My Conference Learning Journey

My Conference Learning Journey

Edutech 2018

My conference learning journey

Saturday morning and the debris of last week’s conference spreads across my table. The magazines, brochures, USBs, business cards, pens, socks, T-shirt, coffee mug and hat seem a petty outcome for two days work. I toss-up which item is the most superficial, is it either of the two yoyos or the packets of M&Ms? I eat the M&Ms for breakfast.

Days earlier I research the latest zeitgeist in the world of education and learning. I plan my conference journey, hoping to explore the space between futuristic hype and the conference agenda.  

Conferences are usually constructed with two main parts, the formal presentations and the exhibitions hall, with the third component, the social events, designed to bind or blur the first two parts together. As I arrive at the conference, I head straight to the exhibitions hall.

Personalization of learning is currently high on the hype meter. The idea of creating a personalized learning journey, in partnership with a learning provider, is an attractive, practical, even indulgent prospect. But personalization of education requires the application of cheap artificial intelligence. It is the antithesis of the current education business models which are built on scale. At this conference, all the exhibitors are selling scale, all with enhanced coordination, communication, data management and evaluation. If personalization is the Uber of modern education, I suspect I am standing at a taxi rank.

Place dominates the exhibitions. From stand #137, where The Drain Man is set up, to the builders and designers of entire new schools, place as in the class room, remains important. The exhibitors of funky classroom furniture promote their ever so stimulating bean bags. Coloured cushions, chairs and tables are mandatory. You really must have the dinosaur shaped noise reducing wall mounts. 

Virtual reality extends the traditional four walls of learning into possibilities only limited by our imagination. It is easy to dismiss the virtual interface as hyped fluff. If we think of good educational platforms, places where learners are engaged and where they can thrive, then the potential of virtual learning spaces is clear. If we continue to evaluate virtual worlds only through the paradigm of contemporary educational models, we miss the point. Virtual is about involvement and imagination. Someone at the conference opinioned we no longer live an age of surprises. Perhaps, but with virtual and augmented reality, we can live in an age where imagination, creation and manipulation are just a $5000 3D printer away. There are no surprises when outcomes are so tangibly close.

Engagement as an educational strategy is there to be seen at the Australian Navy display. They are not selling their uniforms, their food or their ships.  They are selling the opportunity to play with some of the latest technologies - gizmos with serious pop, zing and kerchunk. They offer a different learning journey from school, college or university, they are offering engagement, relevance and application – a potent incentive for curiosity for thrive.

Knowledge does its best to hide at this conference. At one stand, an old encyclopedia tries to be relevant. Exhibitors offer knowledge distribution, but not content. One exhibitor is promoting an online marketplace for content, in a cheap as chips downloadable format, $6 for a lesson. Has knowledge become the Big Mac in our educational nutrition plan?

Disruption sits behind our fear of new technologies. Within the exhibition hall, a complex range of competing educational technologies have the potential to disrupt and displace each other. But education is more complex than the capabilities of any one delivery system. Education requires place, time, community, content, context, engagement and contact. The collective effort of the educational technologies is more about expanding choice, rather than disrupting our education business models. And in creating choice, the days of formalized education are starting to make space for personalized education. 

Across the exhibition hall, the contradictions of modern education are clear to see. Elaborate educational business systems are designed to count everything leading to and achieving our pre-defined learning outcomes. But in moving from an era of continuity to an era of change, it is the front end of education, not the back end which will be important in defining success. The challenge for modern educators is shifting the focus from the back to the front, in helping to create environments where individual learning journeys are inspired, nurtured and valued.

Irrespective of whether the exhibitors are promoting better primary school classrooms or robot driven learning experiences, all of them excelled in their ability to offer giveaways completely unrepresentative and unrelated to their products. Thank you to whoever gave me the socks, I have no idea who you are, or what your product is, but I like the socks.