What I heard, what I did not hear and what I wish I had heard… Reflections on the World Conference on Online Learning, Toronto, 2017


Recently I’ve had the privilege of attending the World Conference on Online Learning in Toronto, organized and hosted by Contact North I Contact Nord. What a conference it was! At times, it resembled a medieval marketplace or bazaar with a variety of voices and opinions demanding attention. In addition, amid the noise and excitement, if one listened closely, one heard silences, things that were not said, things that were left out, or things you just missed hearing because you were at a different part of the conference.

So what did I hear? What did I somehow miss? Moreover, what did I wish I heard?

What I heard…

In our discussions about online learning, we have to put pedagogy central and first, and not technology.

The first of the five presenters in the opening plenary of the conference, Laura Czerniewicz (University of Cape Town) posed, at least for me, the most important question of the conference, a question that unfortunately, seemed to have disappeared in the rest of the conversations and presentations… In her address, Laura put pedagogy central, and not technology, and in her ten-minute address, broke the Medusa-like spell technology has on teaching. [Sadly, Medusa was back in full strength for the rest of the conference and like the gods in Terry Pratchett’s book Small Gods, the more the followers, the stronger the god].

Laura’s address framed pedagogy and online pedagogies as inherently, political. She challenged the audience to reflect on the role of power in online teaching, who has the power, who makes the rules, and who/what determines access. She also warned against homogenizing students and in fetishizing students as ‘customers’. In an education context, that increasingly looks more than a commercial marketplace with vendors and venture capitalists competing for attention and contracts, Laura’s address was a welcome relief, however temporary.

The question has gone from “How will brick and mortar institutions survive the digital revolution” to “Will open universities survive the digital revolution? And if they do, why and how?”

With many of the delegates not being from the traditional community of distance and open distance learning institutions (more about that later), I sensed a deep unease and discomfort among those who are based in these traditional distance education institutions. In an online world, it was clear that the rules of the game have changed, there are different gatekeepers, as well as more and very diverse players who claim to redefine the rules of the game forgetting the rich theoretical and research history of distance education (see next point). Where a few years ago the question was “How will brick and mortar institutions survive the digital revolution?” the pendulum has swung 180 degrees and now the question is “Will open universities survive the digital revolution?” and even “Should open universities as a distinct form of educational delivery survive?” I had the feeling that many of delegates from traditional distance and open education institutions experienced something like getting back home after a night out, and when you open your front door, the house is filled with people you don’t know and who sees you, as the rightful owner, as having to defend your presence.

What place does ‘offline’ have in an ‘online’ conference?

Maybe it was in the way the conference was marketed and branded? In the past, this conference served a very particular community consisting of institutions, educational authorities, commercial actors, and individuals, in the broad field of open, distance, flexible and online education. In light of evidence that not everyone has equal access to affordable and high quality internet access in the Global South and the Global North, what happens when we only talk about online learning as if it is the new ‘normal’? There are many distance education providers for whom the most appropriate and most effective mode of delivery (still) consists of a blend between offline, printed materials and support, to a range of technology enabled/supported and technology dependent strategies.

How do we talk about ‘online’ when considering the reality of low bandwidth, the cost of access, and the dark side of online – think post-truth, security concerns, face news, cyberbullying, etc.?

Another interesting question to consider is to ask who drives the adoption of technologies? What are the role of commercial interests in normalising online learning as the new ‘normal’?

 What’s in a name?

So, what happens when a traditional distance education conference becomes an online conference? While this question may seem to constitute a theoretical exercise, I would like to suggest that we should not brush it off. The next World Conference, awarded to Dublin (2019) is already branded as the 28th ICDE 2019 World Conference on Online Learning. Please take note of the branding of the biggest distance education academic conference as an online learning conference. I think we need to ask, “What has just happened?” Does this name change signify a deeper change in the understanding, theorizing and practice of distance education? Considering that, up to recently, the view was that distance learning and online learning are different phenomena and practices (see, for example, Guri-Rosenblit, 2005), and that distance education is much broader than online learning, what are the implications of this name change? Now, in retrospect, will distance education ‘wake up’ like Gulliver and find themselves tied down not by the Luddites, but by Silicon Valley in the disguise of Lilliputians?

