I’ve been on the road (well make that airplane, train and ‘coach’) for most of the past 6 weeks having gratefully responded to offers from colleagues to present keynote talks at a number of interesting academic conferences. I’m not nearly prolific enough to hit the blog compose button after each event, so am summarizing my discoveries and experiences here and linking to the major presentations now posted on slideshare. Most of these talks were also recorded and may be appearing in pod and vid casts produced by the conference organizers.

First an apology in that many audiences got the same presentation – especially the one on Social Software and Personal Learning Environments. I would have liked to be more original, but at least the destinations were far enough apart that only a few in UK audiences were forced to sit through the same show twice. The slides did evolve as I learned things on the trip, as people asked great questions that I tried to address in subsequent presentations and of course as I drew from the well of the web in hotel rooms and wifi during spare moments. There was also some variation depending on context and a bit of swapping of old jokes around.

The audience for these talks were quite homogeneous. Mostly postsecondary educators, maybe a third of whom would describe themselves as “ed tech types” A few K12ers attended as well- especially in Israel and of course there are always a few from Industry and often Armed Forces trying to make sense of it all.

The circuit began in a one day PLE symposium hosted by the University of Manitoba, which was the first presentation of Social Software and PLE presentation (its last evolution is linked here). I then was one of five daily speakers in the Connectivist conference held online (Elluminate and Moodle) and organized by George Siemens and his colleagues at the University Manitoba. This session was notable for the number of partcipants in a real time web conferencing context. I think around 130 attendees in my Elluminate session and the I learned that I am far too old to multitrack that involves giving a presentation, managing the hands up question queue and digesting, much less responding to a VERY active chat window. Fortunately George’s facilitation allowed off loading of some cognitive load, but I wouldn’t want to do that for a few hours everyday.

I then headed off on My European Adventure with a first stop at the Open University of Israel. I did three presentations there – a version of the social software PLE talk via live web cast; a talk on research methodologies and Design Based research – similar to one presented at the Connectivist conference and linked here. I also enjoyed learning from many of the fellows of the Chaise Research Centre for the Integration of Technology in Education, its energetic director Yoram Eshet and keynoted their annual conference. For this keynote I was pleased to be asked to summarize and reflect on the Community of Inquiry model that Randy Garrison, Walter Archer, Liam Rourke and I developed from 1999-2003 linked here. This work resulted in 8 or 9 papers from our group (most with over 100 citations listed in Google Scholar) and a book. In research for this presentation I reviewed many studies that had used our model and expanded it for use in synchronous sessions, Face-to-face and used survey and other methods beyond the content analysis techniques we developed to validate the model. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the very current work using the model being done at the open University of Israel. I had some interesting talks with Paul Gorsky, author of a “Unified Theory of Instruction” that is quite compelling in its breadth and yet it retains a wonderful degree of parsimony.
Next, 10 days holiday in Crete in search of the goddess, with the only audience for my monologues being my long suffering wife and partner.

Next stop was the Norwegian Virtual University conference in Bergen Norway. Unfortunately for me all the sessions (except mine) were in Norwegian, but I had some very interesting chats with Norwegian distance educators, enjoyed (well put up with) the incessant rain of Bergen and again enjoyed the very warm reception. I was also pleased to see a major award presented to my friend Morten Paulsen for his contributions to Norwegian distance education. He leads the net School at NKI in Oslo, which like my University, Athabasca has continuous intake of students, creating extra challenges for development of social interaction and cognition and the development of learning communities. He was able to provide notice of ongoing success with his “learning partner” program that allows learners to search profiles and form study buddy parternships or communities with other students in self-paced programming – a goal I have for Athabasca!

Next stop was the University of Brighton and very stimulating talks with Jon Dron and his colleagues there. Jon has a new book out this month, that promises to help us figure out when and how much student choice rather than instructor or institutional control should determine the parameters and even technology of formal learning. I also had a revelation when reading a paper by Jon in this award winning paper as he expands the types of interaction (student-teacher-content and all combinations written about by myself and many others) to include the group as a new distinct actor. This comes from the capacity to access and interact with the group ala Wisdom of the Crowd or as evidence by successful social projects like Wikipedia and it derivations, 43 things, etc. I immediately thought of our efforts building an elgg community at Athabasca and using it as a resource for learning in the courses. Of course the learner-group interaction could be groups from workplace, geographic groups, alumni or just special interest groups – providing rich resources and now with social sofwatre means to connect, query and filter these groups. Challenge is to know what are reasonable expectations for group interaction and how dependent they are on the individual learner. After all part of the reason you enter formal education is to enter into and create new groups. Jon also notes the scalability issue. I have often worried that formal courses whose interaction is based primarily on asynchronous text conferencing (the majority of today’s higher education e-learning) seem to have a maximum size of 30 participants. I know some (notably Royal Roads University) have experimented with up to 50 students, but it seems tutorial group size of 15-20 is the norm. Not very scalable when compared to face-to-face options, much less the numbers dealt with by mega-universities which start with institutions of 100,000 and typically courses with thousands of students. By contrast the size of the group interaction needs at least 30 persons just to be operative and seems to be scalable to VERY high numbers as demonstrated by My Space, 43 Things etc. Is this the light at the end of the tunnel? In any case it got me thinking and a couple of slides added to the last performance of the Social software/PLE show.

Next to the University of London, Centre for Distance Education. Had a nice visit with Steve Warburton who is soliciting chapter proposals for an IDEAs book on social software (email him if you are interested in contributing). The discussion after the presentation was very interesting and the continuing issue of how much institutions need to change (and there capacity to do so) under the threat and opportunity of social software.

My final stop was the Shock of the Social conference at Oxford University. This was a great one day conference with multiple sessions demoing and discussion uses of blogs, wikis, mobile learning, disclosure, social bookmarking and other web 2.0 tools. The conference had a nice mix of techie development and support types and teaching academics. Although every academic loves to hate computer services (well the policies if not the individuals) I was very impressed with he efforts of Computer Services staff at Brighton and Oxford, who seem to be leading awareness and adoption rather the resistance movement to the exploration of web 2.0 applications in teaching and learning – a very refreshing change.

On my last day in the UK, I was able to take in the Beyond the Search Engine seminar on plagiarism issues that ended with a classic Oxford debate. Great stuff!

To end, a note of thanks to those who came and reacted to these presentations (both positively and critically), to those who very generously looked after and hosted me and a special thanks to all those new and old friends who have enriched my social network and understanding of life in the net-centric world and while affirming the value of F2F interaction.