Open Thinkering


Oxford E-Learning Debate 2010


My experience in Oxford yesterday was one of marked contrasts. It was the difference between hyperbole and grandstanding set against authenticity and passion. The Oxford E-Learning Debate, organised by Epic is in its second year. Ostensibly, it provides a forum for discussion and (well-mannered) argument about issues central to e-learning. 

But therein lies the rub: e-learning, it would appear, in this particular context, means corporate e-learning. To me the latter seems to be closer to training than learning as I’ve ever experienced or helped facilitate it.

The event was free to attend. But for those of us who had to travel for over four hours each way and stay overnight to attend it was, of course, something of a commitment. So in ascertaining whether the event was ‘of value’ such considerations as whether the debate lived up to its promised billing are as important as the ticket price.

This house believes that technology-based informal learning is more style than substance” was the motion under debate. I should suspect that never in the history of the Oxford Union has the result of vote been more clear-cut before the debate took place. And so it proved, with those disagreeing with the motion (and therefore placing a value on technology-based informal learning) winning the debate by 259 votes to 54.

Even given the obvious result, the debaters – the greater proportion of whom were shipped across from North America – startlingly refused to engage with the terms of the (admittedly clumsily-worded) motion. A false dichotomy of ‘formal’ versus ‘informal’ learning was set up. In the end, the former was caricatured as rubber-stamped informal learning whilst the latter was alluded to as being almost anything and everything.

As is usual with face-to-face events in the days of Twitter, social networking, blogs and other means of online communication, the real value of the Oxford Union Debate was in the discussions that happened afterward. I was fortunate enough to bump into Geoff Stead (Tribal), Stuart Sutherland (NCSL) and Seb Schmoller (ALT) who provided a much more interesting insight into these matters than the, frankly poor, debaters mustered.

From the debate, after witnessing the rather flat ‘Extraordinary Learning Experience’ I headed to the Kings Arms just off Broad Street. This brought back memories as I walked past a shop that used to be Thornton’s of Oxford, a bookshop I worked in between GCSEs and A Levels, and between the latter and university. I was headed to meet Eylan Ezekiel, Director of BrainPOP UK. If Epic, to use the terms of the debate, had organised something of style but no substance, my conversation with Eylan was, as usual, the opposite of that.

If there is someone in charge of an educational publishing company with more passion, more zeal for education that Eylan Ezekiel I’d like to meet them. A former primary school teacher, Eylan and his team have been tireless supporters of grassroots educational innovation over the past few years. Everything from sponsoring TeachMeets to engaging in conversations on Twitter has shown BrainPOP to be an ‘authentic’ educational publisher.

There were many things I discussed with Eylan that remain the private conversation of friends. However, it was enlightening to find out how he ended up running BrainPOP, how he had been a freelance agitator within the educational publishing world before doing so, and the overlapping areas of interest we have due to having children of a similar age.

In these times of economic uncertainty and cutbacks, with talk of Return On Investment (ROI) and ‘doing more with less’ I believe educators have a choice. We can choose to do things the lazy way. We can be traditional and go through the motions. We can buy into monolithic systems that allow us to tick off boxes dreamed up by administrators. We can abdicate responsibility for the evolution of our institutions and ways we educate young people.

On the other hand, we can be activists. We can support grassroots innovation. We can discuss ways in which a number of different systems and workflows can be iterated to achieve our educational goals. We can take charge of our own learning and that of our children to provide something much more powerful and relevant than they currently expect.

I’m with Eylan. 


5 thoughts on “Oxford E-Learning Debate 2010

  1. Curiously, much of the conversation I was involved in afterwards was about how education focussed a lot of the argument seemed to be and what a shame there wasn’t more of interest to corporates. I wonder who it did hit the mark for!?You *should* organise your own debate, but it would be a real shame if it was education only. At the grass roots level there’s more connecting us than dividing us, and surely we can only benefit by breaking down the barriers.

  2. How ironic. I'm not about shutting people out, I just felt that the debate seemed to be a lot about corporate training. Given your focus on corporate learning, perhaps that's why we both felt alienated?

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