We are eating ourselves and staying hungry

I know it sounds dramatic, but maybe this conference stood in the shadow of the end of history. In the papers I attended, there was little reference to any of the theoretical work that established distance education as a vital and recognised research field. Everything was new. Everything was digital. Everything was fantastic. Instead of quoting the big voices in distance education research, presenters quoted the Harvard Business Review, MIT Review, commercial vendors and venture capital. “To save everything, click here”.

At conferences, at least those educational conferences I attend, there is always some contestation between theory or conceptual papers and more practically oriented papers, with some conferences even separating theoretical and practical papers… Personally, I always find this somewhat bizarre. Theory and practice are inevitably linked, and educational research has to consider both and find ways to not talk about practice, without, at the minimum, having some sense of theories and conceptual frameworks that may help us to understand practice. Though there may be disciplines, in which some theoretical work may abstracted from practice, one of the main aims of theorizing distance and/or online learning is to make sense of, to provide ways-of-thinking to engage with very practical issues.

Except for the dangers lurking in separating theory and practice and as a result, impoverishing both, much of educational research (at least those presented at those academic conferences that I attend), are ouroboric. Our papers are on auto-repeat. We seem to ignore the rich history of distance education research and many presenters at the conference barely mentioned established theoretical frameworks and empirical research in the field of distance education, or for that matter, online learning.

Having said that, there was huge appreciation for the work and thinking of scholars like Tony Bates, Phil Hill, and Stephen Downes (among others) and their gravitas and continued influence in the field ensure vital continuity between the distributed, distance and online teaching.

Losing our religion (with apologies to R.E.M) but we have bling

Interestingly, central to the origins and evolution of distance education was its strong emphasis on creating opportunities for those who were excluded from other existing educational opportunities. The origins of distance education was based in recognising “The humanitarian task of providing access for all learners, with special focus on those disadvantaged by distance, by precarious economic conditions, by belonging to discriminated minorities, or by being disabled.” (Peters, 2010, p. 32). Peters (2010) refers to the “revolutionary adaptation of teaching and learning to new technological and social conditions” and then states “There is no other form of teaching and learning that has broken away from tradition so sharply that is so flexible and conducive to further societal changes of the post-industrial knowledge society. Distance education achieved a first significant breakthrough in the reform of higher education” (p. 56; emphasis added).  In addition, outside the address by Asha Kanwar (Commonwealth of Learning) and some others, this original humanitarian ideal of distributed and flexible learning got, somehow, lost amid the changing higher education landscape and the bling of technology. Peters (2010) reflects on the change in the original mission of distance education and states that “this mission is now relativised by a growing number of privileged students who do not learn at a distance because they are forced to do this by unfavorable circumstances, but rather for reasons of convenience only (p. 32).

Some of the things I didn’t hear and wished I heard

 We cannot pretend as if the transition into the digital age is not painful and complex

It is no secret that some  of the traditional open distance learning institutions in the Global North have been going through a relatively painful process of redefining themselves in, not only the digital age, but in a context where public higher education is increasingly facing funding constraints. And though there was mention of these troubles and plans by a variety of speakers and in different sessions, I somehow missed an honest engagement with not only the potential of online learning for traditional, mega open universities, but how moving into a digital age dramatically impacts on not only traditional institutions (whether distance education or residential institutions), but also on staff contracts and roles, office hours, workload, performance management and quality assurance, and sustaining public higher education in a digital age.

Yes, there was an interesting presentation by Dr Neil Fassina, the CEO of Athabasca University in which he outlined some of the issues facing higher and online education.    There was also a presentation (or was it a sales pitch?) by Future Learn (in partnership with the Open University in the UK) of their entry into the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) market.

