“ICH BIN EIN BERLINER…”
… about this time every year!
Report from Online Educa Berlin, Dec. 3 to 5, 2003
By Peter Isackson, Didaxis, Paris
Let me be brutal. Online Educa Berlin, which has just finished, is an interesting conference, offering a rich and diversified panorama of what people are actually doing with eLearning. But more than that, it’s now an essential one for those of us here in Europe and probably for a lot of others around the world. Though a long-standing member of the Advisory Committee, I have no vested interest in the event, and admit that this year, for the first time, I thought I could live without what had become a pre-Christmas ritual and duty. I agreed only at the last minute to chair one of the parallel sessions. And although I still think a number of significant (and less significant) things can be done to improve the overall quality and pertinence of the conference, if I’m to judge by the comments of the participants and my own renewed impressions, I have to congratulate the organizers on their impeccable performance.
Online Educa is
an immensely successful conference, having grown from a level of participation
of roughly 300 to the 1,428 who attended this year, which is already a
whopping 300 more than a year ago. As a regular since its launch in 1995,
for the first time I suffered from agoraphobia. Most of time, I truly and
disconcertingly felt lost in the crowd, although it was the same environment
(Berlin’s Intercontinental Hotel) where for years I had the feeling of
being a member of a family, albeit a visibly growing one. I had the impression
this time that some of the brothers and sisters had disappeared (which
may be the result of fabulous success --- making such events superfluous
for them -- or frustrating failure, making them unaffordable or inappropriate).
But who were all these new cousins? One answer was given immediately by
the organisation: the Dutch had replaced the Finns as the most populous
delegation. But they weren’t alone. The invasion – unlike that of
marginal event in a marginal field, Online Educa took
on significance in its early years as a magnet for Europeans working
in fields related to eLearning. It
created its niche as an annual platform for largely informal and intellectual,
non-commercial exchange among Europeans (principally) but served also
as a link with the rest of the world, including the
Online Educa’s spirit of open exchange among trainers, university staff and small producers of both eLearning content and tools produced a number of practical consequences, some of them to do with business, others with technology and yet others with pure pedagogy. In the period roughly from 1995 (its inception) to 1998 the presentations were largely dominated by announcements of what I prefer to call “pro-active eLearning policies” (quite often programs to be implemented locally with a varying degree of imminence) and speculation about or attempts to predict the future, i.e. “what we think it will be like when people starting using networked technology for training and how committed we are to achieving this”. Today, only the big IT vendors (Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Sun, who have taken over after the telecom providers’ vanishing act following the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000) are left to paint the eternally rosy picture of what our future based on integrated enterprise systems will be like, a future that will be delivered thanks to the massive adoption of the technology they have developed to meet our present and future needs, which of course they’ve also taken the immense trouble to identity for us.
Standing room only for the plenary session
As a measure of how far we have come while things remain, in other respects, essentially the same, I remember that in 1995 the only significant commercial online training service being proposed was Berlitz for language learning (which has since been abandoned), whereas Microsoft was busy impressing a receptive public with its outstanding new platform for a virtual university, Blackbird, thanks to a seductive, graphic PowerPoint pitch with more bells and whistles than usual. Never heard of Blackbird? Nobody at Microsoft seems to remember it either. But at a time when Bill Gates was struggling to take a still ambiguous position on the emergence of the Web (“are browsers necessary, and if they are, how do we establish a monopoly?”), his company was occupying the terrain and scaring away the opposition with its educational vapourware delivered in the form of a PowerPoint presentation and well-placed press releases. Microsoft’s position as platinum sponsor this year of Online Educa is linked to its launch of another educational killer application, Class Server. In keeping with the trend to tone down of hype and reassure (rather than aggressively attack) markets, Class Server appears to be a real product, this time addressed principally to secondary schools, reflecting Microsoft’s strategy – already perfected in the street corner drug-dealing industry -- that it’s best to pull the new generations into the fold as early as possible.
In the beginning of Online Educa, when eLearning was still a dream in the mind of the European Commissioner of Education and the World Wide Web was itself little more than a whimpering newborn, a serious confusion existed between distance learning defined as “telecommunications enabled education and training” and its offline cousins, CBT and multimedia. This confusion has only recently disappeared as the Internet has become democratised in Europe and the all-purpose notion of blended learning, with its miraculous healing powers, has been received as an article of faith amongst cutting edge educational theologians. While the background issues of organization and methods for universities and enterprises still attract the bulk of the presenters’ attention, several new themes have recently come to the fore and are likely to have more impact in the years to come. The ones that struck me this year were: flexibility, quality, culture and rich media.
