I was honoured to be asked to do a keynote at the 2nd Congresso Mundial de E-Learning sponsored by the Universidad National Aberta y a Distance (Columbia’s Open University). The conference was held in one of the oldest and perhaps most well maintained  historic ports of the Spanish Main.

The Congresso started 90 minutes late, because the Internet connection to that part of the town was severed by tram construction. I thought at first that this was pretty odd to hold up a F2F conference for the Internet, not realizing that they had a few hundred paying registrants online and in Second Life. But I found that time-lines aren’t really hard in Columbia anyways!

There were about 900 delegates and they all seemed to know the words to the stirring martial music of the National anthem, the state anthem and UNAD school anthem. Someone I can’t imagine a stirring, trumpet filled anthem (with everyone singing) at a Canadian University event (do any of our Universities even have anthems??). Next came the official greetings by the Mayor and various Ministry officials. I was quite thrilled to be given the keys to the City (literally a big brass key!!)  but I didn’t manage to find any banks or chests of Spanish doubloons to which the key would fit.

The first opening talk was by the UNAD Rector, who though not at all short on words, had a very compelling message about the need for Columbia and especially UNAD to embrace new technologies and new pedagogies. I also haven’t seen a University president, most especially our own, be able to so clearly articulate a vision for educational reform. The second speech was by a rather famous Argentine jounralist Andres Oppenhiemer (now working in Miami and the author of a number of books including his most recent Basta de historias! La obsesion latinoamericana con el paso. This was a hard hitting talk about the differences in educational performance and expectations between Latin American and nations Oppenhiemer had recently toured. I’m not sure all the audience appreciated the criticisms, as Oppenhiemer laid out a pretty bleak present, but ended with 12 solutions for the future – one of which was of course MUCH better education systems. Next was an old friend from Norway Torstein Rekkedal who talked about the many accomplishments of NKI which, like Athabasca and unlike most Open universities, also uses continuous (not cohort semesters) for their programming. I was scheduled to go next, but by then we had been sitting without a break for 3.5 hours and fortunately it was lunch.

After an excellent buffet lunch, I recycled and updated one of my talks on Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy , gave away a couple of books from our AUPress Issues in Distance Education series to two people celebrating a birthday and then offered 6 free books to everyone who has had a birthday this year already, or will have one in the next tw0 months (if any readers also qualify, you can click here for your free books from AU Press. The talk and the books seemed to be generally well received. I should add that all of the sessions were simultaneously translated, minimizing the impact of my uni-lingual handicap.

Next was speeches from Michael Barber ex Newfoundlander now at Wayne State on K12 virtual education, and talks by French and Chilian distance education experts and finally a talk about a very interesting project bringing networked learning to very poor children in the Columbian mountains. The evening found us wined and dined on the roof top restaurant at our hotel and ended with a horse carriage ride – complete with Columbian musicians clinging to the carriage and serenading us. The old town, where our hotel is situated, closes the streets to cars in the evenings and the carriages come out.

The second and final day was also a series of keynotes (no break out sessions). We heard DE experts from Israel, Newfoundland, Taiwan,  USA, Pakistan, Kenya and a very interesting talk by the director of research, Pablo Stegmann, who is the director of UNAD’s new campus in Florida where they run a large Doctoral program, primarily designed for UNAD faculty. He noted the need for Latin American academics to actually do and publish research. On that note, I was pleased to get a handsome 6 copy set of hardbound books which are the dissertation outputs of the first 6 graduates of that program.  Now when I learn to read Spanish……  We were also treated to a series of very good ed tech presentations and I was most impressed with the first applications of augmented reality I’ve seen, in which the presenter used a web cam to photograph a code printed on a printed page and suddenly an animated 3-D animal emerged on the screen. As the paper was moved the screen animal responded.

I was also impressed that over 180 staff at UNAD were tested and received their Digital E-Citizen Certificate via a government program and a room full of portable testing laptops.

The second evening ended with a nice walk around the old town and a return for a scheduled reception at 7:30 PM. However by 9:30 none of the Columbian VIPs had arrived, the expats ate (and drank) mostly alone, and when we were joined by the Colombians, they invited us to go clubbing at the Havan Club. It was a great night, 7 piece Cuban band, many folks in Halloween costumes and (fortunately) not much room to show off my spasmodic  rumba moves! Home at 2:30 AM – latest I’ve stayed out for years!

Next morning we were in full tourist mode, touring the incredible Castillo San Filipe.  The castle with slanted walls to deflect cannon balls, was honeycombed with tunnels leading to secret exists. Truly amazing that the Fort had been captured by the French and the ‘pirate’ Francis Drake, but never yielded to the 40,00o thousand Brits and American Colonial troops in 186 ships in the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the decisive Battle of CartagenaSpent the rest of the afternoon beating off street vendors, walking about, touring the naval Museum and ended the evening at a great outdoor restaurant. Columbia is holding elections on Sunday, so the pubs were closed and restaurants prohibited from selling liquor Saturday evening and all day Sunday. But we were served a glass of wine in a coffee cup anyways. Columbian merchants are very adaptive!

Today back to Bogota and an overnight there before heading home Monday. A great trip, fine conference, and incredible hospitality from my new Columbian friends.

Photo courtesy Stella's Mom http://www.flickr.com/photos/lithuania2008/2745170862/

Castillo San Felipe photo courtesy Roger 4336 http://www.flickr.com/photos/24736216@N07/5707035318/