The 26th Annual EDEN conference was held in Jönköping, Sweden between 13 and 16 June 2017. EDEN is an abbreviation for the European Distance Education Network and it is known as an important conference for those working at distance learning institutions.
What follows is a summary of my own experience of visiting EDEN for the first time. Since EDEN was a big conference and there were many different parallel sessions, different delegates have had very different experiences to my own. Also, what I report is likely to be influenced by my own personal interests and my own institutional perspective as an employee of The Open University. This summary has been created from a set of notes that I have made during the difference conference sessions I have attended.
Day 1: Pre-conference workshop
Since I arrived at the conference early, I was able to attend a pre-conference workshop. This workshop focussed on TEL, or Technology Enhanced Learning. An important challenge is that the term TEL is very broad and can be interpreted differently by different practitioners. It is also linked to other familiar terms such as computer assisted learning, networked learning and the principle that it can have a transformative effect on teaching and learning. TEL is also related to ideas about making learning possible through technology, and increasing the reach of education. As well as debates about how distance learning universities can promote, support and facilitate TEL, delegates were introduced to the EDEN network of academics and professionals.
Day 2: Welcome and Keynote
After a small number of welcome speeches, we were treated to three keynote presentations. The first keynote was by Stefan Hratinski from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. The title of Stefan’s presentation was: online learning in one-to-one relationships.
Stefan’s made the point that the traditional one-to-many lectures have been subject to necessary criticism, leading to the point that there are other pedagogic approaches, such as collaborative and connectivist models of learning. A fundamental challenge lies, of course, with how to put these approaches to practice. One argument is that that one-to-one learning can help to develop (or facilitate) collaborative or networked learning. Furthermore, one-to-one learning can be tailored to the needs of individual students.
We were presented with an example. MathCoach is a system where a large number of maths tutors are employed to offer one-to-one tuition for students through a web based platform. The teaching touches on a number of dimensions: the development of cognitive skills, social interaction relating to the math problems, and emotional support. One of the keys to effective tutoring is to ask good questions. Due to the scale, a large corpus of interactions between students and tutors was gathered, enabling the effects of teaching to be assessed.
The second keynote was very different. Manjula Srinivas spoke about ‘diversity and media education in the schools of Mumbi’. Manjula states that in her context, in India, one-to-one teaching is impossible, going on to state that ‘if I go to a class, I teach 150 students’. This comment also implicitly connects to Stefan’s comment about many-to-many teaching and learning. Direct opinions are offered to delegates: ‘the way education has been received has changed; they want to learn through apps; they want to learn through devices’. We were told of resource challenges: there is just not the time to do classroom teaching due to the number of students.
The final keynote of the morning was by Frans Mäyrä, Professor of Interactive Media. Frans is the head of a games research laboratory and a part of his research is to study games as an art form and its role in digital culture. He spoke about the history of games, play as a cultural tradition and the role of games in society. Games, he suggested, also have an important role to play in learning; a game can be a vehicle for ‘stealth learning’. He also introduced me to the term ‘ludic literacy’ which relates to what games are, how play operates, and understanding the diversity of gamers.
Session: Diversity and ICT Enhanced Education in Context
The first session I attended related to the broad but important subject of diversity in education. I chose this session since I teach on a postgraduate module about online accessible education and I felt that a summary of this session might be of interest to some of my students and also be directly relevant to my teaching practice.
The first presentation, by Mohammed Chaib was entitled ‘ICT supported competence development - What difference does ICT make?’ This presentation was a great first session, since it was packed with familiar and unfamiliar terms that made me think about the direction that the conference was taking. A number of research themes were introduced: leadership, life-long and adult learning, gender, equality and inclusion. These themes were connected to something called the European Certificate in Intergenerational Learning (ECIL). There were direct pointers and connections to pedagogy, such as a reference to problem-based learning, the idea of co-creating knowledge and a clear reference to Vgotsky’s zone of proximal development.
The second presentation was by Henrik Hansson and colleagues from Stockholm University, Sweden, was quite different. Their paper had the title ‘Inclusion and Integration in Sweden: Using Video Chat for New Arrivals in Sweden’. It also had the subtitle: ‘How to Learn Swedish Live with Swedes Online - Easy, Flexible, Informal, Fast, Fun’. In 2016, Sweden accepted over one hundred and ten thousand migrants. Obvious challenges for those new migrants include learning a new language, becoming familiar with customs and navigating public services. An obvious solution is to speak with native Swedish people, but how do you find people who would be happy to chat in a language that is familiar? Drawing on an earlier idea of intergenerational communication, a technological solution is to provide a service that facilitates video discussions through computers and smartphones. One of the notes I made about future directions was about the potential of gamification; a point that reminded me about the importance of effective and well design interaction design.