This theme reflects a number of complementary strategic orientations and embraces notions such as change management, blended learning and contextually appropriate learning “in the face of changing learner requirements” (to quote Ashish Basu, president of NIIT, India). Basu claims to be describing “third generation” eLearning, somewhere beyond time and space, but not quite the Twilight Zone. This correlates strongly with the “just for me” principle announced with great fanfare already a year ago by IBM in its role of prophet of the future, always ready to push a catchy new slogan in the belief it will stimulate desire for a new generation of integrated enterprise solutions.
In practice, the concept as described by Ashish Basu seems slightly more human – and therefore possibly less efficient, but considerably more likely as a standard scenario -- than IBM’s vision of embedded learning that embraces both “just in time” and “just for me”… but also “just for everyone else in the team”, since my personal experience of data gathering and production, furthered by my instantly perfected presentation performance (formatting the raw data) is automatically fed back into the system. Richard Straub (IBM Europe) promises just such a perfectly calibrated solution to the hurried and harried sales consultant eager to convey instant, perfectly structured knowledge to his prospect in the interest of signing a major deal faster than the competition. (What happens when the competition buys into the same technology and catches up will only be answered at a future conference as IBM can be counted on to deliver another generation of tools for competitive advantage).
Richard Straub: the future according to IBM
the flexibility and adaptability of the system in terms of strong and sophisticated
development methodology complemented by what he calls a “layered help desk”,
where actual people with different levels of qualification handle the inevitable
demands on the system. These people will continue to be instrumental in
ensuring that the content is not only just in time, but also dynamic, adapting
to the unknown or at least unanticipated (because he quite rightly recognizes
that we can never anticipate all the critical features of context). Another
aspect of Basu’s pragmatism is reflected in
his conviction that with the right methodology and philosophy, time to
market (and therefore cost) can be significantly reduced. He didn’t fail
to mention that this is particularly true when the production takes place
The reasoning developed by both Basu and Straub reflects a new awareness that now seems pervasive: change, in the Heraclitan world of the information society, is the key to everything. The world and the economy aren’t just global; they’re dynamic. Flux rules. Here are a few examples of the kind of reasoning we hear:
The best news of all, according to Basu, is that dynamic content costs only a tenth of the price of stable content (CBT, WBT).
The concern with quality reflects the budding maturity of the field. The first wave of experimentation not only produced results that are a challenge to interpret, but has also come up flush against the critical problem of standards, linked in turn to the definition of the criteria to be used for the choice of tools. (The trend seems to be away from one size fits all to the notion of something for everyone, but probably not the same thing). As far as quality itself is concerned, we find ourselves once again in the world of speculation about future intentions and trends. One of the speakers (Claudio Dondi) describes a major, well-funded effort to define quality in eLearning and establish the essential criteria. He notes as the aim of the project -- with which SAP, Sun and Accenture are associated as well as European consultants and think tanks – “to establish a European eLearning Quality Forum” at some point in the future. These experts and consultants appear to be both humble and non-directive: they’re not going to tell us what to do but create a space in which we can discuss it. This is one way of recognizing that there are, as of yet, no visible landmarks. It’s worth remembering, however, that when navigating in uncharted territories characterized by a dearth of landmarks, there’s always the danger of hallucinating them. But with considerable humility, everyone seems to recognize we’re not even there yet.
This isn’t to say that a lot of detailed work hasn’t already been done and that we aren’t already in the phase of experimenting new ideas to see whether they may (or may not) apply. There were twelve presentations on the topic of quality, most of them outlining their approach to the question, which usually reflects the collaborative strategies shared among a number of committed partners. Europe is manifestly ready to fund projects on this theme because there’s the feeling that it may possibly have long term industrial and economic consequences. Getting people to agree on quality criteria (whether applicable or not to real situations) is one way of stimulating a new industry: the different actors can be expected to align their strategies on those criteria, which makes marketing and internal selling much easier. This of course introduces the complementary theme of standards, which curiously wasn’t given any prominent importance as a specific theme in this year’s conference.
The question of standards did make an appearance (curiously) within the realm of culture, a session officially dedicated to two complementary themes: localization and intercultural learning issues. Eric Duval, president of the Ariadne Foundation and technical editor of IEEE learning object metadata standards made some pertinent observations about the state of play in the realm of standards and the link with transcultural concerns.