It is no secret that for many distance education researchers and institutions, Athabasca University and the Open University are the gold standard in distance education. Both institutions served, for many years, as the guiding light of excellent quality learning experiences at scale. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to listen to these two institutions, or a panel consisting of some of the mega distance educations in the world, and hear how they have redesigned and are redesigning their value proposition amid declining part-time student numbers (at least in the Global North), funding constraints, dealing with legacy projects and structures in their institutions, and increased competition. How do they see tenure? How does an institution scale student support at cost? How do we design technology-enabled and technology-dependent learning experiences when our distance education institution’s structures and processes still resemble those of an industrial era? What are the implications for an institution’s program qualification mix (PQM)? How do we break the iron triangle of cost, quality and access?

Or is the field too competitive to acknowledge our weaknesses and our struggles in public?

What questions don’t we ask about online learning and why are we quiet about them?

The second issue I want to raise was that we seemed to have missed many of the big questions regarding honestly assessing what teaching and ‘delivering’ teaching in a digital age look like. For example, how do we respond to the 2017 statistics that indicate that part-time students’ numbers are dropping? What does online learning look like when the number of students who go hungry is increasing, where the cost of studying is spiralling out of control and student debt is increasing, and where many may never be able to repay their student debts?  What does online teaching mean when poor students are penalised and are facing a higher risk of dropping out?  What does going digital mean when there are predictions that “The culling of Higher Ed” has begun where it is forecasted that “hundreds and even thousands of colleges and universities closing over a decade or so. But more even-keeled analysts also have foreseen increases in the number of failing institutions: Moody’s Investors Service in 2015, for instance, said closures and mergers of small institutions would triple and double, respectively, in the coming years.”

What does online teaching look like where academic staff are increasingly demoralised and teaching and learning quantified, measured and weighted and staff are increasingly facing precarious futures? (See the reflections of Richard Hall). What does online learning in a higher education context look like when George Siemens tweets (2017, July 19) “woah. Higher ed is becoming a brutally difficult field – make it and you’re good. No second place. Only last. No runner-up success stories.”

Don’t get me wrong. There was great presentations where presenters shared research results of how online learning makes a huge difference, often to the lives of marginalised individuals and communities. There were many presentations about the challenges and potential of Open Educational Resources (OER). There was an honesty about the continuing failure of many faculty embracing OER.  In general, however, there was a paucity or even absence of research that points to failures, to how online learning excludes often despite our best efforts.

We use academic conferences to report on the successes of online learning and leave reflecting on our failures to the public press

Strangely absent in the presentations were reports and presentations on our failures… Why is that? Is the competition so fierce that we cannot admit our failures, at least to one another? Or have we sold out to positive psychology or the self-help industry where conferences have become recipe-driven, ten-steps-for-success?

I have attended the Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK) conferences as many a time as available funding coincided with my paper being accepted. In 2016 a group of researchers presented the LAK16 Failathon providing a space for the sharing of failures. The organisers stated “Learning from one’s own mistakes can be a very powerful source of expertise. However, it is more efficient – and less unpleasant – to learn from other people’s mistakes too. But this is difficult without access to information about failure.” The workshop organisers hoped “to create a space where researchers and practitioners can learn from each other’s mistakes.” At the 2017 LAK conference this workshop was continued.

Reflecting on what I wished I had heard made me realise that I missed an honest appraisal of the many benefits of online learning as well as its failures. It is as if we use academic conferences to report on the successes of online learning and leave the failure to the public press?

With eyes wide shut

Lastly, but most probably the most worrying aspect of my reflection is the absence of any consideration of what the increasing commercialisation of the field of online learning means for public K-12 and higher education? I am talking about the fact that very few educational institutions have the capacity and skills to host and maintain their own learning platforms and before we know it we teaching on platforms that are not ours, with rosy promises of what we get as part of the ‘deal’, but with very little information about the implications if we leave. With apologies to the Eagles’ (Hotel California), we can check out but we can never leave. I am not even sure we can check out.

