy agenda..

First, kudos to the EC for funding such a project. There is a great lack of research at the national and institutional policy level in online learning, and this project aims to set a European-wide agenda for research in this area, to collect the research, and to make it useful for policy and decision-making.


The study has abstracted from the European Commission’s E&T2020 strategy the following seven policy challenges:

  • drop-out and early school leaving
  • participation in lifelong learning
  • key competences in school education
  • teacher motivation
  • ubiquitous access to quality learning opportunities
  • upscaling innovation
  • valuing informal learning.


STELLAR NoE has identified five areas of ‘tension’ that are going to emerge in the years to come and which will affect the TEL research agenda:

  • ubiquitous learning vs focused and critical processing of information
  • the digital divide (despite technology spread)
  • data tracking for personalized learning vs data privacy
  • approved practices vs continuous innovation
  • individual learning paths vs standardized learning paths

Integrating policy and research

The challenge for this project is to bring the areas of policy and research together and build a mechanism to ensure that one is informed by the other. I was therefore very impressed by the intervention of Jouni Kangasniemi of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland, who described how Finland does this. They have a joint research and policy council within the Ministry, and a fund to support innovation in teaching and learning. There are council forums twice a year and a national conference on e-learning sponsored by the Ministry. The aim is to integrate research and policy.

TELeurope is the social media hub for technology-enhanced learning research and practice and the community platform of STELLAR NoE. It invites participation from anyone with interests in these areas.

While one can argue about whether the policy and research issues identified are the right ones, and whether the European Commission is the right organization to determine educational policy issues when education is a national responsibility, I was delighted to see work being done in this critical area. I will be following this project closely.

New demands of 21st Century Universities

This was another research session. The session focused on student use of technology in universities in Norway, Germany and Spain.

The presenters were:

  • Hilde Ørnes, Norgesunivesitetet
  • Ingo Rollwagen, Technical University, Berlin
  • Iolanda Garcia Gonzalez, Open University of Catalonia

First the surveys in each country were quite extensive, for instance involving 2,246 students across all universities in Norway, and just over 1,000 students in five universities in Catalonia, Spain. In both cases, preliminary research findings were being presented, with full reports still to be published

Both studies found widespread use of technology for study by students, with a measurable increase in Norway between 2008 and 2010. In Norway, 95% of students surveyed used an LMS, and 57% social networks for study purposes. However, only 9% used discussion forums. Two surprising results from the Norwegian study:

  • administrators did not consider cost savings to be an important goal of learning technologies
  • academics believed that training in the use of technology should be mandatory.

The Spanish study was interesting because it focused on students’ informal use of technology for study. This study’s results are still preliminary but also indicate high utilization by students and some commonality between academics and students in their use of technology for informal learning. I look forward to seeing the final paper.

Final comments

Overall it was an excellent conference. The sessions on corporate learning and training in particular were valuable for me. It was interesting to see the shift away from using technologies to develop competencies to focusing on developing a flexible and innovative workforce, from measuring learning to measuring the impact on corporate performance. The corporate sector seems also to be further ahead than the public sector in incorporating and embracing informal learning.

The conference organizers managed to pack a hell of a lot into two days. Most of the parallel sessions I attended were very informative, with good presenters. The exhibition area was impressive, with many interesting products and services on offer. The networking opportunities were excellent, although I realised afterwards that I missed meeting several good friends because of the intensity and size of the conference. I also missed many good sessions because I couldn’t be in more than one place at the same time.

My only criticism is that the plenary sessions I attended were very disappointing. With a conference that size and with the kind of conference fee being charged, it should be possible to get better keynotes and to have fewer speakers to allow those that do speak to develop an evidence-based argument. Sometimes less is more.


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