Imagine arriving at a conference venue on opening day at 7.35. Registration takes 5 minutes, and at 7.40 you have an hour and 20 minutes before the opening session. You would expect to find a cup of tea or coffee to help people wake up, acclimatise, or network. But there was nothing. Not even an explanation. God knows why the conference organisers decided to treat their delegates like this on the first morning, but it was not a great start!
Things did soon get better however. The tutorial I had signed up for was cancelled and I fortuitously ended up in a tutorial by Gerhard Fischer (University of Colorado; currently Uni of Canterbury in Christchurch) as my second choice. And what a stroke of luck that was. The title of the tutorial had ‘learning communities’ in it and that’s what got me in. Despite the lack of coffee and the feelings of disgruntlement Fischer took me through 3 hours of analysis that was a journey through all the things I had been thinking for the last year about constructivism, collaboration and community. Some excerpts from this session:
This tutorial was perhaps the highlight of the conference for me. I realise in retrospect that much of what I took from this conference were lessons on what not to do – how not to run a conference, how not to run sessions, how not to use computers and the Internet to do things that teachers can do better. There were many sessions on using software as intelligent tutors. Many ICCE delegates clearly stem from the Artificial Intelligence/Intelligent Tutor movement where many researchers seem bent on creating technological tools simply because you can. Issues of pedagogy seemed far away in many of these sessions. There may be sound pedagogical thinking behind some of these initiatives, (see Powerpoint presentation on the Pedagogical Design of Intelligent Tutors HERE) but it was hard to determine in many of the sessions I attended at ICCE 2002.
This was not helped by the numbers of speakers who presented from written scripts, and were unable to really address questions that were posed after their rehearsed presentations were complete. This issue of people having to present in English really needs to be resolved in international conferences. It can’t be so hard to organise first language sessions. There were certainly enough delegates from Japan or Chinese speaking countries to run sessions in those languages. Another alternative would be to run sessions with a translator present. Such sessions would have to run for double time and may cause programming difficulties, but this must be preferable to a situation that is demeaning to all concerned. It is not fair to see a non-native English speaker struggling to present information that may be based on years of research but conference delegates really have no way of assessing the value of their work as they can barely understand them, walk out, or avoid their sessions all together.
There were also a good many presenters from Asia who are clearly very able to present in English, but the reality was that by day two of the conference many native English speakers were avoiding sessions that had obviously Asian names against them in the program.
The second half of day one consisted of the first of the streamed sessions. I drew an unfortunate 4.50 pm timeslot, but that was not the graveyard shift as it would be in most conferences. The last sessions ended each day at 7.30! And days 2 and 3 began at 8.00 am so no one can argue that there was not value for your registration fee! It was in fact a tall order to take in sessions from 8.00 till 7.30 ( I did it one day just to see if I could!) and most did not attempt it but I was amazed to see sessions starting at 6.50 pm with good numbers in attendance.
There were occasions during the conference however when people spoke of technogical products that I considered worth developing. One example of this was Hideyuki Suzuki’s Community Incubator (Ibaraki University). This is a tool that attempts to impose some order on the random nature of contributions to discussion boards. It effectively controls how students respond by assigning specific messages to specific students. The result is that the lecturer knows who has read and responded to what, and gives the student a sense of legitimacy in that they know which postings they are to respond to.
A. Iguchi et al presented on how discussion board contributions can reveal patterns of cultural communication by analysing the emotive content of messages. Messages were assessed against a scale that included matrix items such as kind, cooperative, independent, rational, precise, decisive, open-minded, etc.
In their presentation on Using Video Conferencing to Build a Learning Community Hu Wong et al from the University of Singapore spoke about a successful initiative to improve the level of discourse between teachers and trainee teachers using commercial tools like CuSeeMe which allow both audio and webcam style video contact over the Net.
John Sumner’s paper on Peer to Peer Learning revealed that it needs facilitator intervention for it be really successful. Interestlingly, Sumner believes that 7 is the ideal number in an online group that requires collaboration. This theme of collaboration tempered by appropriate guidance from a facilitator was echoed many times throughout the conference. “Students prefer teachers to have a strong online presence.” (Brian Ferry – University of Wollongong))
How one acquires this ‘presence’ was the subject of a paper by Karen Murphy (Texas A and M University) and Peter Smith (Deakin Uni). They state that teaching presence is defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes, and their paper provides a handy checklist of indicators that measure the degree of an online teacher’s presence. (based on the work of Anderson, T, et al (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2).<http://www.aln.org/alnweb/journal/Vol5_issue2/Anderson/5-2%20JALN%20Anderson%20Assessing.htm>
Prof Bob Lewis’ (Lancaster University) keynote drew rather a long bow in arguing that the Industrial Revolution happened in the UK because of the existence of public coffee houses where knowledge was shared, and echoed the theme again that collaborative/peer tutoring approaches are not the be all and end all (as did Gerhard Fischer, and Jon Yorke from the University of Plymouth in his very entertaining session on using multimedia to improve a diving class), and warned that we shouldn’t let any emphasis on collaboration subsume individual differences.
Chris Houser from Kinjo Gakuin University in Japan told of a number of intriguing exercises that employ mobiles phones and PDA’s for language learning, (eg 2 students communicate in English; one is hidden and must direct the other student to their location) and while expensive for students, it did give us a glimpse of how PDA’s and mobile phones may be used in a future of mobile learning. (Surprising fact: only 20% of Japanese students have home access to the Internet.).
Maggi Mcpherson (University of Sheffield) has a history channel as part of her course where past students (alumni) have ongoing access to the virtual teaching space. Phil Ridings (Cambridge) reminded us that the concept of learning webs was first coined by Ivan Illich back in the 70’s.
Sometimes you have to journey far from your home shores to find the people who are doing exciting things in your own backyard. Phil Marriott from the University of South Australia has been exploring 3D online worlds (Online Traveller) and will be applying this experience to an online theatre project in 2003.
Qun Jin and his team from the University of Aizu (Japan) are working on a very exciting product that is intended to better what I consider the best example around of peer to peer communication – Groove. (http://groove.net) They have no plans of making it commercially available at this stage but it would be worth keeping an eye on this team to see what they come up with.
I thought the keynote addresses were on the whole disappointing but I apparently missed the best of them. Professor Tak Wai Chan from the National Central University of Taiwan was the keynote speaker on the final morning and I am indebted to John Roder from the Auckland College of Education for these brief summary notes:
Professor Chan spoke about waves of technology, and how it is only when different technologies combine that they have the power to produce mass change (eg PC + Internet, telephone + mobile). He outlined a future where MLD’s (mobile learning devices) will play a much greater role in student learning, and had the audience interact with his demonstration using 'educlick devices'. Such 'educlick devices' allow students to provide immediate feedback to a lecturer in live settings, and vote on poll-like questions relating to the lecture content. He also spoke of the mammoth Educities project in Taiwan.
So that was it. A wealth of data to take in, in a rugby stadium that was quite a suitable venue even if the location wasn’t (17 k’s from downtown Auckland and sparse public transport), and it all happens again in December, 2003 in Hong Kong. There will be a special edition of the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning containing the best papers of the conference early in 2003.