Conference Blog - Towards a learning society

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Location: Meensel-Kiezegem, Belgium

Monday, May 23, 2005

Conference conclusions

The official conference conclusions were posted at the conference website

Friday, May 20, 2005

Concluding remarks

Yves Punie (Institute for Prospective Technological Studies) presented his personal view of the conference and the eLearning landscape in general.
He observed six main ideas throughout the sessions.

1. A new vision about eLearning, based on a new society, is under construction.
Our current vision about learning is based on an industrial society: learning in schools, working on the job... Now we witness technology touching the foundations of our society, with implications for government, media, social inclusion...

2. eLearning needs a multi-stakeholder involvement.
For example: we don't need ad-hoc solutions for collaboration between schools and companies, but rather a systemic approach.

3. We need to develop a holistic view on education.
A global approach must take into consideration content, media, legal issues, infrastructure, intellectual property rights, employment, inclusion...

4. Learning is a social issue.
Not 'employees' but 'citizens'. Learning for self fulfillment, with attention to all social groups.

5. Formal learning in formal institutes is not the way of the future.
We need to take into account the enormous potential of informal learning. People read web pages and read and write blogs, use their online social network for problem solving, talk to their peers... We need to take this huge learning market into account. Much money is spent on formal learning which only count for a fraction of all learning.

6. The demographical evolutions in Europe are a serious challenge. We have a more and more elderly population, and urgently need to start thinking how we will include them in the learning society, and make use of their experience and knowledge by letting them share it with young people.

Stakeholders Vision Round Table (2)

*. Education/Students.

Justin Fenech (National Union of Students in Europe) and Hans Laugesen (National Union of Upper Secondary School Teachers) gave their impressions about eLearning for teachers and students.

Justin gave a passionate and inspiring talk, beginning with the question "do we even know where we are going? let alone know how we will get there...".
He focused on Access (the cost of eLearning may not be put with the students), Skills (ICT skills as well as social skills), and Pedagogy and support (for teachers and learners). He concluded with the remark that students' perceptions and opinions should not be forgotten when people discuss learning.

Hans Laugesen gave a very useful overview of drivers and conditions we need for eLearning to take off. "Computers For Teachers" is a concept which gives very promising results: if you give teachers free (or almost free) computers, they automatically will use them both personally and professionally.
Support for teachers should be plentiful and technology should be reliable. Far too often, promising experiments fail because of technological problems, causing frustration and bad learning (and teaching) experiences.

Furthermore, schools should formulate clear goals about what they want to do with ICT. Management should not only know what teachers do with ICT, but actively stimulate and support the activities.
On the other hand, sufficient room must be let for variation. Not every teacher has to attain the same ICT level or use.

At the national level, we should have minimum e-requirements in the curricula, and adapt the workload for teachers (and students!) to eLearning and e-teaching.

*. Governments/Research.

Diana Laurillard of the British Department for Education and Skills, gave a clear, well-structured and usable talk about the British impressive e-strategy policy. In six priorities, the British government will stimulate elearning throughout all educational sectors.

- Personalised information across sectors
- A virtual lifelong learning space for all
- A learning activities strategy (learning strategy is more than content-strategy!)
- A development package for front-line staff (teachers, supporting staff), including training, support and hardware-for-teachers.
- A leadership development package.
- A common digital infrastructure.

Fascinating - I'm very curious to see how they will implement these into practical goals and actions.

Nicolas Balacheff (Laboratoire Leibnitz) spoke about (e)Learning research and the problems with it.
Pedagogical or technological research is not obvious. Not only the learner and the technology are two variables, but also the learning context. This makes the research often difficult to translate to other domains or situations.

A second problem is that research groups are often small teams which are geographically spread all over Europe. He saw great opportunity for research networks and centers of excellence (a learning-research grid throughout Europe).

Stakeholders Vision Round Table (1)

Four different aspects of eLearning were discusses during the morning plenary session:
Societies/Communities, Business/Industry, Education/Students and Government/Research.

*. Societies/Communities.

Jerome Binde (Unesco) and Luis Casas Luengo (Fundecyt) talked about the broader aspects of learning in the society at large and in communities. In order for eLearning to contribute to our society, we have to take care of e-literacy and upgrade our methods of teaching/learning. This double challenge complicates the useful adoption.

Bridges should be built between knowledge experts: not only schools and universities, but also libraries, musea and companies. Our impression of 'teaching' and 'learning' is overly focuses on 'formal, in-school teaching'.

