The blog shares some highlights from the EDEN Conference that I attended between 17 and 20 June 2018. (This post is a little bit delayed, since as soon as I returned from the conference, I entered into a very busy period of work) What follows is a brief summary of some of the sessions I attended. I haven’t summarised everything, just the sessions that struck me as being particularly interesting (given my own personal interests and experiences).
EDEN is an abbreviation for the European Distance Education Network and it attended by delegates from distance learning universities in Europe and further afield. My motivation for writing all this is to make a record of some of the themes that were discussed during the conference and have a resource that I can refer back to (plus, it might, incidentally, be of interest to someone).
The pre-conference workshop was all about an EU funded engineering education project that had the title: planning and implementing an action-based and transnational course in higher engineering education. The project has members from universities in Milan, Warsaw, Norway and Berlin. There was a focus on UN sustainable development goals and creating learning activities to help student work in international teams.
From what I remember, different universities have worked together set up engineering education university modules that taught subjects such as sustainability and entrepreneurship. One of the aims was to try to develop sustainability thinking in education and to develop an awareness of the importance of the notion of the circular economy and ‘sustainable value creation’.
Workshop participants were asked to create a tentative design of a transnational (or international) course that had a particular emphasis on sustainability, and to share the design with all the participants.
I found this challenging, for two reasons: engineering isn’t my home discipline, and I’m not a student of design or sustainability. This said, our team, which comprised of delegates from Germany, London and Lithuania had a go.
After the event, I remember my colleagues in the School of Design and Innovation who carry out research into sustainable design and innovation (OU website). I also remembered a module called U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world. Climate change, of course, won’t fix itself. It’s a wicked problem that requires an interdisciplinary and multi-national approach, and one of those disciplines that is very important is, of course, engineering.
The conference was opened with two keynotes. The first was from Georgi Dimitrov from the European Institute of Technology and Innovation. To get us thinking, a broad number of themes and topics were identified: that careers are changing, that access to higher education can be a challenge, and it is important to retain students and help them to succeed. Other topics included the use of mobile and MOOCs, digital skills and literacy.
The second keynote by Fabrizio Cardinali had the title ‘how the next industrial revolution will disrupt our workplace and skills’. Again, a broad range of themes were introduced, such as intelligent machines, ‘digital transformation’ and the need to ‘upskill vertically’. A personal perspective was that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. Plus, being a former student of artificial intelligence, I always raise an eyebrow whenever the notion of ‘conscious machines’ is suggested. Putting my views to one side, both keynotes certainly got everyone thinking.
New ICT and Media
The first presentation of the New ICT and Media session was by Margret Plank from the German National Library for Science and Technology. Margret’s presentation was entitled ‘Video artefacts for scientific education’ and began with an interesting comment, that “science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”. Scientists and researchers were asked to record video abstracts that are between 3 and 5 minutes which describe the background, methodology and results. The aim of these were to increase public awareness of science and to disseminate research. We were offered some practical tips: tools such as the Davinci video editor or iMove could be used. A popular science video workshop (filmjungle.eu) was also mentioned.
Another presentation from this first session that stood out was called ‘Assessing the Impact of Virtualizing Physical Labs’. Evgenia Paxinou from the Hellenic Open University explained that distance learning students have obvious practical difficulties accessing a science lab. To get around this challenge, Evgenia told us about Onlabs. I noted down that the lab system had three modes: an instruction mode, an evaluation mode a-nd an experimenter mode. Instructors used Skype used with live sessions and an evaluation found that students who used the lab were better prepared, gaining higher scores. Although I don’t know it at all well, this presentation reminded me of the OU's Open STEM Labs.
MOOCs: Latest Concepts and Cases
The MOOC session began with a case study of Open Digital Textbooks, which has been a topic that regularly features in the journal Open Learning (Taylor and Frances website). Mark Brown’s presentation began with a question: are traditional textbooks core to the student learning experience? The aim of the case study was to investigate current and future practice of textbooks in Irish educational practice, looking at advantages and disadvantages, enablers and barriers. Reference to something called the Irish National Digital Repository (NDLR). Another resource that might be of interest to some was called the UKOpenTextbooks case studies (ukopentextbooks.org)
Antonio Moreira Teixeira presented ‘Findings from the Global MOOQ Survey’. MOOQ is an abbreviation for ‘Mooc quality’ and is described as a European Alliance for Quality of Massive Open Online Courses. I also noted that MOOQ is also reference framework for the adoption, design and evaluation of MOOC providers.