Culture, like change, appears to have become something of a buzzword in the industry, and is used for various purposes and sometimes cross-purposes. The awareness of issues having to do with culture appeared throughout the conference, with the leadoff by one keynote speaker (Francesco Miggiani, Italy) who spoke on the theme of the Cultural Dimensions of Change, essentially summing up received wisdom on how to run eLearning as a change management project. Culture in this context was corporate culture but implicitly included notions of learning culture that a number of other speakers also developed, often in relation to trainer behavior, institutional behavior and plans to train trainers and initiate learners into new methodologies.
session I ran focused on a range of questions from best practice in localisation
A majority of the participants at Online Educa seem to be working on the production and implementation of eLearning. Those who are looking for ways of surpassing the current limits of eLearning tend to manifest an interest in vocal and visual media as a way of extending the scope and interest of what has been essentially an illustrated text-based medium. There is the realization that if learning output is confined to the text medium (supplemented by replies to multiple choice questions), the desired outcomes of learning (behavior, discourse and in some sense, being) will remain underdeveloped as well as being impossible to assess. It also means that eLearning will be confined to a class of people with a somewhat sophisticated level of literacy.
Rich media provides a means of diversifying the contents we provide, giving them more depth and making them more dynamic. Significantly, those who appear to be the most interested in its future see it as a way of diversifying learner output as well. It will empower learners and probably turn out to be instrumental in stimulating motivation.
Rich media has suddenly become a popular theme at Online Educa. It is quite naturally linked to the idea of mobile technology, possibly because companies such as Ericsson (who were present) are looking in that direction. Vendors such as Macromedia (a sponsor of Online Educa and publisher of Contribute) and Wimba (a supplier of user-friendly compressed and streamed audio for asynchronous and synchronous use) are beginning to have an impact on the marketplace, offering the means not only to author with a wider range of media, but also to allow learners to produce their own documents and communicate them back to the server with disconcerting ease.
In the session on culture the question of the impact of rich media was raised not only in the framework of the democratisation of eLearning (extending the possibilities of communication between cultures), but also as a factor of acceleration in the evolution of a global eLearning culture that accommodates the widest variety of national, regional and linguistic cultures. Related to this, of course, is the service it will render in language learning and sensitisation to a diversity of foreign languages (and their cultures).
In contrast to previous conferences, the 2003 conference revealed two other tendencies I consider to be significant: the engagement of traditional publishers and, for almost everyone, a certain clear-headed honesty and frankness that hasn’t always been the dominant feature in this business.
It’s remarkable to discover that an increasing number of European educational publishers in their specific national markets have moved towards a standard policy of complementing their hardcopy publications with an electronic supplement. This is moving increasingly towards sophisticated forms of eLearning and is beginning to have an impact on teachers, who suddenly find themselves with something to work with and build on. As a one-time multimedia publisher and partner of several established publishers, I’ve followed the trend in Europe over the last ten years and done my best to accelerate it (mostly in vain). The publishers have been coming to see what was going on for the past five years. Now they’ve begun to report back on what they’re actually doing and how they expect it to grow. It’s ironic that most of them remained observers as McGraw-Hill, Pearsons, Vivendi and a few others made the big speculative bets (hoping for a quasi-monopoly on a gold mine) and then as the big players pulled out, came forward to address a local (not a global) marketplace whose rules and habits they were more aware of. Their thorough engagement is also linked to the structure of European national educational marketplaces, which the global players will always having difficulty addressing.
Few speakers hesitated to
point out the difficulties encountered and the challenges they face in
pursuing their training, teaching, development and research. The purely
optimistic, utopian discourse that has been so characteristic of the eLearning community
is now reserved to the diehard “solution” vendors. In her keynote address,
Brenda Gourley, Vice Chancellor of the
Few people find themselves in a position to say, simply, “we’ve implemented it and it works”. It may well be the characteristic of a maturing marketplace that reports of difficulty and failure become far more interesting than success stories. Freud himself said that there were three impossible professions: pedagogy, politics and psychoanalysis (all beginning with a p). If someone actually found the silver bullet, perhaps we would all be so bored -- having nothing to say -- we would stop thinking about the issues altogether, ensuring that pedagogy would become a dead science, like astrology.