*. Business/Industry.

Richard Straub (eLearning Industry Group) and Michael Repnik (LearnChamp Consulting gmbh) discusses their views about the state-of-the-art of elearning in the companies. The first speaker stressed that learning and other knowledge disciplines should converge, and that technology remains an issue (despite other opinions we heard at the conference). Investmenting in wireless and broadband technology is imperative.

Developing content in Europe is also a challenge, due to the fragmented market (languages/cultures) and the convergence of technologies which requires new business models. Richard Straub observed a strong bifurcation in the content market, where low quality, high volume, open content is fabricated by users themselves, whereas there remains a market for high-quality edited content by publishers.

The second speaker stressed the fact that small and medium sized companies (<250 employees) are not doing (e)learning. These small companies are a typical European phenomenon, and by forgetting these, we forget 99% of our companies. We need new networks to educate these companies, and need other/different/flexible content with simple technologies (a company with 3 employees will not buy a LMS, but still requires learning).
Supporting informal learning remains a challenge which is not obvious.

With regards to content, an interesting question came from the audience. We have lots and lots of content en Europe (publishers, broadcasting companies, music companies, librairies...), but opening this content, archiving, searching, accessing... is impossible due to various copyright, intellectual property and digital rights management issues. There is little or no political resolve to open up this content treasure.

[One interesting project is DARENET . The Dutch government is sponsoring an open archive for scientific publications. All (many?) research papers are freely accessible from all over the world. Innovative!]

Day two - conclusions of the parallel sessions "developments"

The rapporteurs of the various sessions reported their conclusions.

*. Session "The Learning Perspective".

Good learning does not automatically come from good content. Current Learning Management Systems are boring, conservative and stifle creativity.

In order to move forward, the boundaries between author and reader must disappear. Student authored (creative) material is essential in connected learning.

*. Session "The Organisational Perspective".

It remains amazing how little attention is given to the fact that learners remember almost nothing of what they learned. We need more attention to non traditional solutions, such as knowledge management solutions which build on the experiences of teachers, students, community, industry...

[The word 'multi-stakeholder' seems to be the word-of-the-day]

It remains unclear how the traditional quality management systems will adapt to this creative and flexible knowledge building.

*. Session "The People Perspective".

The New Learner is also a New European Citizen. He participates in local and global government and in learning networks, needs new social skills beyond our conventional professional and e-skills.

We need to pay more attention to cultural and language differences, and need to provide learning and connectivity towards disadvantaged groups in our society: e-accessibility and e-inclusion for all.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Afternoon parallel sessions - "Learning enablers"

I attended the 'learning enablers' session.

*. Wolfgang Nejdl, Institut fur Informationssysteme, "I know it should be here somewhere".

Wolfgang talked about their project "Beagle++". They used the open source Beagle search engine to develop a social semantic desktop search tool... This tool would not only search documents and mails, but remember the link between them (e.g. you would find the document you were searching for, together with the email it was attached to and the contextual information associated with it).
They're also using social software intelligence: documents you get from your trusted network are ranked higher.
Nice developments in a quickly evoluting sector.

*. Fabrizio Cardinali, Giunti interactive Labs, "Ambient Learning".

Media companies are struggling to find new distribution channels and methods for content... They still like 'books' because books represent a sure and quick way of making money, while e-content is still tricky.
Yet the 'homo zappiens' clearly wants personal and customized content, something where traditional delivery methods fail. The rise of wiki's, blogs, photo sharing tools (such as flickr) and podcasts clearly reveal this.

In order to solve this problem for the publishers, Fabrizio talked about 'ambient publishing'. 'Narrowcasting' is the fabrication of self packaging, smrt and personal content. The content package itself adapts to the learner.
This business model exists, but not yet in education or publishing. He referred to the iMode success story: young people use cell phones to buy/download games, ringtones, backgrounds... all custom tailored and 'obvious' technology.

He stressed the importance of open standards: if you buy a CD player from Sony, it's not acceptable to have to buy all your music from Sony. Yet this is often the case for learning content management systems.

He concluded with the remark that publishers are not ready for the nomadic and ubiquitous learning which we want, but this is not a new problem, since the same innovation and change pains occured with every new media invention (radio, television, printing press...): it took a long time to find a new business model or to use the new invention in an innovative way.

Inspiring talk...

