OEB 2016

Shaping the Future of Learning

OEB 2016Berlin (GER), December 2016  - (by Andreas von Oertzen) ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN’s banner is "Shaping the Future of Learning". This year’s event (OEB 2016), entitled "Own Your Own Learning", marked the twenty-second edition of the international conference on technology-supported learning and training for the corporate, education, and public sectors.

Technology Shift?  Of course, but this time it's different!

Some of what experts in previous years had described as significant learning instruments of the future appear to have been rendered irrelevant. Several speakers at OEB 2016 opined that the new perspectives necessary for 21st-century learners are no longer to be found in the worn-out technology hype. When Tricia Wang, Global Technology Ethnographer & Cofounder of Constellate Data, China, stated "MOOCs suck!" in her keynote at the opening plenary, she harvested considerable approval and laughter from 2,100-plus attendees.

Machine learning, however, is of major importance, as evidenced by the ever-growing numbers. Machines’ ability to learn, however, always requires human design and high-quality data. Big data without the integration of quality data has limited value. A lack of quality data could actually lead to distortions of our understanding of the world, as erroneous metadata and Google algorithms have demonstrated in the past. The result proved to be software that revealed the limitations of its own designers.

Inspiring enthusiasm through the empowering feeling of being able to control something appears to hold promise. A good example was the experience of students on an American campus who were given the opportunity to control a NASA camera on the ISS and a short time later held the pictures they had taken in their hands.

The standing-room-only crowd in the plenary session heard repeatedly that nowadays there is no hardware problem, but rather a "socialware" chokepoint. The ability to understand multiple viewpoints is one of the 21st century’s most important skills. Too much money is being invested in big data, technology, and apps. There is a need to break out of the binary system of the man-machine dualism.

New values, new goals, new systems

Discussions about the importance of qualifications - and the PISA study in particular - exposed a variety of attitudes and opinions among the experts. In the context of enormous changes in the digital economy, the OECD expects competition between technology and education. In this process, the digital revolution will exacerbate the social gap between the qualified and unqualified.

Alongside skills he considers important for the future such as systematic thinking, design thinking, information competence, digital competency, and global competence, Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the OECD in Paris, also includes non-digital character traits such as empathy, resilience, mindfulness, self-reflection, inclusiveness, curiosity, ethics, courage, and leadership. Many graduates cannot find a job, while employers cannot find the skills they require. The right skills would have broad societal impact on health, work, voluntary social activities, and much more.

In the course of OEB, several contributors contended that the existing education system is faulty. Jef Staes, a keynote speaker who works in the areas of ​​learning processes and innovative organizations, went so far as to call for a shift in power because existing structures will not permit a change in the education system. Children nowadays have more information at home than at school, which Staes calls a catastrophe. Real learning is only possible when individuals are "in the groove" with their talents. An adequate "competence playlist" consists of talent, passion, information, and action. People capable of creating a modern ("3D") education system should be granted authority; those mired in obsolete ("2D") ways should be stripped of theirs. There are too many incompetent teachers, school managers, and decision makers who steadily kill children's passion and talent. These are strong claims!

In his provocative keynote, Roger Schank of Socratic Arts & XTOL in the USA called for the elimination of all conventional student assessments. These tests only ask for regurgitation of meaningless facts that the students will never need again. The Harvard admissions examination, for example, which bears many similarities to other university-entrance tests in the US, has nothing to do with education. As Immanuel Kant recognized so long ago, knowledge begins with experience.

In Germany, a lot of money is invested on education, but the results have been rather meager because there is still no appropriate carryover into the corporate context. Michael Härtel of the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BiBB) emphasized that the driving force for change lies in the private rather than the public sector; here he was specifically referring to the numerous companies in Germany with less than ten employees. According to a survey of more than 3,000 companies, digital media are still primarily used for print material.

In a session of the Business Educa sub-event, led by the well-respected experts Laura Overton of Towards Maturity and Charles Jennings of the Internet Time Alliance, UK, the focus was on cultural change and the importance of community skills, alongside many other topics. In a case study, Anca Iordache, Head of Social Learning and Collaboration at Citibank in Switzerland, reported about a successful social media campaign at the financial institution. A decisive factor was that responsibility for the project’s success had been given to the employees, who offered many ideas about learning within the organization. Instead of presenting staff members with content from a central source, they are nowadays asked on a daily basis to become active and to contribute to the learning process themselves. This is accompanied by questions about the impact their own actions have both on the team and in the organizational context.

Artificial intelligence

The line between the creative economy, in which people still feel secure about their jobs, and mechanizable fields, in which jobs are more likely to be perceived as uncertain, is blurring. "How do we imbue machines with creativity?" The current research area of computer creativity comprises philosophy, science and engineering.

The University of Bremen’s Dr. Tarek Richard Besold discussed what artificial intelligence is capable of today. Almost all the qualities of a good tutor - he identified twelve - can already be reproduced by a computer. In an experiment in the USA, a computer program was deployed as a tutor, without the course participants even noticing.

So how secure is the creative field? What are the differences between creativity in nature and in Silicon Valley? What makes a creative musician, a painter, or a game programmer?

The presentation of two programs, MEXICAN, an authoring system that generates stories, and AARON, a computerized painter, led to a thought experiment: Where does the artist begin? These programs are too large and interwoven to know exactly what they do. Besold called it the "sixty-four-thousand-dollar question" of computer creativity: Is the machine’s performance powerful enough to answer the question of its own creativity? And do we even want it to be that powerful?

In Summary

This is not the first time that the question of ​​whether OEB would do well to include a philosophical forum has crossed my mind, but in some points I don’t have the answers to the questions of "why?" and "what for?" As in previous years, some presentations struck me as having a dramatic, sometimes almost threatening tone, demanding technology shifts, system changes, and acceleration. Are these self-fulfilling prophecies? Does humanity ultimately benefit from this pressure, or does it rather serve the needs of a system made up of several big companies and a swarm of consumers who flit from topic to topic?

At the same time, there were questioning, admonishing, and more analog voices. What will the role of the non-digital world be in the future? Terms like meditation, mindfulness, and inclusion came to the fore more than once. How dependent are we on technology? How much digital competence do the blind or illiterate require? And Tarek Richard Besold posed the general question, "How will we deal with this cognitive stuff in the future, and what is cognitive stuff in the first place?"

A well-known individual who has contributed to OEB from the very beginning told me that at the launch event in 1995, the approximately 500 participants discussed challenges that are, in essence, the same as today’s. So how important is it to be on the cutting edge of technology in terms of learning and continuing education? Is an expert who delivers a talk justified in being irritated by organizations that forbid the use of WhatsApp on the job? How closely do the various descriptions of situations match actual demand and the reality of the learning business? And, at the end of the day, who will formulate the questions to be answered at OEB 2017?