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Controversy at EduTech 2016

EduTech logoBrisbane always puts its best face forward for EduTech, the weather was perfect… Although Brisbane weather is always pretty amazing. Over 6,500 delegates piled into the convention centre for edutech. Generally it didn’t feel like that many people, but with 8 streams we were broken up into different areas with a few shared keynotes.

Here’s a bit of a summary, with a focus the tension between the two keynotes Dame Susan Greenfield and a GoogleMaster.

There were some massive vendors and it seemed like significant interest in Canvas LMS, who were giving away light sabers (apparently 800 on the first day!!!). Notable by their absence were the other large LMSs and Microsoft. On that front, it was Google all the way, with a massive stand and the second keynote of the Monday.

Keynotes were interesting and I’ll get to those in a moment. Unfortunately, Adam Spencer was under utilized as an MC. He was brilliant and had the audience gee’d up. However, having heard him at other education conferences, it would have been great to hear a little more from him. Bright lights and music introduce that the conference was starting to a round of applause.

So, let’s talk keynotes. Baroness Susan Greenfield kicked off. If you haven’t seen her before, she’s pretty well known (infamous?) in the adult-Ed side of the edutech community. She’s a (hugely awarded) Neuroscientist, very charismatic presenter and an excellent persuader. In the spirit of candor, I really enjoyed her presentation and while I disagree with some of the implications of her presentation, it was great to see a keynote who provided a thorough evidence base for her assertions and string together a memorable story to support her thesis.

What argument was she making? Excuse my (over) simplification. From a brain perspective, the more engaging an experience is, the more neurons will fire, which means that there are increased possibilities for the development of more neural connections, resulting greater knowledge connections etc etc. So we are lead to think about the implications, so I develop engaging online experiences, then more neurons fire, more connections, more knowledge and learning and success (yah). Alas, no. She continues with the bad stuff; a seemingly endless (ok 3-4 slides) of research that shows too many games and screen time can lead to an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex and brains that end up reflecting the structure of those with gambling disorders, schtiophrenics and those on the autism spectrum (which part of the spectrum?, not sure).

Hmm… So we throw out the games, gamification, screens and what then? What are the implications for our practice? She went on to talk about the positives… That there are strategies to consider. First, tell stories to provide a conceptual framework and allow the user to explore reality than escape it. Second, interact with nature, 5 days outside can ‘reverse the ill effects’. Third, exercise. Simple.

There were some comments in the Twitter stream (#edutechau) and more from delegates after. Many wondered why she’d be asked to keynote when the bulk of the presentation was so antithetical to the aims of the conference. The amazing Bron Stuckey had a great critique from the perspective of games in education (no need to rephrase the thoughts she shared, check out her work and see the evidence of her work). The ever eloquent and positive Howard Erey summarised; for every piece of research there is an equal and opposite piece. I’m very much in agreeance there.

From my perspective, I have a few thoughts… I’m not familiar enough with the primary research to comment on the methodologies or validity. However… I’ve never met an educator (adult education or K-12) that advocates for the use of games or screens 100% of the time. It’s all about balance. That’s balance inside and outside, standing or sitting, in front of screens and away from them, conceptual and sensory etc etc. So unless your learners are part of a research group playing Tetris 24/7, chances are you are pushing for balance on your courses (regardless of what area of education you are in). Finally, most of the games I see have some type of narrative that is as engaging to gamers as reading a book is for readers. Further, may of us have been advocating for story/scenario based learning experiences for ages – we try to build learning experience that pull learners closer.
So I summarise her presentation like a feedback sandwich… Engagement is good, too much of the wrong engagement is bad, balance provides the opportunity to balance those positions. Personally, I would have preferred there to be more of an emphasis on the balance and strategies to achieve this.

Google followed with such an incredibly pro tech (K-12 focus) presentation that I can’t even begin to critique it here. I wondered that perhaps in the Google for Education toolbox there is an AI teacher that provides support for teachers and the time and space to develop engaging classes in a way that I’ve never heard replicated in the teachers I talk to. If so, can we have that in adult education please? Let’s just say that it was clearly a sponsored key note and was a huge juxtaposition to the Baroness’. There were few of us calling (tweeting) for a debate. Now, that would have been an amazing panel to watch. Alas, t’was not to be.

Reflecting and comparing the two keynotes leads me to a different perspective. For such a long time, we have been talking about about breaking the negative perceptions of ‘eLearning’ as one person, one computer, asynchronous and alone. However, the rise in fashion of the term ‘blended learning’ actually seems to reinforce the negative perception. So, when we see a keynote like the Baroness’ followed by the Google presentation, to me, this just keeps on reinforcing those old stereotypes. Why can’t we talk about learning and the multitude of ways that we can encourage this including the technological strategies we can implement?

Surely it’s time to stop taking in black and white dichotomies and to start to talk the grey spaces that we all operate in.

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