‘Diverse, collaborative, transformative’ were the key words for OEB16 (Online Educa Berlin), a global conference on technology and learning, which is held annually in Berlin. This year’s theme was owning learning. How much ownership can people take of their learning, and in what circumstances? I would  love to share some of my experiences on this blog. Since I was with many colleagues, I had the opportunity to focus on the general talks as well as talks focusing on media literacy, and creativity and play in learning.

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Gamification of learning

“We believe that technology is the last thing you should think about in education. It should not be the solution you try to produce”

Play and games can be incredibly powerful tools to facilitate learning. As a working form, games should be experimented with more often. At this conference, I attended an escape room which taught students about communication and miscommunication by spreading them across two groups. Our game had a casino flavor, and with various people we played different characters (a drag queen, an escort, a mobster) involved in a murder mystery. We focused on how the style and form of the room as a way to instruct people. However, the game master (Samantha Clarke) also stressed that escape rooms could be useful in teaching content in-game, for instance by using art or history as a starting point for art classes.

I also attended a game jam by the institute that arranged the escaperoom (Gamechangers at Coventry, check them out!) and loved this as well. We were assigned the theme of culture and won a prize for Parliament – a mafia/werewolves types of game in which you have to act as lobbyists and win with your party to construct your own parliament. Everyone has his/her own hidden agenda, and since you do not know who is in your party, you might work against them.

Game design is a much easier tool to implement in education than you may think. I can really recommend doing a game jam with your colleagues and developing a course in this way. (I will certainly do it! I did game james before with my game studies students, but I am eager to bring this knowledge across to my colleagues to get them to think outside the box!)

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In another workshop, we made a video storyboard and also emphasized learning by doing and creating. The speakers presented video essays and other types of assignments that their students submitted, which broke through usual media conventions and standard essays.

The new online learning

“Don’t teach tools, teach competences”

What struck me at this conference, was that media literacy was discussed on a fully different level than, say, five years ago. Back then, we framed it mostly as access to technology (and a digital divide between those privileged to use it, and those who were not) or on the tools and skills needed to understanding new media. In just a few years, new media have clearly become mainstream. A traditional view of media literacy struck as this one by Helen Beetham which unpacks digital competences.

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Alternative views of media literacy that I could identify at the conference generally focused on these three themes: Empathy, attention and speed, and critical understanding.

First, in this post-Brexit and Trump conference, much attention was also paid to the theme of inclusion and exclusion. “We need to invest in tools to make sure that people can manage their own learning. Lifelong learning should be a reality for all”. Along these lines, we should also ponder which views we include in our learning. Do new technologies expose us enough to outside views? Or are we all caught up in private filter bubbles? Learning means being confronted with alternative views and views you are uncomfortable with.

Dialogue is productive, but are we open to it? In an inspiring talk, Tricia Wang for instance stressed the power of empathy as a way of relating to others and being exposed to alternative view points. She calls this multi-perspective literacy, and it is a necessity today

Today, media literacy is not just ethical, but also practical – can we cope with speed and prevent being distracted? Multi-tasking is the new norm for students. Media literacy ties into attention literacy. How do we keep attention when there are so many things coming at us at the same time?

Finally, media literacy today is about the ability to judge the information provided on the web. Many speakers referred to the fake news messages that circulated during the US elections. Examples of trolling and learning. People spreading myths and lies online is almost common today (e.g. iPhone charges if you charge it in the microwave). Catfishing, trolling and gamergate were amply discussed at this conference, which also drew attention to the negative aspects of online communities. While online learning is a powerful tool, we should also be aware of the drawbacks.

Networked teachers

“Internet is an ecosystem that is wrapped around us and made by us”

Interaction means everything in today’s fast-paced classrooms. We should be critical and not be blinded by these technological innovations. The digital divide may not be at the forefront right now, but it is certainly not gone. One speaker referred to Neil Postman and his early work, and summarized that: ‘New technology is never distributed evenly, and all technological change is a trade-off’.

Yet we cannot deny that in a lot of countries, technology is developing rapidly and that teaching is changing with it. The model below by Alec Couros explains quite nicely what challenges teachers face, and how necessary blended learning has become. Curriculum development, teaching and communication with students all take place in increasingly mediated and online spaces. To fully perform, we need to be aware of this interconnectivity and use it. In this model, everything is in sync, and this means that the teacher is always learning.

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Networks were prevalent this conference. Ulrich Weinberg emphasized the power of network thinking and collective intelligence. (“We need to move from IQ to WeQ”). Learning flourishes best amongst a community of learners, which the teacher facilitates but doesn’t force. Another speaker, dr. Laurillard, stressed that learning is socially constructed and that different tools are needed, including peer reviewing. She stressed that there are different ways of learning which, ideally, are all addressed in our courses, including acquiring or producing knowledge (as stimulated by the teachers), discussing content, practicing it, and collaborating with peers. Technology facilitates this dialogue in blended learning environments.

Will technology replace what we do? Most speakers didn’t fear this, even in one of the closing debates which argued that AI should replace humans. Machines will have vast knowledge at some point, but humans have agency, empathy and above all, the ability to tease. Humans can motivate, encourage, direct and stimulate each other. Can technology really reproduce these emotions and motivational functions? AI will support the teaching practice (e.g. grading), but will not replace it.

Other questions

Is individual competition (such as an individual MA thesis) really the best test? Should the graduation assignment be collaborative?

How should we handle data and our policies and protect students? Should we offer a service statement on our e-learning websites, as well as community guidelines (code of conduct)?

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