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Postcard from Berlin: Online Educa Conference 2014 Von


Who would have thought that chimpanzees at the Stockholm Zoo are smarter than humans? Well, Ola Rosling, CEO of the Gapminder Foundation, for one.  

Ola’s presentation, part of the plenary session on the last day of the Online Educa conference before Christmas, showed those of us in the audience the limits of our "bad knowledge". 

Online Educa is the world’s premier conference on digital learning, and how learning is influenced by changes in technology, society and culture. It makes sense that such a conference would take place in Berlin, a city whose universities have produced more Nobel Prize laureates than any other in Germany. The global digital learning market is expected to grow to $51.5 billion by 2016, with an annual growth rate of 7.9 per cent.

I was in attendance as a member of the press and had been invited to moderate a session on the last day on emerging e-learning pedagogies for early childhood education featuring one of the keynote speakers, Nick van Dam (Head of the E-Learning for Kids Foundation and Chief Global Learning Officer at McKinsey & Company) as well as a Slovenian Academic, Nives Kreuth. 

But just to backtrack to the chimpanzees. Jeanette had tipped me off about the Gapminder Foundation and its co-founder, Ola’s father, Hans. He was supposed to give the plenary presentation yet was summoned to Liberia at the last minute as part of the Ebola crisis prevention team. The Gapminder foundation is a not-for-profit whose raison d’etre it is to “remove bad knowledge”: that is, knowledge based on incorrect assumptions people have because they do not have access to correct data or information. The Foundation has an entire online library that is free to use with scientific data on many topics ranging from global life expectancies, rates of diseases to the wealth and health of nations.

Ola’s entertaining “flipped conference” meant audience members who had pre-signed for attendance at the talk were given homework questions to prepare for before arriving for the plenary. In his talk, Ola highlighted how “There are some things that we know that we need to unlearn.” Mostly when it comes to basic knowledge. Ola highlighted during his talk that the Stockholm Zoo chimps had correctly guessed that global life expectancy was higher now than before and also that global poverty has improved rather than declined, compared with a random sample of the general Swedish population, who believed the opposite. “We have intuition that makes us jump to conclusions too fast. What’s the solution? Education,” said Ola after showing the audience that it is not what we cannot learn, but ultimately that we need to learn how to learn, so to speak. 

It was interesting meeting and exchanging views with delegates from so many disciplines from all around the world: from a Dutch police department to an Australian health executive to a Chinese exhibitor who had developed software to record and stream university lectures. 

The session I moderated was intimate yet lively and I had to brush up quick smart on everything to do with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Having graduated from university in the mid 2000s, I only had one online course back then using dial up internet and submitted assignments by email rather than through a central portal as now seems to be the case. It was fascinating to hear from two speakers, one from academia and the other, a business professional, about how important it is to have digitally competent teachers to install and foster a love of digital learning in children at school.

Even in remote areas such as the Bolivian Andes, the E-learning Foundation demonstrated that when children have access to computers, and when given the chance to work in teams, they can learn in a self-directed way, with the teacher merely there to supervise them. Likewise, in the Slovenian pilot programme presented by Nives, teachers were initially “untrained to be trained” that is, they were given iPads and had to teach themselves how to use them and the online Apps before they could introduce them into their classrooms. At the end of the Slovenian pilot, 60 per cent of the teachers claimed that students were more motivated to learn through digital learning compared with “traditional learning”.

The presentations and discussions that ensued highlighted how there can be global applicability for core subjects such as maths, science or English irrespective of cultural context and that in areas where children cannot go to school, as long as they have access to a computer, they can still learn. 

All in all, it was my first Online Educa and I found it both inspiring and ground-breaking in its programme and in the sheer number of delegates – over 2000! 

For more, visit: Online Educa 2014

This article was written by guest author, Petra Zlatevska.

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