Ed Tech, you need to try harder: innovators, keynotes, connected learning and connectivism

I’ve become accustomed to ignoring distilled lists of anything these days on Twitter, but the Chronicle article on 12 innovators has inspired me to reflect on my largely discontented reaction.  I don’t dispute that these people are deserving of their nomination, but the 12 best list is symptomatic of what I feel are some disturbing realities in our beloved ed tech field.

In explaining the selection of these 12, Jeff Young, presumably from Chronicle explains in the comments:

We relied on reporting — talking to our sources — as well as people at conferences whose ideas appeared to be gaining traction. We also looked at social-media and blogs. Essentially we wanted to make sure we heard about as many people as we could, so we looked for ideas wherever we could find them.

Here lies problem number 1:  Social media amplifies the voices of ‘experts’, which is both good and bad.  These experts are naturally showcased at conferences, and the amplification of ideas continues.   If you’ve been attending ed tech conferences for more than 10 years you may have found that they are becoming more than a little deja vu.  You may also have found yourself seeing the same keynote more than once, despite travelling a significant distance to another country.

This leads us to problem number 2:  Only 3/12 of the Chronicle innovators are women (also pointed out by lharasim in the comments).  If conference keynotes or plenaries can be used as a barometer, this is actually a fair representation of the gender balance of ‘experts’ in the field.  Which begs the question…why do the majority of conference keynotes and plenaries continue to be far from achieving a 50/50 representation?  I’ve become accustomed to the 1:3 keynote pattern, but a brief tally of 2012 conferences reveals that most barely attempt or don’t even seem to attempt the one.  Yet when I attend these conferences more than 30% of attendees are women.  Clearly this isn’t a case of less women in a field.  In fact, in the 3 institutions i’ve worked at various ed tech roles at least 50% (and in one case 70%) of the ed tech jobs were occupied by women.  Surely this isn’t the exception?

This also begs the question as to whether a keynote should be the most well known, retweeted, blogged person whose youtube videos or webcasts you’ve already seen before you’ve jumped on a plane.  Maybe keynotes should be selected on the basis of interesting but least well known?  Or on the basis of what the person can contribute to the conversation that hasn’t been said already?  Or how about selecting keynotes that aren’t directly in the ed tech field, but whose ideas provide the opportunity to influence the field in new ways?  Why do we have keynotes anyways, since sometimes they seem to distract from the voices of other presenters who have equal potential to inspire?

Update:  Alan Levine has a good post on Flipping the Conference 

Problem #3:  Idea deja vu despite (or because of?) the edtechosphere.  When I read the connected learning post last week, I have to admit it sounded a lot like the well known efforts of the connectivism folks.  I didn’t attend #DML2012 so I have no idea as to whether they were acknowledged, and the question of how this got missed is curious.  However,  interestingly I think that both groups missed each other.  Some of the researchers involved in Connected Learning Research Network are well known sociocultural (activity theory and situated learning) theorists and researchers.  Connectivism, as I and others (Thomas Ryberg, Frances Bell)  have argued shares many  characteristics of sociocultural theories, in particular activity theory.  The manifestation of sociocultural theory or connectivism in practice naturally includes MOOCs, distributed learning models, informal learning models, and undoubtedly other yet-to-be discovered learning models that include connection in some way.  I’m inclined to agree with Tony Bates that effectiveness rather than purpose is the question to be explored, and there is lots of room for this territory to be shared by those exploring it from different orientations.

But where to go from here if conferences and the ed tech social media sphere are becoming locations of idea deja vus?  I’d like to see the conversation really widened to include those whose digital practices lie clearly outside of the usual ed tech field. For example, I’m sure there’s lots of inspiration to be found at the Eyeo Festival which is on my list for next year.  And I will definitely find myself at conferences that demonstrate they can do better than a 1:3 ratio.

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Looking backward to look forward

I hadn’t really intended on a post that summarized the past 365 days or made predictions for the future, since others have done it so well already.  These posts have caused me to nonetheless reflect a bit on my own ed-tech moments of 2009  and the inevitable ups and downs that come with the field.

