N.B. I’m blogging this as I go along – I’ll tidy things up and add links later!
Tuesday 30th November/Wednesday 1st December
Calling the taxi company only for them to tell me that no cars were running wasn’t the best start to my travel to #oeb10. I’d already had to arrange to stay over at a hotel next to Newcastle airport due to the early flight and the worsening conditions. Now, I had to drive the 15 miles from my house to the airport.
It was the worst driving conditions I’ve ever known. Diverging even slightly from hands-locked-at-the-ten-to-two position meant skidding. Scary stuff. The hotel was functional, but for anyone who’s ever seen ‘Phoenix Nights’ – well, you can imagine…
Amazingly, the both my flight to Amsterdam (which, coincidentally, was the same one my colleague Andy Stewart and his wife were catching for the connection to New York) and the flight from Amsterdam to Berlin left on time. I was amazed. Unfortunately, my baggage didn’t leave at the same time meaning I spent a good couple of hours going from pillar to post at Berlin airport standing in line and filling in forms.
A quick aside. Upon arriving in Germany I had no phone or data connection as I refuse to pay the exorbitant rates that all UK carriers impose on those daring to venture out of Fortress GB. Thankfully, and rather handily, my Amazon Kindle’s 3G connection is country-agnostic and – more importantly – free! I found Accessible Twitter (I’ve now discovered KindleTwit) and used it to send messages to my wife and Twitter network. A genuine godsend.
Back to the story. I’d arranged to meet Zak Mensah from JISC Digital Media at the hotel and, indeed, bumped into him and Steve Wheeler in the Intercontinental’s lobby soon after arrival. Zak and I went shopping with me, for the first time in my life, buying something from H&M. I literally had the clothes I was standing up in and angry fat German guy hadn’t inspired much confidence in me that I was going to see my baggage again anytime soon. I bought several jumpers (it’s -10 degrees C here and snowing), shirts, underwear, trousers and shoes, stopped by a chemist for some essentials and then headed back to the hotel.
The whole rigamarole meant I missed the workshop on mobile learning I’d booked myself in for, but I was pleased that I’d got myself sorted, in a foreign country (I speak no German apart from ‘Ich spiele de doodlesac’ – I play the bagpipes, and ‘Ich habe einen kaninchen’ – I have a rabbit, neither of which is true).
Thursday 2nd December
I was rather disappointed with the sessions I attended on Thursday. Disappointed, in fact, to the extent that if I ever submit a session proposal to a future Online Educa conference and it’s rejected I’ll feel rather aggrieved. Given that the conference is one of the biggest events in the e-learning calendar, the standard of research and practice discussed in the sessions was rather low. It seemed to be a vehicle for having a BETT-like plethora of commercial entities pimping their wares. Disappointing.
The opening keynotes got progressively better with Charles Leadbeater’s (whose writing I really don’t like) being the best. He’s a much better speaker than writer and some of the findings and conceptualisations of his findings from Cisco-funded journeys to South America, Africa and India were spot-on. The first two keynoters, however, one from the UN’s education programme and one from Pearson didn’t speak from experience as far as I could tell and merely rehashed talks either they’d given or had heard given elsewhere. Dressing up what you’ve heard as “Let me tell you what I think…” doesn’t fool anyone.
A mobile learning workshop I attended was poor. Not only did it start very late but the presenters weren’t great – either in content or execution. You can’t judge the success of a mobile learning programme by the fact that kids love using mobile devices. That’s a given. After that session, a group of us had lunch on the top floor of the hotel which gave stunning views of the snowy Berlin urban landscape. One’s relation to snow is different depending upon whether its ramifications are your or someone else’s problem!
In the afternoon I attended a session on digital storytelling which promised much, and indeed there was some interesting stuff I gleaned from it, but which ultimately disappointed. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not the only one who thinks that ‘learning and training’ are not synonymous and that it’s rather lazy to conceptualise what’s currently going on in schools as being ‘Victorian’. In fact, in a Q&A session after the digital storytelling session I said as much to the session chair (who had just had a go at teachers) before I asked my question of the presenter. Academic rigour, presentational skills and a base of classroom practice. Is that too much to ask? Really?
One thing that isn’t lacking at Online Educa are the networking and social aspects. Not only did I attend a drinks reception followed by a bizarre ‘party’ at which chilled beats were augmented by a 3D virtual world, but a few of us ended up in the former East Berlin at a bar upon which a thrash metal band descended. They were called ‘Superbutt’ and were actually quite melodic at times, but very very loud.
The last two conferences I’ve attended – mLearn 2010 in Malta and Online Educa Berlin 2010 in Germany – have both been in hotels. Because expensive hotels usually charge you a fortune for internet access in your room, the only place to get an internet connection is down in the lobby with the free conference wifi, or via my Kindle. The latter, obviously, is slightly limiting, but the former at least forces you to be relatively sociable in the morning. Unfortunately the wifi at both conferences hasn’t been able to cope with delegates who have probably at least two mobile devices each connecting to the wifi. It slows down to a crawl during the times that sessions take place.
I’m writing this part of the post on my Sony Vaio P11Z (don’t-call-it-a) netbook in the hotel lobby after breakfast. It really is an incredible little device and a whole lot lighter and more portable than my MacBook Pro. The keyboard is almost full-size meaning I can touch-type on it and the 1600-pixel wide screen means it’s actually got a higher resolution than the MacBook. Amazing.
The best presentation other than a keynote I’ve seen at Online Educa Berlin 2010 was Iain McLaren talking about the future of Higher Education. He questioned the various models assumed by senior leaders and government with respect to HE, followed by a fascinating tour around the ‘social imaginary’, threats to collegiality by an over-focus on productivity, questioning just how ‘innovative’ curricular innovation actually is, and the appropriation of technology by institutions for mere information transmission. After this I made a quick detour via an ‘informal ethics’ session I first saw at ALT-C featuring John Traxler, Frances Bell, Geoff Stead, Steve Wheeler, Mark Childs and Andy Black. Good stuff.
After another enjoyable lunch on the top floor of the Intercontinental talking to a couple of Finnish educators, it was back to some disappointing sessions. The handheld learning session featured only one pretty bad presentation due to cancellations. Talking about digital natives multitasking in 2010 is either lazy, misinformed or dangerous. I headed out to the ENGAGE Quality Awards. Unfortunately, this didn’t live up to its billing either. It was about serious games, granted, but there was too much emphasis on the ‘serious’ part.
Conferences are expensive affairs and, running out of euros and having not tried the local delicacies, Zak Mensah and I decided to forgo the conference bar in favour of the German Christmas market in the centre of Berlin. We sampled currywurst and gluwein and bought some small gifts for our respective families. The cold weather, when dealt with by an organised and efficient system, isn’t too much of a hinderance. I’d certainly bring my wife back to Berlin in wintertime although I didn’t get the feeling it’s a place I’d want to bring very young children.
Will I return to Online Educa Berlin for 2011? I doubt it. Whilst there were a couple of presentations I found relevant and I enjoyed catching up with people, it wasn’t worth four days away from my wife and child. Many of the presentations were amateurish, the corporate stands were almost BETT-like, and there was an element of one-upmanship that I hadn’t seen at many other conferences. Overall, an expensive mistake.