Friday, April 6, 2012

Networked Learning Conference 2012

The Networked Learning Conference has come around and gone again and I have been greatly privileged to attend. It is an excellent conference from many perspectives, being research-based, bi-annual (gives time for fresh ideas to be reported on), top-quality venues, well designed programme, broad minded, while retaining the core theoretical focus, I could go on... This year I have another reason to be thankful since the opening plenary was a 3-some between researchers involved in sustainability, especially Tara Fenwick and Judi Marshall. I remember being struck by this at the Fifth conference in Lancaster, when Vera SolĂ­s, one of the speakers from Latin America, told of how broadband for a month costed many people the same as a week's earnings. I think the conference this time were profoundly challenged by the complexity of how to make a positive impact. There were interesting points from the floor too: someone lamented the commercialisation of higher education as somehow domesticating students into consumers, dulling their radical edge.
It was also a privilege to chair one of the parallel sessions which just meant keeping the four presenters to time and they were all well behaved so that was easy. 
Later we were taken the short hop to the The Gouvernement (Province House) of Limburg, where the Maastricht Treaty was signed after a civic welcome from Mark Verheijen and the Rector of Maastricht University. With the recurring threat of financial melt-down, we still live in these 'good days', while they last: just to be so comfortably off that we can spend days discussing networked learning is worth pausing to reflect upon.
My presentation went ok - see below for the slides (the paper will appear on the conference website as usual before long). I was sad not to have any data to report but there has been a serious hold-up with piloting Community Equity at Cardiff University (failed JISC bid attempt in 2011, competing priorities, etc.). Information Services are trying to roll-out IBM Connections in May and this is soaking up any spare capacity for trying out something in the name of educational research...
Other memories: Peter Goodyear up to mischief again, John Dron and Terry Anderson touting to a fairly non-plussed audience (seems like an academic attempt at Google Circles). Personal chats with so many: especially valuable were those with Sheena Banks and Hillary Thomas. Ettiene Wenger was there for most of the conference and he was concerned that we were in danger of losing the 'human' in learning, as an experience of meaningfulness, personhood and becoming. He said that his theories had gained wide acceptance because it talks to people in a way that they could recognise themselves within. He worried that talk of 'agency in the network' and 'de-centering the person' which is important to understand and true at some level but not necessarily the most useful way of thinking. He asked if he was just being 'quaint', the tensions between old and new are real but to what extent does it still matter to focus on the experience of being in a network, of learning as a human experience, of meaningfulness, of engaging, being alive, over relationships, time and space. The danger of talking about networks is to analyse them to the extent that we privilege our position and begin to feel we know more than the people we are accountable to.
In spite of this, Chris Jones' symposium focusing on the role of technology in networked learning was, for me, one of the more substantial and significant contributions to networked learning theory. Was it possible to say something, even something fairly general, about the effects of technology without falling into technological determinism...?
Apart from the academic activity, I spoiled myself on camping, rambling, cycling, and stopping over in Brussels via AirBnB on Wednesday night on the way home: photos from my adventures are on Flickr.

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