*. Oleg Liber, University of Bolton, "Learning Object Economy: pointers to success".

'Where are the learning objects?'. Technologically, we've come a long way (with regards to standards, interoperability, metadata...). Why are there so few publishers or teachers innovating and making learning objects?

We need to provide teachers with time to publish, and give them a forum (authoring communities) to share their content. People have the natural instinct to share and collaborate (examples are flickr, blogs, wikipedia...), we just have to provide with an better organisational context (a system of quality control, staff development...).

I don't know if I completely agree with this. It is my experience that teachers are rather reluctant to reuse content from their peers. The 'not made here syndrome' signifies that every teacher thinks (knows?) that only he/she can provide learning material custom tailered to her/his teaching style, made for his/her class... not the most modern assumption, but I witness this almost every day.

*. Erik Duval, Leuven Catholic University (and president of the Ariadne Foundation), "A Learning Object Manifesto".

(Erik is also blogging about this event at

This was the first time I heard Erik at a conference... nice to see that Flanders has managed to produce one of the world experts on learning objects and metadata. He spoke enthousiastically and with a nice humoristic flavor.

One striking idea he uttered, is "what do we want to do?". It's not clear at all how we will measure what we aim to achieve. Traditionally, we're measuring drop-out in e-learning and using this as an indicator. But maybe a higher drop-out rate is not necessarily bad? Maybe a course can be open to everyone, and a high drop-out can be a sign of people deciding that this is not the right format/learning style/content for them? This is not necessarily bad. In a classroom setting, these people would be physically present but mentally absent. E-learning is a clear benefit here.
An eye-opener!

According to Erik, learning is a 'root solution'. Better learning means better everything. The current learner support is not really impressive - we need more personalisation and customization in order to go forward.

About metadata, he stated that it should be like the sewage system: it must be invisible in order to work effectively.

After nine hours of conference, Erik provided a nice and light-to-digest talk.

Afternoon parallel sessions - "Developments"

There were four afternoon sessions:
S1: Learning Enablers,
S2: The Learning perspective,
S3: The organisational perspective,
S4: The people perspective.

The sessions will be summarized during the friday plenary sessions.

Afternoon plenary session - "Development"

*. Umberto Paolucci (Microsoft Italy)

Modest talk about "a new world - a new world of work - a new world of learning".
Interesting to see the corporate viewpoint of the 'information age': information is simply a means to achieve better outcomes, not more and not less. Knowledge workers transform ideas into value.
Not really the 'educational' viewpoint.

He presented three distinct domains where software would - in his viewpoint - support us in this goal:
- adaptive filtering and pattern recognition (software would filter our mails, goals & tasks, messages...)
- unified and integrated communication (short text messages can be read to us, phone messages can be mailed to us. Strange.)
- collaboration-supporting software (yesterday we also heard the rhetorical question how many of us - elearning enthousiasts - are using this kind of knowledge sharing software - a lot still needs to be done in order to get usable and productive tools).

*. Wim Veem, Delft University of Technology, "Net Generation Learning".

This talk was quite nicely given: a visual and entertaining mix of image, audio, movies, text and links. His story was comparable to the talk Diana Oblinger gave at the Educause conference.

He talked about the 'homo zappiens', young people who zap their way through information in order to get the highest possible information flow they can use (simultaneously watching television (on three channels), chatting, studying and listening to music).
He sees several skills will be critical for their functioning in tomorrow's (today's?) society:

- multitasking
- quickly scanning websites for relevant content
- processing discontinued bits of information
- using nonlinear approaches

He also used the analogy of Marc Prensky "Digital immigrants versus digital natives", and concluded that schools are boring analogue places for digital kids.

He, also, mentioned that 'content is no longer king'. MIT is giving its content away for free. It's the support, interaction, customization... that counts, not the content you use to support the learning.

Parallel sessions - stocktaking (session 'higher education')

I attended the 'higher education' parallel session... Rather a strange experience: the focus was much more on life long learning than it was on conventional higher education students.

The opening words of wisdom of the session were made by the chairman - Peter Scott, Open University. He stated that the hallucinating fast changes in technology only make the excruciatingly slow change in higher educating more frustrating.
(During the session, one of the speakers joked that changing a school is like moving a cemetary - it's a lot of hard work without much help from inside).

*. Tapio Varis, University of Tamere

We have to move beyond the technology, is the main idea of this talk. The solution is not more technology, or better technology, or more teacher training, but to rethink our management, organisation, delivery methods, target audiences...