The MOOQ survey studied 3 groups: learners, designers and facilitators. An important finding (that echoes other studies) is that the education level of MOOC users is high in comparison to the general population. The study also carried out semi-structured interviews and discovered that designers acknowledge the importance of interaction but also found that learners are more satisfied with their learning experiences than the designers were.
The final presentation I made notes on was called Assessing the Effect of Massive Online Open Courses as Remedial Courses in Higher Education and was by Tommaso Agasisti et al. An important point that was made is that MOOC can be used by students to fill gaps in their education.
Open Educational Resources
OERs is a regular, and an important topic. Les Pang from University of Maryland University College spoke about Effective Strategies for Incorporating Open Educational Resources into the Classroom. Les mentioned familiar topics, such as OER commons, MERLOT, MIT Open Courseware. The reason why OER is important is that it has the potential to save money for students, offers choices, enhances social reputation and enables students to gain a preview of the course materials. On the other hand, key challenges relate to their sustainability (whether they are maintained) and potential resistance in terms of their acceptance. A survey asked students and faculty members about benefits of using OERs. Positive comments (amongst others) included availability and cost. A concern related to the alignment with module objectives.
Second day: opening keynotes
The first keynote was by, Alan Tait, emeritus Professor of distance learning and development from the OU. The title of Alan’s talk was: open universities: the need for innovation. Alan began with question, asking whether the open university model of the past 50 years was threatened in the next 50 years.
Alan told us that that there were now approximately 60 open universities across 50 countries. The UK OU had been innovative in its vision and mission, application of technologies and use of logistics but there was now increased competition from other universities and the social and political environment in which they exist are changing. He pointed towards new technologies: learning analytics offer promise rather than achievement, some organisations produce MOOCs, and others make use of OERs.
An important question was: how do we reinvent open universities? Embedding ICT and digital potential on a whole institutional basis, developing curriculum for sustainability in all programmes of study, since this is a subject that is relevant in all curriculum areas.
The second keynote was by Teemu Leinonen who spoke about ‘From Non- and Informal Learning to Documented Co-Learning’. I noted down a range of different terms, including an abbreviation called GLAMS, which means Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, which can play a role in both formal and informal learning.
Anthony Camilleri talked about ‘A Blockchain Perspective to Educational Management’. Blockchain was defined as ‘a digital way for people to transfer assets without an intermediary’. Put another way, it is a public, secure, decentralised ledger. One idea is that it might be possible to use Blockchain to keep records of academic achievement, and this is something that is subject to an OU project called Open Blockchain (Open University). During Anthony’s talk, I noted down a mention of something called the Woolf University, which is described as a ‘the first blockchain university’. I’m very sceptical about this, since notions of community, belonging and brand are perhaps even more important than technology alone. Plus, there are issues of national and discipline based accreditation that need to be considered.
The final talk was by Joe Wilson, who presented: Open Education in Policy and Practice - a UK Perspective. Joe mentioned the Association of Learning Technology (ALT website) and its aim to ‘increase the impact of learning technology for public benefit’. Joe also mentioned an Open Educational Resources conference (OER18) and the JISC Digital Capabilities project, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog about associate lecturer professional development.
Learning Theory and Implementation Practice
Paul Prinsloo from the University of South Africa presented Organisational Factors on Implementing Learning Analytics. I noted down different types of data: descriptive, diagnostic, and predictive analytics. Paul mentioned that learner data can be incomplete and provisional, plus there are links to the theme of the conference: there are macro-societal factors that can influence the data, as well as institutional factors. I also noted that there was a reference to a paper that was written by some colleagues: Research Evidence on the Use of Learning Analytics: Implications for Education Policy.
Sue Watling from the University of Hull presented Connect or Disconnect: Academic Identity in a Digital Age. Key points of this talk included the importance of building confidence of users to create digital fluency. I noted down that there was a reference to the TPAC model of teaching and pedagogy.
The final session was by Paula Shaw who presented: A Practice Orientated Framework to Support Successful Higher Education Online Learning. During Paula’s talk I noted down a few references, including the OU innovating pedagogy report 2017, and the EDUCAUSE New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report.
