Reflections on OpenEd09

Posted August 25, 2009

Wow, what a great conference. And talk about intimidation. I had a mild to strong case at different times of Chris Lott’s imposter syndrome. So many brilliant thinkers. But I’m definitely glad I made the effort to go as I learned a great deal. Many of my assumptions were confirmed and many gaps in my understanding were exposed. So an excellent time of growth and learning.

The following is a few of the thoughts I had during the conference.

I loved the case studies some teachers presented about successes they’ve had in integrating social media tools into their classroom. These are brilliant teachers, visionary, willing to go the extra mile for their students, technologically adept — and really are showing the way to the future for the rest of us. But my concern is that as ed tech designers and creators that we’ll be misled by these examples.

These teachers are like a great pottery creator who makes brilliant one-off pieces of pottery art. Beautiful and inspiring but utterly useless at providing plates and bowls for the masses. Great teachers don’t scale. Their methods are incomprehensible and unusable by the average (or below-average teacher) which most students suffer with through their college experience.

A few quick cherry-picked (probably inaccurate) quotes from memory. John Maxwell gave a session describing how he uses Wikis to support Simon Fraser University Masters program in Publishing. He said he loved using wikis because the interface is just text. He could just edit different parts of the interface to quickly change it’s functionality. He described the technology, a plone-based wiki, as one of the less common wiki platforms but as being very powerful and versatile. I understood everything he said — but that’s because I’ve spent a considerable amount of time designing, using, and reading about wikis. But to your average professor, all of that would of been complete nonsense. Wikis? Textual interfaces? Plone? Another example, in David Wiley’s classes, students write blog posts and he collects these blog posts by using Google Reader — again, brilliant solution but how many teachers have a clue what a blog reader is, or for that matter, what a blog is. I love what these teachers are doing but the current method of using a grab-bag of free web2.0 social media tools to drive classroom learning is completely unusable for the vast majority of teachers and students.

The best teachers don’t realize how poor of teachers some of their colleagues are. Only students like me who have to sit through their classes can fully appreciate how wide the chasm is that separates the visionary resourceful teachers from the norm.

What we need to do is to study these visionary teachers, identify the successful patterns they’re using, and design social learning technology which implements these patterns in a vastly simplified and consistent manner. Only then will these technologies and methods see large adoption across many universities around the world.

The first few days at the conference I was somewhat worried — perhaps as a consequence of my imposter syndrome. I started wandering if someone, somewhere had already figured everything out. I thought, surely with all this intellectual lightening crackling around me every problems been solved by now — which troubled me as I’m starting a company to develop a social learning platform — a worthless business if the works already been done.

But gradually, as the days went by, it dawned on me—everyone is as clueless as me! They’re has been brilliant insights made and illuminating experiments run — but things are still early. We’re still flailing around trying to figure things out. Which is good, I like to flail about experimenting with new ideas. That’s why I’m starting a new company in my apartment instead of sitting in a cubicle right now.

It was really interesting to me how differently I approach problems from the vast majority of people there at OpenEd. I’m at heart an engineer and by training a business person. I like to understand problems then solve them — preferably by building something cool. So it was remarkable for me to listen to conversations and sessions at OpenEd given by people almost entirely from a humanities / educational background. They framed and dissected problems in entirely different ways than me. I thought to myself after some of the sessions that what the presenter spent 45 minutes discussing, if that material had been part of a presentation I delivered, I might of spent all of one slide and thirty seconds discussing the same subject. But all the same, the new perspectives I heard are very valuable and a very useful addition to my mental toolkit for attacking problems.

Thanks again to all the organizers and participants who made the trip and time so worthwhile. I think it was a brilliant success for everyone involved.

Tagged with education | learning | social learning | opened09

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Kyle's profile picKyle Mathews lives and works in Seattle building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter. Currently exploring what's next and open to consulting.