The next presentation, entitled ‘Setting the Tone: Developing Effective and Culturally Sensitive Learning Resources to Improve the Integration Process of Migrants in France’, was by Simon Carolan. This presentation echoed the earlier presentation by Hansson due to its emphasis on using technology to support migrants. Simon spoke of a MOOC that has the potential to help with integration by offering information about ‘the theoretical grounding of the French republic’, its society and its culture. Simon spoke about some of the issues and challenges: the politics of assimilation, multiculturalism and bi-culturalism. Also, the importance of the migrant’s point of view was emphasised. The MOOC was provided in both French and English, and the point was made that a MOOC is, of course, one part of a wider strategy.
Session: Innovative e-Learning Concepts
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t attend a presentation about innovation and e-learning. The first presentation of this session was made by Anne-Marie Gallen with Gerald Evans, colleagues from The Open University. They presented a paper entitled Adaptive Learning as a Tool for Supporting Diverse Students with Threshold Concepts at a Distance.
The next presentation moved towards the subject of mobility. Timothy Read from Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia (UNED) presented Toward a Mobile Open and Social Language Learning Paradigm. Looking at apps for professional language learning. Mobile, Open, Social, Language, Learning MOSLL.
Christina Keller from Jönköping International Business School presented a paper entitled Teacher Roles in a Blended Learning Materials Engineering Master Program. A key point that I noted was ‘I believe we can stop having traditional lectures’ with an emphasis on importance of discussion and the notion of presence. Different types of presence, it was argued, was needed for learning: social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence.
The final session was also from The Open University. Gerald Evans and Daphne Change presented Collaborative Online Learning at a Distance - a Case Study and Developing the Knowledge Base. Daphne emphasised the scale, mentioning cohorts of 500 students. Importance of effective learning design. Use of tutors to facilitate the discussion of complex issues. To overcome the difficulty of distance learning students being reticent to participate in group work, one approach is to offer direct and clear explanations: collaboration is a key employability skill.
Session: Empowering the Digital Teacher
I chose this session for very practical reasons; a very important aspect of my role is to offer continuing professional development for tutors who provide distance tuition. I felt this session had the potential to offer inspiration about the design of tutor development sessions.
The opening session was entitled ‘“I wish I Had More Time” Mentor Teacher Narratives of Reflective Practice: a Case for Online Mentoring’ was presented by Helen Dorner from the Central European University, Hungary. The presentation centred upon mentoring relationships to support novice teachers, offering a connection to familiar theory, such as Schon’s work about the reflective practitioner.
There were two other notable presentations during this session. Klaus Stiller from the University of Ragensburg, Germany presented ‘Dropout in an Online Training for In-service Teachers’. Factors that could influence drop-out include student background, experience and different perspectives of learning. Points included the importance of motivation, prior knowledge, attitude and levels of student anxiety. There wasn’t one single clear finding suggesting the issue of student drop out is one that is complex.
The final presentation, by Kwok-Wing Lai was about ‘Secondary Teaching at a Distance: a New Zealand Case Study’. Working in higher education, I found a presentation about distance education at another category of education was particularly interesting. Teachers were asked to complete a detailed questionnaire. Teachers were motivated by an opportunity for personal development and altruism but faced institutional pressures and agreed that there was the need for more support. A significant challenge was the building of a good student-teacher relationship, which is an issue that I recognise from my own personal practice.
Day 3: Opening Plenary Session
The plenary session that opened the third day had a very European focus. In addition to presentations about a project about diversity and social engagement and the relationships between patents and public knowledge, Georgi Dimitrov gave a short presentation about EU perspectives on digital education. Georgi emphasises a number of themes and subjects that were important to the conference: the existence of a digital divide, inclusivity and higher education, digital pedagogies and digital makers, the use of open educational resources and the challenge of developing soft skills amongst areas where there is a skills shortage. The audience was left with three points: the need to consolidate and appreciate what has been learnt, the need to build closer ties between researchers, and the need to go beyond rhetoric and to seek and use evidence.
From a personal perspective, I enjoyed Rosie Jones’s presentation. Rosie is the Director of Library Services at The Open University. Her presentation had the title ‘The Open Library’, which relates to the question: what is meant by ‘the library’ to students who are studying at a distance learning university? Rosie emphasised that the library is both a physical building and a digital portal that enables students to gain access to resources and literature that is necessary for effective study. I noted down a comment that there is a connection between more library access and higher student results.