As institutions of learning increasingly move online, we are ripe for the picking as vendors and venture capitalists offer us ‘one click’ solutions to complex processes. Their ‘to save everything click here’ sales pitch often ignores the fact that technology is anything but neutral but a knot of economic, political, epistemological and environmental power relations and networks. We never buy or subscribe to ‘just a product’ or technology. What happens when our teaching practices are being defined, and in many cases constrained, by our learning managements systems? What happens when commercial providers of analytical services offer as dashboards and learning analytics based on a ‘black box’ of algorithms that is, of course, their intellectual property? What happens when the learning analytics provider also offers an institution a learning management system or vice versa, shaping our understanding of learning according to their beliefs, what can be measured, and what is valued?

I missed critical conversations on the implications to use, for example, ‘free Internet’ provided by a Silicon Valley company without consider the cost of ‘free’? How do K-12 and higher education institutions refuse an offer of ‘free’ hard or software provided by a commercial entity when the offer is so tempting, the danger of not keeping up with the Jones’ is so big and the opportunity to leapfrog into the digital age is not seen as a Faustian pack?

What we hear and/or don’t hear…

What we ‘hear’ or ‘don’t hear’ at conferences are much more complex than being or not being at a certain time and place. What we hear at conferences is also the messy result of the geopolitical location of the conference, those who had the funding to be able to attend the conference, those whose papers were accepted, the selection of main speakers, the special briefings by a selection of individuals who are on the ‘who’s who’ list in online learning, and those who sponsored the event or had the funds to afford an exhibitor’s stand at the conference. This implies that what we don’t hear is also the result of those who were not there, whether due to funding constraints, not getting a visa (in time), not having the necessary institutional permission, not being able to travel, or not being fluent in English, to mention but a few of the reasons.  Though the conference organisers made a brave attempt to provide translation services for French and Spanish-speaking delegates, and in some sessions even provided sign language interpreters, I did not go to any sessions that were presented in French or Spanish, and therefore was not in the audience to ‘hear’

We cannot underestimate the financial and increasingly commercial aspects that impact on what is (not) heard. There is no such thing as a free lunch or conference. Institutions or organisations play a game of financial roulette in planning a conference. Registration fees cover but a small part of the total costs of a conference and organisers rely on their choice of location (the more exotic the better), theme, keynote or panel speakers to attract as many as possible paying delegates. But even then, organisers are never sure whether their chosen theme, location, etc., will be ‘enough’ to at least break even. Enter sponsors. Exhibitors. Vendors. Politics. Networks. There is no free lunch. There is no such thing as an untainted academic conference. I have organised many academic conferences. I was part of the central organising committee of the previous World Conference in South Africa.  The origins, processes and the eventual realization of a conference are deeply contested, and yes, tainted.

Academic conference s are hugely compromised, temporal spaces of inclusion, exclusion, amplification and silencing

When we consider that conferences may provide us with a snapshot of a particular field at a particular time, we should not forget the decisions and processes that allowed and occasioned some things and some voices to be heard. Academic conferences are therefore powerful in excluding, including, but also amplifying and silencing voices, and in so doing, may influence the discourses in a particular field, in this case – online learning – in a particular way.

So when I reflect on ‘what I’ve heard’ and ‘what I did not hear’, or ‘wish I heard’, my reflection is not only in response to a deeply compromised and dynamic process, but also intensely personal, and yes, tainted by my own interests, my own assumptions, beliefs, dispositions, and expectations.

A tentative end and start of a conversation

The World Conference on Online Learning 2017 hosted by Contact North I Contact Nord was a huge success. Not only was the conference organisation excellent, but the conference introduced some interesting innovations. Some of the innovations were, for example, to have plenary panel discussions/presentations instead of keynotes, and to have dedicated briefing sessions presented by a selection of some of the leaders in the field of online learning.