He made a rather nice reference to a Russion university, where technology-students are also forced to study literature and poetry...

He gave the beautiful anecdote of Socrates who was very sceptical towards 'technology', i.e. 'writing'. Socrates stated that writing would irreversibly damage the educational process: it would be detrimental to student memory, would be very chaotic (who could manage written content? how can you control who writes what and where?). Change is always complicated.

The technology which we face now in higher education forces us back to our roots: discussion with the learners, interaction between content, teacher and student, dialogue and discussion for learning... Things we all did since the middle age universities but which were abolished with our mass-educational process. Maybe elearning is not so new after all.

*. Rob Koper, Open University of the Netherlands, "European lifelong learning networks".

In order for lifelong learning to take off at a significant scale, institutes for higher education have to improve their implementation of competency-based curricula and education. The current implementation differs from one institute to another (sometimes even within departments of the same institute!). This means that student mobility is complicated, and that life long managing of one's competencies is virtually impossible.

He also focused on the usability issue: current elearning or collaboration platforms suffer from horrible usability problems. Often, only teachers are asked how they want their virtual learning environment shaped, which results in environments which are very learner-unfriendly. Technologically, we still have a long way to go.
(which - of course - contrasts rather nicely with the previous speaker who claimed that technology is not the problem).

One striking example he mentioned was how many e-learning professionals use a virtual collaboration environment for their knowledge management and building... We all use e-mail (and, in some cases, blogs), but the virtual learning environments we want for our education, even we find rather complex and unfriendly.

A final issue he touched, is interoperability. While standards such as SCORM (complicated!) are finally starting to be a 'standard', the main problem lies in the semantic meaning of the content. How will we manage (share/export) our eportfolio's, curricula, competencies... Only technical standards exist, with no (or few) semantic or educational meaning.

*. Joergen Bang, Inst. of Information and Media Studies, "Lifelong Open & Flexible Learning".

The new hype is blended learning: complementing our (good) classroom teaching with novel technologies. However, this means that we are bypassing many of the marvellous promises that elearning was meant to achieve... Anytime-anywhere, just-in-time training, reaching new (off-campus) students, and not 'doing the same we are used to do but now with a computer'.

He mentioned the striking differences and parallels between the US and Europe. In the US, there is more focus on for-profit elearning (University of Phoenix as the most beautiful and successful example), while in Europe there is more focus on e-inclusion and the promise for reaching new target groups.
However, dramatic failures for e-universities occur both in the US (New York Online University) and in Europe (UKeU).
We clearly need to focus on better pedagogy and better technology, and stress the student's view of learning.

But, in the end, we all speak of collaboration, sharing, global campuses and consortia, yet we observe that all institutes remain competitors which makes the practical implementation rather difficult.

Parallel sessions - stocktaking (conclusions)

The four stocktaking sessions were summarized during the afternoon plenary session.
I can't count how many times we heard the phrase "let's take the E out of ELearning" - rather obvious, but yet I can't fail to observe how many e-learning solutions focus on technological innovation or software packages instead of learning/teaching.

Interesting was the observation that it's rather easy to identify spectacular failures, but that it proves to be difficult to identify scalable and repeatable success stories. It's not at all obvious to upscale small grassroots projects to.

One of the most intriguing conclusions came from the session "society at large" (reported by Michelle Selinger, Cisco Systems). ELearning was supposed to provide knowledge and skills to those who previously were unable to participate in the information society... However, we can't fail to observe that this goal has not been reached - on the contrary: elearning increases the gap between the information literates and illiterates. It often seems to reinforce outmoded forms of pedagogy - pushing content to learners in an online environment is just as bad as in a classroom environment.

Low achievers perform even worse in an online learning environment: there is often less support, a problematic home situation making self-study difficult, and a horrible lack of interaction, making the learning even more difficult for them.


Lunch is served. Walking-buffet.

During lunch, we can attend the exhibition, where a variety of European eLearning projects are presented (e.g. eTwinning, uTeacher, Mobilelearn,... )
Nice way of connecting, networking, eating, drinking, and learning.
Is this informal learning?

Parallel Sessions

There were four parallel sessions 'Stocktaking' before noon.

S1: Schools
S2: Higher Education
S3: Learning for Work
S4: Society at large.

Conclusions of the sessions will be presented after lunch.