National Digital Education Cases
The first presentation of this session had the title ‘The French Thematic Digital Universities - A 360° Perspective on Open and Digital Learning’, and was presented by Deborah Arnold. The next presentation was by Willem van Valkenbur who presented: A Collaboration & Learning Environment to Enable to be a University Leader in Education Innovation. Willem spoke of moving to a blended learning provision, and a need for a new learning management system to enhance quality and to attempt to unburden teachers. There was a reference to university governance and educational innovation. Some key terms that were used included learning analytics, adaptive earning and peer learning.
Steffi Widera, from the Bavaria Virtual University (BVU) talked about ‘Best Practice for a Network of Higher Education Online’. Steffi described organisational structure, the use of blended learning (which I think were also known as self-contained learning units), and open courses. This session was concluded by Ana Rodriguez-Groba who presented ‘Blended Learning Teaching: The Story of a Social Network with a History’.
Socio-cultural aspects of digital learning
Mengjie Jiang from the University of Leicester presented: ‘Boundary Crossing: International Students’ Negotiating Higher Education Learning with Digital Tools and Resources’. Mengjie used various methods to study how participants (international graduate students) become familiar with a new educational environment. I noted down the use of institutional VLE systems and social media tools. My understanding is that her research tries to understand a very specific and important moment in time and how perspectives (of learning and of identity) may change.
The next talk, ‘Supporting Learning in Traumatic Conflicts: Innovative Responses to Education in Refugee Camp Environments’ by Alan Bruce and Maria-Antonia Guardiola reminded me of presentations from the previous EDEN conference which also shared case studies of how technology can help migrants. This presentation outlined a case study of from the Greek island of Lesvos.
The final presentation that I will mention is by my OU colleague Lisa Bowers who spoke about a ‘Haptic Prototype Assembly Tool for Non-Sighted, Visually Impaired and Fully Sighted Design Students, Studying at a Distance’. Lisa introduced the subject of haptics by describing its connection to our tactile senses, such as touch (through our skin) and proprioception (an internal feedback to the body where we can instinctively know where their limbs are located). Looking beyond Lisa’s immediate research a big question is whether haptic systems might be useful for students with visual impairments to more directly participate in subjects such as design or architecture.
Training of Digital University Teachers
During this session, I presented: ‘Distance Learning and Teaching: Understanding the Importance of Tuition Observations’. I spoke about a series of focus groups that I had carried out (which are summarised within this blog) and summarised some of the key themes that had emerged from a literature review about teaching observations. I also spoke about the importance of sharing teaching practice; one thing that I learnt from this bit of research was the availability of a really since set of guidelines that had been produced by colleagues who work in the science schools.
Corrado Petrucco presented ‘Activity Theory as Design tool for Educational Projects and Digital Artifacts’. Corrado gave us an introduction to activity theory, describing it as a tool that is ‘able to represent complex relationships and processes’ before going onto describing how students used activity theory with respect to their own education design project. I found this final session especially interesting since activity theory had been used as a tool within a postgraduate education module that I used to teach.
There were a number of speakers who spoke during the closing session of the conference. The first speaker was Sarah-Guri Rosenblit from The Open University of Israel, who presented ‘Distance Education in the Digital Landscape: Navigating between Contrasting Trends’. Some of the trends (and tensions) were: national and international priorities, industrial and digital needs, the differences between competition and collaboration, and the use of open education resources and MOOCs. I noted that there some challenges: languages and academic cultures. An important phrase I noted down was: “distance education and e-learning are not the same thing”. Echoing Alan’s earlier keynote, I also wrote down the very true observation that campus universities are now offering distance education.
The next session was about the future of technology enhanced learning. Topics that were mentioned included data analytics, the potential use of augmented reality, new formats such as SPOCs (a small private online course) and MOOCs, and the idea of microcredentials. The final presenter, the conference rapporteur, highlighted some of the subjects that were featured within the conference, such as migrant education, vocational education, the challenge of inclusion and how technology can be used to contribute to social mobility.
This was my second EDEN conference (the first conference was in Jönköping, Sweden), and I was again struck by its scale: there were a lot of presentations and a lot of parallel sessions. Subsequently, there was a lot to take in. One of the things that I really liked about it was the searching questions that there implicit within the keynote talks, such as: if distance learning can be provided by institutions that also offer face to face teaching and learning, will the distance-only university survive?
My personal opinion is: yes, for two simple reasons. The way that education programmes are designed in the two contexts are different, and the way that students are supported are different too.
Although technology is always likely to be a very important theme within conference such as EDEN, one thing, however, is common between the two different types of institution that I’ve mentioned, and that is the importance and role of people – or, specifically, the educators.