When I considered writing this piece on ‘what I heard, haven’t heard, and wish I’ve heard’ it opened up another lens to reflection on my experience of the conference. Some of the things I’ve heard, may have been heard or noticed by others. Or not. If you attended the conference you may have heard different things, often when you were in the same session as I was. You may have wished to have heard other things.  For those of you who have not attended the conference, this reflection is, in no way, an attempt to judge or evaluate. This blog is an intensely personal and hopefully scholarly reflection. It is also an invitation to a conversation. Can we talk?

Image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/hearing-talking-communication-157385/

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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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8 Responses to What I heard, what I did not hear and what I wish I had heard… Reflections on the World Conference on Online Learning, Toronto, 2017

  1. Reblogged this on The OER World and commented:
    Paul Prinsloo thoughtful post and considerations on the World Conference on Online Learning and first key note speaker Laura Czerniewicz on “the importance of looking at pedagogy and online pedagogies, as political.”. There are a lot of misconceptions regarding distance and online learning, being the most dangerous one, that they are completely separate, therefore exclusive, and distance stops making sense. This is a dangerous separation as it stops bringing theory and practice together, they coexist and distance may encompass, face to face learning, using OERs that were downloaded using mobile devices from an online environment…unfortunately, these separation leaves us all poorer and in particular those who need the most to be creative and innovative in their practices, who are limited by lack of connectivity and prohibitive internet costs…

    • Thanks so much for your response!

      Absolutely. Cannot agree more – “these separation leaves us all poorer and in particular those who need the most to be creative and innovative in their practices, who are limited by lack of connectivity and prohibitive internet costs…” I was just wondering, when did theory “get a bad name?” And what are the implications when our managers and educational leaders express their boredom with years of educational theory?

  2. johnsbaxter says:

    Wow! As ever Paul, you put your finger on a multitude of issues! You are absolutely right about the issues facing institutions and the global North. Here at the Open University UK, we are embarking on the biggest restructuring we have ever undertaken in our history. It is both a response to the financial challenges that come with declining part-time student numbers, and an attempt to move more consistently into the online/digital learning space in a way which maintains the Open ethos. This is not an easy transition, as you say. The questions of how you make “online” or “on-screen” or “digital” learning accessible to all are at the heart of our debates. This is not made easier by the fact that the terms themselves tend sometimes to be used interchangeably by some, whilst others give them very precise and different definitions. I’m reasonably confident that we will emerge stronger from our current restructuring, and that we will our best not to be drawn in by the “bling” of the latest technologies, but to be led by pedagogy. However, my colleagues may think I see these things through opalescent panes. …
    PS it seems a long time since I met you and Laura at Unisa, but I often reflect on the differences and similarities between our institutions in the global North and South.

    • Great to hear from you John! And thanks for the engagement. Yes. Like the Open University, my own institution is facing its own challenges and in addressing these, many of us experience deep discomfort and precarity. And it does not help that our broader contexts are also in flux and increasingly uncertain. Alas.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Very thoughtful and useful reflections. Just one minor correction as the next 2019 conference retains the same title as the 2017 conference – namely 28th ICDE 2019 World Conference on Online Learning (not ‘in’ online learning as referred to in the blog.

  4. Maha Bali says:

    Thanks for this, Paul. It’s always interesting to me how people reflect after conferences. Via Virtually Connecting, I often get (partial) glimpses into events, and have noticed that occasionally, in heavily vendor-driven conferences, people onsite are hungry to have critical discussions on Vconnecting with the virtual folks – sometimes ones they could not comfortably have onsite (which is weird, really, because they’re more “public”). And thinking about how vconnecting is meant (partly) to include those who could not be at a conference in person, and also to remind people at the conference of whose voices aren’t heard, as a practice, it still has its own inclusions and exclusions, of course.

    I have always, always wanted to organize a session on failure. What kind of safe environment do we need to create in order to encourage the sharing of failure stories? Because the confidence/comfort to do so is itself built upon privilege (of not losing your job, reputation, respect, etc)

  5. Rob Farrow says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Interesting blog post from Paul Prinsloo that captures some of the tensions in educational technology today…

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