Visions of the future

ICELF11: The International Conference on E-learning Futures
Auckland, New Zealand
30 November – 1 December, 2011

The key themes to emerge from the inaugural International Conference on E-learning Futures at Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand, were linked to mobile technologies – particularly smart, context-aware tools – and the associated personalisation of learning.

Trends in Technology & Education

In his opening keynote, Learning generations: Looking forwards, looking back, Steve Wheeler quoted Arthur C. Clarke’s comment that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. New technologies are appearing everywhere, he observed, but educators don’t know how to use them; we still see them as magic. Technology won’t impress students, he went on to say, but good pedagogy and inspiration will.  Education is so important that if we get it wrong, we leave a very poor legacy for coming generations.  We need to find ways to use technology appropriately to support pedagogy, but there are many vested interests resisting it.

One issue is that: “For the first time we are preparing learners for a future we cannot clearly describe” (David Warlick). Declarative knowledge is becoming less important than procedural knowledge; it’s less about knowing that, than knowing how. New literacies are therefore important; they go much deeper than skills, because they allow real engagement. Connectivism, he suggested, is a useful approach: students need to learn how to connect with others as they build their PLNs.

Wheeler went on to list key characteristics of the future of education as follows:

  • Open: we will have to share more.
  • Social: people are already sharing. (Quadblogging is a good example of the application of this idea in education.)
  • Personal: homogenised learning is no longer effective, as we move out of the industrial age. (A lot of past educational technologies were teacher-centric, but contemporary technologies are more personalised.)
  • Augmented: Augmented reality is becoming more important, enhancing what we see through the naked eye. Context-awareness is key. It’s about “web meets world” (Tim O’Reilly & John Battelle).
  • Non-touch:  gesture-based technologies will become more central.

In his presentation The new new things: Emerging trends in technology and education, Derek Wenmoth outlined key trends towards:

  • mobility/portability
  • miniaturisation
  • convergence of technologies into a single device
  • personalisation
  • openness (the OER University is an example of this)
  • gamification
  • data visualisation
  • contextualisation/location-awareness

These will impact dramatically on our behaviour as information gatherers and learners. We will need to consider how ‘desire pathways’ will take shape, and how we might use services like Yahoo Pipes and ifttt to personalise our information consumption.  Location is now an important characteristic of you as a learner – we see this, for example, with Twitter, iPad apps, or Al Gore’s “Our Choice” app. In the follow-up questions, Wenmoth quoted Neil Postman’s comment: “Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.”

In his IBM keynote, Education for a smarter nation: Changing business priorities and trends in education, Dougal Watt discussed five signposts for the future:

  • technology immersion
  • personalised learning paths
  • knowledge skills
  • global integration
  • economic alignment

These trends, he argued, form an educational continuum, or single view of learning, skills development, and workforce training.  This has implications for the traditional boundaries between academic segments, educational providers, and economic development initiatives.

In her keynote, Digital ecosystems: mobile, portable, embedded and conventional devices, Judy Kay outlined emerging technologies with educational applications, including:

  • surface computing: multi-user touch-sensitive tabletops
  • data mining/visualisation: using digital footprints to improve learning through data visualisation, e.g., in an activity radar system which shows at a glance the amount of work done by students on a wiki

This keynote, which rounded off the conference, provided a snapshot of current and future trends in educational technology, leaving delegates a lot to think about.

In her keynote, Agnes Kukulska-Hulme outlined current mobile learning projects at the Open University, UK, before going on to talk about self-directed learning, which she argued is a natural approach to lifelong learning. She reported on the results of survey and interview-based studies which aimed to determine emerging trends in the use of mobile technologies in education, and to find out what learners’ wishes are with respect to mobile learning.

She suggested that the following areas need strengthening, specifically in foreign language curricula:

  • connection with learners by supporting real needs and performance in situ
  • tools and strategies for navigating and exploiting the new (increasingly mobile) ecology of digital learning resources and networks of support
  • personal management of language learning across place and time

Next generation designs, she suggested, should take into account time, place, and activity.  She also noted that language use will change; “Find coffee near me” is a perfectly logical statement to a personal assistant like Apple’s Siri, though we wouldn’t say this to a friend. She concluded that:

  • we need ongoing research with learners, as mobile practices and technologies evolve
  • language curricula will be increasingly intertwined with ways to learn and interact with technology
  • the design of learning activities will need to recognise learners’ emerging patterns and preferences regarding:
    • different types of travel
    • short periods of time
    • individual and social learning
    • ways to combine formal and informal learning

In their talk, Making the ‘case’ for the iPad, James Oldfield and Dawn Duncan described a business programme and a law programme in which students were given iPads. Students used these for a variety of pedagogically traditional activities but also for creative and collaborative web-based activities, including tasks on blogging and wiki platforms. The more creative apps used by students included iMovie, Keynote and Prezi. Collaborative tools included Dropbox, Google Docs, Mindmeister, Posterous, Twitter and WordPress. Further details of this work with iPads can be found at

Language Teaching & Learning

My own paper, Tailoring language learning to a world of screens, sought to build a bridge between the broader field of educational technology and the more specific field of CALL. It outlined 4 key trends associated with the shift towards a world of screens:

  • multimedia
  • networking
  • mobility
  • customisation

It then went on to examine the implications of each of these trends for language teaching and learning. A more detailed summary and links are available.

