Ah, there's nothing like a little bit of controversy to make people sit up and pay attention. The two education events I'm following at the moment - the Global Summit and the K-12 Online Conference, have attracted some contentious feedback over the past few days that have challenged my (and I'm sure, quite a few others') thinking.
Let's start at the Global Summit. There have been some dedicated edubloggers posting at regular intervals giving the aggregated masses their notes on the different speakers, some of the details behind their workshops and some starting points for their own processing. Here's what I'm not getting (and I'd love it if either Mike, Judy, Al or other onsite bloggers could take this up as a challenge when it is all over) and it's a real feel for how different (if it is) this event is compared to traditional conferences. How is it set up differently? What new opportunities are there for the participants? How does the networking take place? What sort of educators are there? How are they reacting to the ideas and concepts being presented to them?
It was interesting to note Judy's personal reaction to listening to George Siemens -
I enjoyed George Seimens presentation, but found nothing new to what is already discussed with vigour in the blogosphere. Yet for many delegates his thoughts were challenging, new and exciting. What this tells me is that there should have been a bigger grass-roots representation at the Global Summit - that our educator leaders should have encouraged their practitioners to attend.
She felt entirely comfortable and the information was familiar - but for most of the audience, Siemens' concepts were relevatory. And while I appreciate the notes on each session, I can now skim over them because I can get a much better virtual front seat and instead download the audio, load up the accompanying images and be a networked part of the audience.
I did this for Leigh Blackall's session - I timed his image stack to his talk. While listening, I thought that I could sense a touch of nervousness in his voice, possibly because he sensed his message would be confronting and unnerving for some of his audience. (Please note my artistic license here.) All I was missing was being actually face to face, reading his facial expression and body language for myself to confirm my impressions. Personally, I really enjoyed his presentation and found his ideas and content to be thought provoking and confirming of some of the things I've suspected about learning and education in general. Leigh talked about his regret for the high price of his education (twenty grand in HECS fees) and how now his learning is fuelled by the network. This resonates with me to a degree (no pun intended). I was lucky enough to get my tertiary education for nothing in the mid-80's but the government shifted the goal posts thereafter and so I've never gone back to build on my original qualification. So in a formal sense and by traditional standards, I guess that makes me undereducated but Leigh's model of Networked Learning really rings true for me. I vividly remember being roundly criticised by a then friend from my teachers' college days for not doing the extra year to upgrade to a B.Ed - I still feel embarrassed admitting it here. But life in the classroom seemed to be worlds away from the lectures, tutorials and essays of the tertiary institution. So I never went back - life seemed to keep throwing up reasons not to, although I have never stopped learning. Now, it is extremely unlikely that I ever will go back to a formal higher education institution unless some generous benefactor was to pick up the tab.
So, maybe teaching is dead. In that case, even Leigh would have to agree that due to the slow pace of change in any school, there will be quite a few teaching zombies still going through their traditional motions for quite some time to come. What puzzles my mind is how Leigh's idea, could or will filter down to the secondary and primary schools of Australia. He made reference to Greg Whitby from NSW Catholic Education and the new school that is being developed in Sydney which attempts to redefine the secondary school experience. Things do have to change - of that there is no doubt in my mind - but from Leigh’s vision, how a new form of teaching can emerge post-secondary is a lot clearer because it means dealing with adults who are freer to make their own learning choices. How we deal with relevant learning for adolescents still moulding their own self identity and purpose in the world and the children of the primary sector who are focussed on acquiring the literacy and numeracy skills that will lead to skilled and informed choices is another question. Here in South Australia, we have a broadly worded Birth-12 curriculum designed to be evolutionary and keep pace. But I fear the exponential speed of information change and access is already rendering so much of those outcomes obsolete. Maybe it will take a wave of home schooling or the opening of access to distance learning materials (via places like the Open Access College here in Adelaide) for more students than just those who qualify presently due to isolation, medical circumstance or exclusion from the mainstream. I'm not sure - like all good presenters, Leigh poses as many questions as he proposes answers. I can see Leigh as an educational version of Douglas Rushkoff especially in his use of historical metaphors throughout his presentation. Interestingly, although Leigh has been variously described as vehement and as anarchic, I tend to think of him as more of an idealist. He still manages to keep the passion burning fiercely looking to push the boundaries of conventional thinking. I remember my tertiary education days when I grabbled with issues of social justice and I thought I could make the world a better place by training to be a teacher. Then the action and ethics that go with that idealism gradually leaked away and the passion got put on the backburner. In Leigh, I hear someone who has managed to keep the fires of his chosen idealism stoked and burning. I am constantly amazed at the ideas and new directions he gives freely through his various online avenues.
There are so many of us in the edublogosphere who moan about the slow pace of change in all sectors of education. Why is it that Leigh's impatience and suggestions for reform are seen to be so radical? The other thing to keep in mind is that it is easy to judge Leigh's talk in isolation but his ideas and thoughts are all out in the open for anyone with the web connection and the inclination to check things out. To put his ideas into context requires reading his blog, his postings on TALO and FLNW, his free range array of presentations, video and screencast repositories but he's an open book. It's easier to criticise someone laying it all out, raw thoughts and all as opposed to the slicker, more moderate presenter from within the UK education system who I cannot find anything about on the web. I can find his bio on the educationau website but where do I find his resources, his raw thinking, his innovations. I know where to find Leigh’s. And it’s as easy as googling “leigh blackall”.
Idealism is a quality Leigh shares with Stephen Downes, which is where the second bit of controversy lurks. Stephen’s take on the K-12 Online Conference drew a quickfire round of comments from people who took offence (I was one of them) but he elaborated more on his thinking on his personal blog and had me wishing I hadn’t been so hasty to react in his comments section. I had never considered what Stephen was pointing out and it really made me think (no mean feat in itself) about why I had wanted to participate, what others would be getting out of my efforts and after listening to part of a conversation between Bud Hunt and Dave Cormier about whether perpetrating an old model of conferences into an online format was really anything groundbreaking, whether just sticking to my blog might not have been a bad option. I do take heart that I’m not the only one to get swept away with a concept because there are seven trusting edubloggers who readily agreed to be part of my K-12 Conference presentation without batting an eyelid and went to great lengths to fulfil my request. What Stephen has done has made me aware that my trust in this concept should not be given away lightly. My ideas and resources, even those developed collaboratively, are beyond my control once given over to a larger event and not everyone operates in the open. I don’t know what anyone else’s motives for involvement are but I can see why Stephen is skeptical. So, at this stage, I’m uploading my webcast to the designated conference organizer and my wiki is at a stage I’m happy content and idea-wise with. But I’m back to questioning my own motivations and purposes. Will my own participation bring anything new to the table? Why do I feel like some of my own idealism has been sapped?
Maybe, along with Teaching, it’s time for Conferences as we know them to be dead.