The OU library is an actual physical space that has virtual tours; the physicality of the library is something that can also surprise some students. There is value of a physical space; a visit to a library can engender feelings, but a question is: how can we create similar feelings for distance learners? Amidst Rosie’s talk is the understanding that the roles of libraries are changing; they represent both important learning spaces and a provider of resources and services that facilitate learning.
Session: E-Learning Policy and Strategy Issues
The first presentation of the strategy session was a synthesis of a set of interviews of vice-chancellors and rectors of European distance learning institutions. Written by former Open Learning editor, Simon Bell, this paper draws on a series of editorials that were presented during 2016 issues of Open Learning.
The other presentations within this session touched on formal decision making strategies, learner analytics, and an analysis of ICT policies in Canadian and Australian secondary education. Working within The Open University school of Computing and Communications, I found this final presentation particularly interesting since it touched on current debates about computing education. A question underpinning this presentation related to the extent to which computing education should relate to algorithmic thinking, problem solving and programming as opposed to practical IT skills. Taking a wider perspective, I can see how this relates to the tensions in the field that relate to professional education (knowing how to do things) and education (gaining the techniques and tools to know how to learn to do things).
Session: International e-learning Development Cases
Since there was such a choice of sessions, I split my time between two different parallel sessions: the digital learners’ needs and motivation, and MOOC panorama, before moving onto the international e-learning development cases session. I was drawn to this international session since the international dimension of Open Learning is particular important; the sharing of international perspectives allows different institutions to learn from a wider range of experiences.
There were three presentations during this session. The first was by Edith Tapia-Rangel who presented E-Learning and Multiculturality in Mexico. Echoing an earlier session about MOOCs Edith introduced us to an open access module that introduced students a module entitled: what is cultural diversity? The module presented topics such as the history of Mexico and its indigenous people and literature. A key point was that students faced challenges that are familiar to distance learners: family commitments, work challenges, and approaching study from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Dinara Tutaeva from the Faculty of Distance Learning at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics offered us a reminder that distance learning and education can take on different forms. Dinara spoke of different groups of learners; offering learning for both young people and for seniors. An approach was to open up the university on a Saturday, and I noted down the ideas of creative weeks, learning excursions and the provision of master classes.
The final talk of this session, ‘Diversity and Digitalization as Vital Key Success Factors for Individualisation of Learning’ was by Christian-Andreas Schumann from the West Saxon University of Zwickau, Germany. Christian-Andreas spoke the idea of how a semantic network might be used to drive a path through a set of digital learning objects. His talk made me think of a project that I used to work on when I worked in industry; my role was to create learning objects and tag the objects with searchable metadata. It was interesting to hear that the terminology I was familiar with was being used in a different context.
Day 4 : Session: Socio-cultural aspects of e-learning
The first presentation of the day was by Catherine Arden from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her presentation had the title ‘From Frontier Learning to Blended Community Learning: A Phenomenography of Informal Learning in Rural Community Informatics’. Catherine’s research used the tools of phenomenography and variation theory to uncover the experiences of a learner within a community. It was a presentation that contained a number of pedagogic and technical terms, such as: learning incentives, work-based learning theory and socio-technical systems.
The next presentation, ‘Diversity: A Blessing or a Curse for Online Collaboration?’ was by Gizeh Perez Tenorio. My instinctive answer to this question was: diversity is a blessing, since problems and issues can be understand more fully since different participants may have different perspectives.
The final session was given by Kadir Kaya from Middle East Technical University, who studied ‘Research Trends of Instructional Technology Dissertations in Turkey’. Kadir studied the emergence of different topics in the broad field of technology enhanced learning. In some respects, this final presentation echoed the theme that was introduced in the pre-conference session.
I enjoyed my first visit to EDEN. I was surprised by the number of delegates, the size of the conference and the breadth of the presentations which touched on very many different aspects of distance teaching and learning. Diversity, in all its different guises, is a really important subject and I’m really glad that the conference organisers chose this as a focus. The personal highlight for me was the contemporary importance of the first session presentations that I attended; they show the extent to which technology can have a very practical use when it comes to facilitating inclusion and understanding.
A criticism lies with some of the keynote presentations. Whilst some presentations clearly achieved the important purpose of tone setting and inspiring thoughts amongst the delegates, I did feel that some of the sessions could have been moved to some of the parallel sessions. I also felt that there was an opportunity to perhaps have a more panel discussions that involved a number of discussants who adopt different and contrasting perspectives.
These things said, EDEN is clearly an excellent conference in terms of getting to know colleagues from a range of different learning institutions. What struck me was the diversity of distance learning models and approaches are used across Europe. In terms of this perspective, the experience of attending EDEN was invaluable.
Note: this conference report was originally written for Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-learning. A different version of this article will be submitted to this journal as an official conference report.