If the prevailing angst is any indication, that day seems a long way away. The honesty of the participants was both refreshing and stimulating. Even the World Bank (represented by Hans Fraeters), once a proud beacon of eLearning in a benighted world (some would say this is a replica of the Bank’s political and economic behavior in the world), demonstrated outstanding humility and a concentration on the very challenging issues for which no simple solution has yet been found. It made you believe that the world is a less grim place than certain powerful politicians seem intent on making it.
There was another phenomenon that struck me, as an expert in the field of language and culture, a phenomenon which somehow seemed less apparent when the conference was still an intimate place. Few conferences exhibit the contrast and diversity of cultures present at Online Educa. Listening to speakers from more and more diverse horizons brought home to me the central paradox of the new global culture that uses English as its lingua franca. The paradox concerns the acceptance of the practical need to be fluent in English and the discouraging failure to cultivate elementary communication skills. The issue is very much a European issue, but it’s also a global one.
The most German (or Prussian!)
of German cities, Berlin obviously
speaks German. Its historical isolation after World War II meant that even West
Berlin was less exposed to English than most
Online Educa demonstrates the vehicular role of English, but also highlights the dangers. Although English is the standard second language for 90% of the population who have a chance to study a foreign language and is recognized as the best way to get by from country to country, Europe as a whole still doesn’t possess a true English speaking culture. The reasons for this are probably both political and cultural. The British failed to impose their particular model, possibly because they’ve always been shy of Europe and even today regressively cling to English-speaking empires of the past (their own) or the future (that of Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld). Eurospeak (a nebulous style of English prevalent at the European Commission in Brussels) is a curious mix of American and British models filtered through the phonological systems of each native language. Eurocrats (the officials who work for the Commission) spend 80% of their time speaking English and therefore are generally what one would call “fluent”. But theirs is a very odd form of fluency. Eurospeakers, almost as a duty, appear to make a conscious effort to convey their national origin through their accent, rather than adapting it to the range of styles available in the language. I can only speculate on the possible causes and see these two as primary:
It’s difficult to imagine a greater obstacle to empathetic listening. In contrast, the native speakers use their rhetorical baggage to push their wares, develop their ideas and create an image of being more commercial.
I ended up asking myself, is the European neglect of communication skills a reflection of a conscious refusal of what’s perceived as American insincerity, the disingenuousness we associate with talented snake-oil vendors? Is it at the same time a refusal of the British style of sophisticated understatement that always seems to imply a form of cultural superiority, the arrogant heritage of the Empire? Or is it simply a reflection of the fact that most training and educational professionals see their profession as still concerned only with the transmission of knowledge, not of the culture (values, behavior, communion) in which knowledge is a mere technical component?
There is a movement towards
stronger communication skills and it seems to me most of the presentations
in the parallel sessions these days are more engaging than they were several
years ago. The organisation has made a point of trying to ensure the quality
of the speakers as communicators, however strong their scientific credentials
may be. It’s a pity that, for political reasons, it hasn’t always been
possible to do so with the keynote speakers, many of whom are chosen largely
on the basis of their role as representatives of public bodies (national
or European). Still, my feeling is that Europe and
the rest of the world ought to make a serious effort in developing its
own public rhetoric in international English, a rhetoric that need not
be specifically beholden to either the
In spite of a relatively slow
start, eLearning may well have achieved a deeper
commitment on the part of active professionals here in Europe than
One reassuring element for me was what I might be tempted to call – speaking very subjectively -- the “redemption” of Online Educa, which I had begun to feel was in danger of selling its Faustian soul to its corporate sponsors, the ransom of its success and continued growth. The organisation has done an admirable job of reconciling the aggressive presence of the big name IT vendors with the moral and intellectual force wielded by the wide range of participants mostly from European institutions and enterprises, most of them engaged professionals. Indifferent to the vendors’ relentless marketing, the European worker bees have continued to build together and now buzz with an increasingly common – if, alas, still rather monotone – language full of hope and bonhomie, complemented by a certain professional intensity and a growing sense of commercial reality.
Left in the background were other more dramatic global questions that I know worried the organization earlier in the year, particularly related to the issue of European-U.S. cooperation, something that’s perceived as increasingly necessary for success in the transition towards a productive e-culture. Could this be a metaphor for the current global political predicament? If in politics the reconciliation of the U.S. and “old Europe” (essentially Germany and France) hasn’t yet been accomplished for reasons everyone has an opinion about, Online Educa demonstrates that there may well be a more solid ground for understanding and mutual achievement within the eLearning profession itself and across all continents. Let’s hope everyone can learn from it.
Paris, December 2003
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Berkeley, California 94708
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