There is nothing like having a plane breakdown and being stuck in an airport to get one’s mind back to a neglected blog!.. I am on my way to Singapore for ICT 2010 and wanted to take the time post on last week’s Doctoral Research Seminar at Athabasca University.

The Social Networks and Learning doctoral seminar was a first for Athabasca and the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Centre. George Siemens and I organized the event as a vehicle to expose our students and researchers to each other’s work and to that of participants globally. We had 22 students or faculty register from 7 different countries for the 5 day event. One of the strengths of the seminar was the small size and I THINK we managed to pay the bills with the $300 fee. Each day followed a similar format – a series of morning keynote presentations by one of Athabasca’s research teams (supplemented by a team from Glasgow Caledonian on Thursday).  The afternoons consisted of presentations on their own research by two of the participants. We provided suggestions. comments and critique of the research agendas, proposals and progress described by the faculty and doctoral students. This was followed by further discussions, presentations or guest appearances – usually related to the topic of the day.

On Monday George and I led off talking about Networked learning, connectivism and the special challenges of self-paced, continuous enrollment programming. I also presented on design-based research as one of our goals was to improve the quality and quantity of networked learning research.

Tuesday featured Dragan Gasevic, Canada Research Chair in Semantic Technologies. He overviewed the challenges and the progress made in developing semantic web applications in education and training applications. I was especially interested in his comparison study of two tools that attempted to extract/create a subject ontology automatically from course materials uploaded to the tool- I was part of this experiment and these seem to have promise, but like most applications  of the semantic web “not quite there yet’. Mohamed Ally also presented on mobile learning and the edited books he has been developing on mobile learning in general (available open access from AU Press) and most recently on mobile technologies in libraries.

Wednesday Kinshuk overviewed the need for and current processes to adapt learning environments, activities and assessment to individual and specific groups of learners. His work shows that it isn’t just learning styles, but a host of factors that can be used to create and continuously update a learning profile that results in  a “one size fits one” model of learning. We were very fortunate to have Stephen Downes drop in Wednesday afternoon and present a complex philosophical working through of issues  “the Representative Student” he (and for sure the rest of us) are struggling with in regard to connectivist learning. I was struck by the fact that most connectivist courses have been ‘open’ with large numbers of  “registrants” the majority of whom participate very little -if at all. Can connectivist learning be scaled down to the 30 members of a common university class- or indeed squeezed into a formal education system at all??

Thursday Allsion Littlejohn and her colleagues from the Caledonian Institute at Glasgow Caledonian University detailed their notions of ‘charting’ as applied to creating and sustaining learning paths in corporate contexts. They have just concluded a multiyear project with Shell Oil  in which they investigated the relevant roles of both planned and unplanned learning through analysis of critical learning incidents and developed notions of how individuals and units need to chart their formal and informal learning

On Friday, Jon Dron outlined our familiar Taxonomy of the Many or Multitude and the use of groups, networks and collectives in networked learning. He provided fascinating and amusing examples, descriptions and a growing list of applications for collectives in finding learning paths, recommended strategies and resources, and otherwise mining the information form our collective online activities. Athabasca’s head of Learning Design and Development Cindy Ives ended the week with a challenge to how we would design effective learning for self-paced learners using connectivist tools and pedagogies. This highlighted the unanswered need to develop an instructional/learning design for connectivist learning in both formal and informal contexts.

Throughout and preceding the week we experimented with the use of out internal elgg system with a dedicated group to support the seminar. The results were uploads of key papers and presentation slides, a few bookmarks, one rather unused wiki page, but very little forum discussion. This is probably normal in that evening socials and full day F2F interaction dampened the spirit and need for more asynchronous discourse. In addition many of the participants (all of whom worked with open laptops throughout the seminar) contributed to Twitter (see hash tag #SLN10)  We also noted the challenges of investing any effort in a closed system (only Athabasca associates allowed to post) and if there is continuing value in a such closed systems for episodic participants.

Each evening we organized a social outing (Univ of Alberta pub crawl, West Edmonton Mall, Alberta Art Gallery, Works Festival and a closing banquet with members of the Edmonton e-learning community). Lots of fun, but hard to squeeze in the regular life at home and the usual onslaught of commitments to a conference at home.

Thanks to each of the participants for their contributions and kind summary words. We hope to have another seminar next year. It was also interesting to contemplate if we should have been broad/narrow casting the event as requested by potential participants from South Africa and Australia. Five days is probably more than online participants would sit in and the growing insights into each of the face to face participants’ ideas and issues, may have been diluted with sporadic online interjections. On the other hand, sometimes those cracks are how the light gets in! So we have mixed thoughts on week-long, distributed/F2F or blended seminars- your comments are welcomed.