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Jon Kennard


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Learning Technologies 2012: What did I miss?


So, it's over for another year. Here's our editor's round-up of all the goings on from last week's event at Olympia.
There was a definite buzz at this year's Learning Technologies 2012, both in the exhibition and conference parts. Whether these intangible feelings were similarly aligned is anyone's guess, but there was certainly an energy that permeated both floors of Kensington Olympia on the Wednesday and Thursday of the event.
Keynote speakers Edward de Bono, Ray Kurzweil and Jaron Lanier brought a more philosophical bent to proceedings, as if they had been selected purposely to emphasise the post-technological age in which we love in. Of course, we have been living with web 2.0 for nigh-on a decade, but social media have rapidly updated their status from 'picking up speed' to 'hardwired' over the last 12 months. Uptake of tablets and the benefits of social learning in both big and small business is permanently on the increase, to the point where it has become an unremarkable fact. So where does that leave a learning technologies event? Attempting to answer the big questions, that's where. Why do we learn? How do we learn? How can we make use of ideas we don't fully understand? In 2029 will we be overtaken by a race of super-intelligent robots? (The answer to that last question is 'maybe', depending on who you choose to believe).
Edward de Bono – the man who invented the phrase 'lateral thinking' - kicked things off on day one with a fascinating back-to-basics approach to learning examining the neural pathways of the brain. 'Meeting the L&D challenge with smart, creative and innovative thinking' challenged us all to 'think differently' about how we learn, and question our accepted thinking. 
"Why do we learn? How do we learn? How can we make use of ideas we don't fully understand? In 2029 will we be overtaken by a race of super-intelligent robots?"
"One of the main problems with learning is being blocked by openness. If a concept is too successful it completely blocks the ability to see any other outcome."
De Bono's use of acetates and an OHP was an anachronistic start to a conference about learning technologies, but far from just being the quaint idiosyncrasy of a man of advancing years, it also visually underlined the fact that learning is about the fundamental, transcendental machinations of the mind.
With everyone energised for the day ahead, TrainingZone went to sit in on Donald Clark's session on 'Peer learning - why instructors need to get out of the way'. Referencing 'The Nurture Assumption' by Judith Harris as 'one of the most important books on psychology ever', TrainingZone's most chief NLP discreditor and advocate of social learning came out with one of the lines of the conference when he said, "We have nothing to teach children about collaboration and 21st century learning skills. They have everything to teach us."
Bob Mosher's long haul across the Atlantic hadn't dampened his enthusiasm in the slightest as he took his session of the afternoon entitled, 'Supporting learners at the five points of need'. Going against the viewpoint of many (most?) of the exhibitors downstairs, his was the view that, "there is no such thing as death by PowerPoint, just death by bad presentation." On the way Alvin Toffler got a soundbite (‘the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’) before a rather Cantona-esque ending: "a ship in a harbour is safe, but that's not what ships are made for. Let's go out to sea." Check out Bob's writing on performance support here. A presenter of great charisma and enthusiasm.
If we had any kind of intellectual handle on the talks we had seen so far, the same cannot be said (for TrainingZone's editor, at least) of the closing keynote of day one.
Being in the presence of someone like Ray Kurzweil was as intimidating as it was inspiring. But then someone with 19 honorary doctorates whose predictions of technological advancement over the last 40 years have always been on the money can do that to the most ordinary of folk. 
'The web within us - when minds and machines become one' wasn't supposed to scare the audience, and by and large it didn't, but that part about the singularity (2029 – when machines assume human levels of intelligence) certainly made us think about our humanity, validity and purpose. With realistic talk of three-dimensional printers and quotes like "the smartphone will be the size of a blood cell within 25 years" it was very difficult not to get swept up in the wonderment of the future. Exciting stuff.
Day two was busier than in previous years at this and other events, people perhaps buoyed by the prospect of seeing the keynote from Jaron Lanier, the man upon whose life the film The Lawnmower Man is in part based. Not that many delegates are probably fans of dated 90s sci-fi, but Lanier is clearly someone with a fascinating life and plenty to say on the subject of our place in technology's future, or vice versa.

'Are we at the beginning of the rise of post-human intelligence?' LT2012 asked of Jaron Lanier, and he answered, 'no'.
"In order to rationalise the idea of the singularity you have to anonymise the human contribution to technology...all automated devices rely on a continued stream of information data which would not exist without humans" - Jaron Lanier
'In order to rationalise the idea of the singularity you have to anonymise the human contribution to technology...all automated devices rely on a continued stream of information data which would not exist without humans' - Lanier rallied against Ray Kurzweil's assertion that the singularity was a foregone conclusion. Having impressed upon a captivated auditorium the need to remain sceptical of 'current collectivist fads' Twitter and facebook, TZ swears blind that Lanier finished his talk by referring to one of Karl Marx's theories in Das Kapital as 'crappy', which was an admirably bold statement.
Onto the first session of the afternoon, and Plymouth University's Steve Wheeler talking about digital learning futures. He opened with three of his quotes from over the years.
1989: 'the future is multimedia'
1999: 'the future is the web'
2008: 'the future is the smartphone'
It wasn't meant to be a pre-emptive riposte of 'I told you so', it was a reinforcement and celebration of the expanding technological possibilities over time. While Wheeler’s talk was undoubtedly rooted in the futurism of gamification and the like, but he was also at pains to say how close these intangible concepts were to being implemented and that we are ready for them. In his own words "today's learners are more self-directed, more inclined to collaborate and better equipped to capture information." To look into the future according to Steve Wheeler (and Pranav Mistry), click here.
But it wouldn't be a learning technologies conference without a wi-fi connection with all the predictability of a January day in Bristol – I could hear Alanis Morrisette tuning her harmonica for most of the event - and so my memories of Nigel Paine's workshop, 'Fully exploiting your organisation's potential for learning' and the venerable Charles Jennings's panel session 'Learning can't be left to chance' are all I have to live by. They were both great; Nigel's was more of a two-way experience with breakout groups and plenty of interaction – a scarily long list of redundant learning styles developed pretty quickly – and Charles Jenning's session rammed home the point that ‘you cannot manage learning, only a learner can manage learning. You can only manage training.’ What more is there to say?
When we weren't in talks we were either out filming vox pops or wandering round the expo. It didn't seem so caffeine-fuelled as last year, and all the better for it. Roll on next year, but how are the organisers going to top those keynotes?

Have a look at part one of the video vox pops of Learning Technologies here

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

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