In her presentation, A distinctive blend: Seamless integration of e-learning tools with classroom delivery in a blended learning oral skills language course, Katherine Danaher talked about the importance of redesigning a course to incorporate new technologies, rather than pasting new technologies over the top of an existing design. In the redesign process, it’s important to:

  • Know your pedagogy
  • Know your learning outcomes
  • Know your e-learning  tools (amongst other things, declutter your course, and start small but think ahead to avoid getting painted into a corner later)
  • Know the practicalities and pitfalls; issues to consider include:
    • teacher and learner training
    • teacher (and student) workload
    • too much content (it may be better to design only 70% of a course and leave the rest as whitespace, so you can work with what students bring to the course)
    • failure to integrate successfully
    • seduction by the wow factor

It’s valuable to remember that curriculum design is an iterative process; courses don’t have to be fully designed from the start, but will grow and morph over time. To integrate new technologies into a blended course, it’s essential to refer to the online tools regularly in class; to maintain a strong online presence; and to develop scaffolded activities that include both face-to-face and online components.

Danaher finished by quoting Harasim et al (2007): “Online you get to know your students’ minds, not just their faces.”

In her talk, Task implementation in CMC: How does it influence language learning opportunities?, Rebecca Adams focused on the introduction of SCMC (synchronous CMC) into a language course.  Research suggests that synchronous text chat can:

  • encourage meaning negotiation
  • produce a focus on form
  • enhance accuracy
  • foster active learning
  • develop oral communicative competence (which can transfer to face-to-face contexts)

In the project on which she reported, it was found that reducing a task’s cognitive demands on students freed up cognitive space for them to focus more on grammar and form.  More complex tasks resulted in less focus on form. Not only does synchronous chat have language learning benefits, but using it in class helps prepare students for its use in real-world contexts.

So all in all …

Taken as an ensemble, the keynotes and papers at this conference distilled a clear sense of the emerging trends to watch over coming years. While predicting the future is never a safe bet, on current indications it will be all about mobility and personalisation. No doubt the next ICELF conference will give us a chance to see how these trends have progressed …

8 Thoughts.

  1. Hi Mark, thanks for a comprehensive review. I was also at the conference and came away feeling really inspired with the many innovations that are happening in education.

  2. Sure. Teach everything through technology until the tsunami hits or the electric grid goes down then you’re left with a generation of people wandering around like zombies unable to do anything, including building a fire.

    Cmon. You need to stop hoisting technology as a panacea.

    Dare you to post this comment.

  3. Yes, Kerry, it’s really interesting to see how clearly the key themes and trends emerge when you bring together a wide range of people, both from within and outside education, but all with an interest in the use of technology to support pedagogy.

  4. Yes, Cecil, but by that argument we should probably also stop using cars, and televisions, and in fact anything powered by electricity … because when the tsunami hits or the grid goes down no-one will be able to do anything. Besides which, the argument made at the conference, broadly speaking, is not that everything should be taught through technology: the argument is in favour of a blended approach where technology is used, as and when appropriate, to support face-to-face learning, and to replace less effective older modes of distance education with their very reduced forms of interaction and collaboration.

  5. Mark, I did not suggest people ‘stop using technology or cars or TVs etc..’ Certainly technology can (and has) helped expand educational possibilities. I’m a pioneering new media technologist myself and it would be absurd of me to argue against it. Don’t insult my intelligence.

    What I find disconcerting is the few in the educational field who deify new technology (ie mobile, games etc) to those in the academic field who are not as knowledgeable about it. It’s deified without mentioning that all technology is inherently controlled by corporations that can (and will) manipulate it to their benefit and not to the ethos of education. Whatever pedagogy is used through tech should come with the caveat that it is endered useless if their is no electricity. Then leave it up to others to decide if that is the position they want to be in in life.

    Otherwise, I have no issues with someone using Youtube to learn how to build a fire, or find water or build a simple shelter.

  6. Cecil, you’re making two quite different arguments here. I agree with the first point you mention in your second post, namely, that techno-utopian perspectives on education are unhelpful and that, in particular, we need to be wary of the corporatisation of education through the use of proprietary technologies and platforms. That said, I very rarely hear utopian claims about the value of technology at conferences these days – it’s widely accepted that there are plenty of pitfalls in its use. In fact, a lot of papers these days are precisely about how to avoid, or at least minimise, those pitfalls.

    The second point, about technology being rendered useless if there is no electricity, is obviously true but I don’t see it as a valid argument for not using it. As I said before, by that argument we shouldn’t use anything powered by electricity in case it disappears one day.

  7. Okay Mark. Now I see that you clearly see both sides of the techno-coin. Hopefully your written work, moving forward, will reflect that balance. And I am heartened to hear that academia has their eyes open to the pitfalls of getting married to corporate-technology.

    As for your second paragraph, I suggest you replace the concept of “electricity” with the concept of “paper-books” or “hieroglyphics” and see how that sounds to you.

    I may indeed take up hieroglyphics again.

  8. My last book, “From Blogs to Bombs”, was my attempt to balance up the plusses and minuses of new technologies. There’s a synopsis at if you’re interested.

    In the book, I even talk (albeit briefly) about hieroglyphics! It’s in the context of a discussion of textspeak …

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