Plenary Session - speakers

Four speakers presented their bird's eye view on the eLearning landscape and developments during a 12 minute presentation.

*. Gabriel Ferraté (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya).

Three keywords of his presentation were: Virtual - Global - Ubiquitous.
In short, his view is that the whole world will become one campus. Important is the transition from a virtual campus to a meta (global) campus: connecting institutes all over the world.
Not revolutionary, but he stressed enormously that a virtual university is not just the online version of a conventional university. Teaching, learning, managemement, recruitment... all have to be re-thought, making the process nontrivial.
All over the world, we can witness virtual universities performing sub-standard (or worse, going broke).

*. W. Hodgins (Autodesk Inc.) (think tank)

Very passionate talk about technology, innovation and creativity. His main thought was 'do the impossible!'. We should not be afraid to try new things which seem farfetched or impossible at first. The technology moves at such an amazing pace that seemingly impossible projects can become feasible and affordable in no time.

Learning, he stated, is also so much bigger than training or education. We consistly forget informal learning or on-the-job learning in our elearning proceses or procedures.

Key words were EVERY ONE LEARNING. From 'anyone anytime anywhere' to everyone everytime everywhere. Ubiquitous learning and conectivity.
From everyone to 'the right one on the right place on the right time': one person, one context, one need, one time.

He sees a nice future for mass contribution: blogging facilitates the sharing and reusing of ideas, content, experiences... Tagging (folksonomies) are another example of the mass which contributes.

Very passionate and enthousiastic talk.

*. Hans Ulrich Maerki (IBM EMEA).

The main introductory idea of his talk was that we are not fulfilling the promises we made in 2001 (becoming the most competitive knowledge-society).
He acknowledged that also the companies (i.c. IBM) made promises on a technological level which have not been kept: user-friendliness, connectivity, interoperability... are all sub-standard, complicating even further the adoption of meaningful elearning practices.

The transformation of our education by ICT, which has been long predicted, did not occur.

He focused on four key points:
- permanent learning: strong focus on non-formal and lifelong learning
- broadband penetration is the key: countries with higher penetration, score better with regards to e-government, e-inclusion, elearning and lifelong learning.
- collaborative computing throughout the world, with technology that should be a lot better than current collaboration-software.
(this point comes back quiet often: how technological barriers (user-friendliness, usability) complicated an already nontrivial process).
- ubiquitous learning/computing/collaborating, custom tailored for every learner (formal and informal).

Innovation, he stated, should not be confused with invention. Innovation is the use of an invented technology for doing new things. Not doing the same old things in a different manner.

*. Mikko Salminen (Nokia Learning Centre Network)

The presenter promoted the use of a large variety in delivery methods: e-learning, classroom learning, m-learning, but (especially) a strong focus on on-the-job learning. 70% of the obtained skills, result from informal learning. 20% from coaching or team-learning, and only 10% from formal learning paths or courses.

Therefore, he stressed that we should focus on developing the right mindset and not on content delivery.

Live Webcast

The live conference webcast can be followed on

Opening plenary session - introduction

The registration went smooth... a cyber-cafe is provided at the conference location, and the whole building is teeming with (freely accessible) wireless internet connetivity. Nice!

European Commissioner Viviane Reding (for the Information Society and Media) opened the conference. Her main question was 'why has ICT never taken off in the educational world?'. Since the previous conference (in 2001), a lot of promises and hopes were not fulfilled... This conference attracts all stakeholders and hopes to provide a interactive forum for sharing ideas and opening new opportunities.

From the foreword:
"Our aim is to make sure that Europe enjoys prosperity, jobs and growth. eLearning can make a significant contribution in this respect, and the conference will play a pivotal role in the development of:
- the use of ICT in education and training
- improved learning processes through the use of ICTs
- continuing research in technology enhanced learning
- Europe's future eLearning policy direction and initiatives.

The conference will consider the perspectives and vision of the future i2010 programme, and how this will stimulate the promotion, development, and deployment of elearning content, products and services and the contribution of these to lifelong learning."

plenary session

Towards a learning society - conference blog

The European Commissioner for the Information Society and Media, together with the Commissioner for Education and Training, are organising a two day conference in Brussels about e-learning : "towards a learning society" (

This conference is aimed at all stakeholders in industry, education, and society at large...
The event is held in Brussels (May 19 and 20), and attracted over 1200 interested professionals of whom 500 were selected to participate.

In this blog, I will write about my experiences as a conference participant.