ECEL 2016 Prague

While the Czech Republic celebrated the 98th anniversary of the birth of the old Czechoslovakia, just off Wenceslas Square in the Faculty of Pedagogy, a large international group of delegates met to debate the state of e-learning. ecel-6

As always, the conference organisation was smooth and professional from Sue Nugus and her team at ACPI. We were treated to three keynote speakers, a wide range of presentations, a doctoral symposium and a larger than usual array of conference posters, as well as the traditional conference dinner, held on the Vltava River, around which Prague was built. (It was on a boat).


Prof van Niekerk on Brain Compatible Learning





All three keynotes were of value and stimulated ideas through the conference sessions. Prof. Johan van Niekerk was perhaps the most visually stimulating – offering a great prezi link here:
on Brain compatible learning in an E-learning environment. Beginning with lots of myths about brain function, van Niekerk showed us a video of memory formation through synaptic connection, reassuring us of the plasticity I love to discuss where personal learning environments mirror the flexibility of the brain. He reminded us that it was easier to forget than to remember, discussing ways to make the brain remember – one of which has to be note-taking or some other kind of rehearsal. I looked around. Who was taking notes? Not many of the delegates seemed to take this on board. Whereas without Evernote on my sound-deadened tablet, I would surely lose so much excitement from research papers as connections and notions go the way of most of my passwords. Building bridges, another of my favourite soapboxes concerning teaching, was also advocated – clearly said, learning grows on what is already there, cannot grow in a vacuum; hence the need for not just scaffolding but a sense of what the foundations are made of – diagnostics before trying to teach.

Here is a link to van Niekerk’s recently published paper on his experimental study – worth a read.

Also stimulating, but in a more psychological way, was the keynote from Stanislaus Stech, a psychologist from Charles University (our conference venue). He spoke about affordances of ICT, again a really useful way of discussing technological properties rather than listing benefits. Affordances are those properties which can be derived from the tools (Stech cited Gibson 1977 for this concept – also Gaver 1991 and Norman 1988). He used the idea to discuss the change in teachers’ conception of teaching from “transmissible” to a constructivist approach. However, he pointed out the downsides of the latter based on provision of information online. Like van Niekerk he emphasised the need for active note-taking and, following Vygotsky, emphasised the role of the teacher as mediator, helping people to learn with the new technologies at their fingertips. Promoting evidence-based, cognitively appropriate teaching he seemed to be demanding the kind of good teaching which recognises where the student is, understanding the cognitive load increased by vast access to information, and building stepping stones for students which allowed them to climb towards learning. Stech acknowledged a debt to Sherry Turkle’s work Alone Together (2010) when discussing the potential shallows of instant interpersonal connectedness and the false feeling of omnipotence which can be derived from user-friendly/facile technology.

The third keynote was given by an honoured mathematician: Dr Michele Artigue, who spoke about Mathematics education in the digital age.  Again her presentation moved from the specifics of maths education and digital tools (SCRATCH programming, Geogebra and the Edumatics project for example) to a focus on how teachers’ roles had changed. I found particularly intriguing her discussion of the cognitive and mediative components of the professional teacher’s role. She outlined how digital technology had taken both components of teaching to a new and demanding level. Using Ruthven’s article (2009), Dr Artigue looked at classroom practice in terms of working environment, resource system, activity format, curriculum script and time economy which all affected the use of digital tools in teaching.

Stuart Francis, Rachael Carden, Andrea Benn, Julie Fowlie and Craig Wakefield from Brighton Business School

Stuart Francis, Rachael Carden, Andrea Benn, Julie Fowlie and Craig Wakefield from Brighton Business School

Of the many sessions I attended, I have to focus on the Brighton Business School contingent – we had seven members of the School at this conference, a record for us. Five of my colleagues in a team led by Andrea Benn presented at conference aspects of their project on managing the transition from college to university in the UK entitled A new approach to an old challenge. What was distinctive about this project (also shortlisted in the Elearning Excellence Awards at the conference and published here) was the collaborative cross-disciplinary nature of their teamwork and the facing of a range of challenges, not least of which was to develop an online taster course available to potential students outside the university firewall. Much learning had clearly resulted and each member of the multi-disciplinary team was able to reflect on changes to the way they had approached technology enhanced learning as a result of the project, quite apart from the project’s adoption by Widening Participation and its potential to be used as a model for further online tasters. More on this project at Craig Wakefield’s blog here.



Ibrahim Zalah, presenting in the symposium

One of my research students also presented at the Doctoral Symposium – Ibrahim Zalah – whose focus is on the acceptance and use of e-learning technologies by Saudi Secondary Schools. This is a great milestone offering both presentation and publication experience, and feedback from external readers. The Doctoral symposium at these conferences is also often the most interesting place to be, as people share their research journeys at different stages asking new questions and reminding one of old debates.





Cyril Brom, Charles University

I chaired a session on Social Learning which echoed some of the ideas from ECSM 2016 looking at social networks and digital inclusion among the elderly – a vital research area tackled by researchers from Brazil, a social media typology – Refuseniks, Uninitiated, Agnostics, Separatists and Integrationists – based on a four year study at Hertfordshire from Guy Saward and Amanda Jeffries, and a quasi-experimental study of anthropomorphic faces and funny graphics concluding so far that such emotional design may help with surface but not so much with deep learning for 16-30 year olds from Cyril Brom, from Charles University.



So in summary, what did I get from this conference? another lovely experience of the Czech Republic and an increased knowledge of the centre of Prague with its painted facades and arcades, and excellent dark beer. A new contact in Malaysia – the delightful PhD student Lillian Wang Yee Kiaw and her husband Michael with whom I shared dinner on the boat, talked UTAUT and hope to meet again.

Little in the way of novel tools, though many useful references. Research methods largely based on grounded and structuration theory using quasi-experimental studies, focus groups, surveys, content analysis of texting, webpages, eportfolios and online discussions as well as student use of YouTube. A focus on cognitive load, teacher roles in the use of digital tools and their affordances and some interesting though not especially novel insights into neuroscience. What we are seeing in e-learning research is a widespread acknowledgement of the potential and possibilities for learning by increasingly common digital tools but a stronger than ever realisation that teaching and learning design has to change – not really because learning has changed, but because methods, tools and activities are changing behaviours. The psychological and social impact of digital technologies for learning still offers a fertile ground for research as we seek to understand better the impact of the digital revolution and where that leaves us in every level of education.




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