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Learning Technologies 2013: A round-up


Jon Kennard surveys last week's event.

And as quickly as it began, it was over. Done and dusted for another year, Learning Technologies / Learning and Skills once again gave its delegates, speakers and organisers plenty of food for thought after the doors closed and the brand new carpet was taken up again to make way for the next lot of plinths, pull up banners and flat screens rolling out of the goods lifts of Kensington Olympia.

Even something as superficial as the new layout actually gave the downstairs space of the expo an extra bit of energy, with exhibitors revitalised and no doubt also buoyed by a decent second-day retention that hasn't been seen in recent years. Where once a bowl of Quality Street was a panacea to cure the ills of an industry that had had its wings well and truly clipped by the suits in finance, as several exhibitors remarked, 'you know there's money in the industry again when people have more marketing cash to spend on their stands'.

But enough about the furniture - what were people talking about? As you weaved in between supplier stands or the lunch tables in the conference hall, the same subjects were cropping up again and again. Mobile learning. MOOCs. Arthur C Clarke.

Another thing that was notable was the disappearance of social media. That's not to say that the focus isn't on social anymore - quite the opposite. But it's not centre stage. It It's ubiquitous enough not to make a song and dance about (at last).


From day one's keynote from Nicholas Negroponte to David Puttnam's session at the edn of day two, there was a strong, underlying focus education. Music has had to reinvent itself, publishing has had to reinvent itself, and education is going to be next, reasoned futurist Gerd Leonhard in his keynote on the second day.

Negroponte, founder of MIT's media lab, Wired magazine, one of the original TED talkers, presented a keynote entitled 'Learning when there are no schools'. His 'one laptop per child' project has rightly garnered considerable plaudits. A noble, sensible, forward thinking initiative, OLPC was about making education a pan-cultural right, not a privilege of the developing world. As Negroponte said, "If you can learn to read, you can read to learn". And this accessibility was how he tied his work with OLPC to the needs of teachers and trainers in business. Self-direction and facilitation are the new watchwords of learning. If his talk were to be distilled into soundbites, it would have been these two: "Education is to banking what learning is to economics" and "The biggest responsibility of education is to keep the passion".

The first day's sessions saw chairman Don Taylor ask a question that would pop up again and again over the course of the two days: What are the similarities between education and workplace learning? - again mentioning MOOCs, Learndirect's Kirstie Donnelly recalling Sir Ken Robinson's RSA talk to posit that technology is the 'solution and enabler', and Volvo's John Merrell extolling the virtues of video ("memory hinges on the first few seconds"), and how it can be effective (slick material isn't always the answer, create emotion, chunk down the content, use comedy). Jane Hart gave delegates 12 steps to social learning, and recent podcast guest Steve Wheeler showed us yet more glimpses of an exciting future filled with cloud computing, 3D visualisation and smart mobile technology.


Futurist Gerd Leonhard opened the conference on the second day with a keynote of breathtaking scope and vision. Describing yourself as a futurist leaves you open to criticism further down the line if your predictions are a little bit off, but the way 'Beyond the obvious: re-defining the meaning of learning in a networked society' was pieced together made it difficult to argue. Who'd want to? When you back up your assertions about the future of downloadable learning with a clip from the Matrix, everyone's sold. But, constant reference to the music industry's forced reinvention of itself kept the audience's feet on the ground, and their minds on the mantra of innovation.

Elsewhere Tony Buzan, father of mind-mapping, hosted the 'creativity and learning' session, celebrating the potential of the human mind by underlining the shocking truth about how little it's used, and Lloyds Bank's head of learning Simon Brown gave us a case study of cold hard stats to prove how much more effective the financial services giant had become since it has streamlined its learning programme (1300 suppliers reduced to 35, spending reduced by 20% - post-transformation).

Then, closing off the day on track 1, was Lord Puttnam. The softly-spoken, Oscar-winning visionary has, in recent years, moved from the film to education. Using a profile built up through success with films such as Chariots of Fire and Local Hero, David Puttnam turned his attention to education and has been chancellor of the Open University for the last six years. Probably the most appropriate of our HE institutions, given that the OU has always been near the forefront of technology and innovation. Commencing his talk with a sequence from Steven Spielberg's Warhorse, the tone of Lord Puttnam's talk was not one of innate positivity like Gerd Leonhard, but it was one of hope. What is the future of education? The answer, according to Lord Puttnam, is a new pedagogy. The emphasis on competition and not collaboration between schools is what is stopping their evolution. And with another mention of MOOCs it was over. For those who don't know, Massive Open Online Courses (the big ones being Coursera, Udacity, edX and the Khan Academy) attracted significant media coverage in 2012. And they were always going to. When an institution such as MIT opens its doors to provide free education to its incredibly high standard, the world is clearly about to witness a paradigm shift in education.

How to round it off? I'll leave it to an exchange between Steve Wheeler and a delegate attending his talk on day one. When challenged about whether these new technologies were divesting us of our humanity and making us less resourceful, he simply replied, "We've always had tools. Now we have tools that work with electricity."

Jon Kennard is editor of TrainingZone

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard

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