In 2009 I felt like I became a bit of a student of Distance Education and Ed-tech history, since many of the current conversations seemed to me to be echoes of the past. These are few that stood out for me.

Open Educational Resources–ideology, movement, or simple sharing?

As excited as I am about everything related to Open Educational Resources, and how much I’d like to see my own institution think about them strategically, I was disappointed by how much of the OER conversation (in North America, at least) seemed to forget that Open Universities from their inception had a goal of increasing access to education to disadvantaged groups, a radical (dare I say edupunk) idea at the time, and shared many of the ideological concerns of current OER proponents. OpenLearn is a logical extension of this vision, facilitated by the distribution and sharing opportunities of the internet.  Yet the jazzy tools and technologies that enable OER content sharing to those that have access to the internet seemed to me to dominate the discussions that I heard at the Open Education conference in Vancouver, and in the blogosphere in general.  And while I’m convinced of the value of WordPress, RSS, Twitter, and social networking and their value to the OER movement and a particular interpretation of “openness”, apart from some interesting presentations at the ICDE 2009 conference in Maastricht (notably the COL’s Asha Kanwar COL talking about the VUSCC)  and some journal articles, I would have liked to have learned more about broader contexts of OER use and interpretation, linguistic challenges and developments, OER sharing practices (Siyavula), and cost-benefits.

Yet, I’m increasingly aware that I have a responsibility to step outside of the ed-tech echo chamber that I participate  in, and spend more time looking for a different type of conversation.  This requires looking backward and beyond. By looking backward, I continue to find relevance in some of Mackey’s geolinguistic observations of the 80s and 90s; commonalities between the self-directed learning movements of the 70s and later and the desire for substantial change in teaching and learning in higher education. By looking beyond, I intend to read beyond my English language comfort zone and read more in French and Spanish. I also intend to explore other echo chambers in the twittersphere and blogosphere–this includes an interesting group of ed-tech enthusiasts in Quebec (Mario Asselin, Patrick Giroux)–and many more yet to be discovered.

Connectivism or Activity Theory?

This year I continued to be bewildered by the contribution of Connectivism to understanding learning in a networked environment.  I haven’t adequately articulated this anywhere on this blog, but I can’t get past looking for differences between Connectivism and Engestrom’s notion of “knotworking” in third-generation activity theory.  I’ve made this point in the past (posted on George’s blog back in 2006 under ‘tanbob’) but as noted by Bill Kerr’s critique back in ’07the point was never really addressed. I’m obviously not alone here but clearly have some homework to do in fairly and adequately discussing my view of the intersections of these two prominent ideas. The Networked Learning Conference, featuring not only Engestrom and Siemens, but Wenger as well, would have been a nice opportunity to gain some clarity, since current discussions of activity theory (in 2 recent books, one of them nicely reviewed here by Spinuzzi), in particular Engestrom’s notion of a ‘runaway object’ seem to bring connectivism and activity theory even closer.

21st Century Skills–a (sort-of) flashback to multiliteracies?

Another topic that I have yet to adequately articulate here, but I found myself going back to the work of the New London Group and looking for reasons why 21st Century skills felt like a more diluted version of Multiliteracies. How did we go from a broad, socioculturally-driven notion of literacies (framed in 1996, no less), to a more limited behavior-cognitive focussed notion of skills? I worry that 21st century skills will the be the buzzword of 2010 that will take us down the wrong path.

Digital Natives-an ed tech myth that will hopefully become history

On the topic of buzzwords Net Gen Skeptic has done a good job of demonstrating how an ed tech buzzword can become accepted and subsequently adopted as a rationale for systemic change without a whole lot of critical thought or demand for evidence. Being involved in a Skeptic project has made me aware of my own role in supporting myths-in-the-making, eg. what am I retweeting and why; who am I reading and who am I not reading. I suspect that myths find their legs in echo chambers, and I resolve to step outside of the spheres of my discipline and into those that are relevant but not totally familiar.