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Another view of Online Educa 2004
Monday, December 27, 2004
Early in 2001, I was processing applications to join the eLearning Forum by hand. Someone in Paris applied; under "job description," he listed eLearning guru. We struck up a correspondence. Peter Isackson invited me to join a panel session on cross-cultural learning issues he was chairing at a conference in Berlin. We stayed at the Hotel Gates (a networked PC in every room!) and became fast friends.

Peter is an extremely interesting fellow, an American who graduated from Oxford as well as Hollywood High, has lived in Paris for decades, and is brilliant at designing and producing language and acculturation programs that get results. In 2002, we rented an apartment for the duration of Educa, and the following year we worked together in Paris.

In late 2003, America's invasion of Iraq was not winning the U.S. any awards for popularity...or statesmanship. The economy was awful. It didn't seem like a propitious time for doing business. I skipped Online Educa. Not wanting to miss out entirely, I asked Peter to share his notes. We published them here.

This year, once again, Peter agreed to share his observations of Online Educa with us. The official Conference Report is now available on the Online Educa website; I find Peter's words more entertaining and informative. How often do you get to hear from a European-American who has been on this journey for the duration?

Online Educa (number ten): a chance to look at history

Reichstag 1995, wrap by Christo

Ten years ago we lived in a different world. The Berlin wall had taken its tumble only six years earlier and the official reunification of Germany was just five years old and an ongoing project. The fate of the ex-Soviet Union was still up in the air (but has anything really changed today?). Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were ex-Soviet satellites floating between two worlds and not full-fledged members of the European Union (the United States of Europe?). Clinton was in his first term as president moving from deficits to surpluses for the first time in decades. And of course the World Trade Center was a little wobbly after the attack of 1993, but both towers were still proudly standing. Perhaps more significantly, the World Wide Web was in its infancy as a kind of Technicolor version of the good old Internet and not yet seen as a vehicle of mass marketing. The dotcom boom and its subsequent crash were still several years in the offing. The world was clearly a different place.

1995 is when Online Educa was born. 2004 was thus number ten in the series, and more impressively, number ten in the curve of increasingly rapid growth. One of the guiding principles of the original event, as I discovered when I was asked to help plan it in the spring of 1995, was the idea that the Internet and new learning technology in general could help accelerate the integration of the two Europes that were wondering what life without a wall and opposing armies might be like. That explains the choice of the original venue: a vast and drafty concrete capsule on Alexanderplatz, smack in the middle of East Berlin at the end of a street still called Karl Marx Allee.

Parts of the wall were still visible in 1995.

Online Educa 1995 was an amazing event. It was marked by the usual teething problems of any new event: misunderstandings, about the purpose of the event (what the hell is “online”?) and even the language spoken (English only); complaints -- about the sound system in the main hall or the quality of the catering (lunch was a slab of ham or cheese on a stale roll followed by an apple); and shameless examples of vaporware marketing targeted at what was presumed to be a gullible audience (Microsoft presenting its revolutionary educational product, “Blackbird”! – anyone out there remember that? Nobody at Microsoft – apart from maybe its official historians – seems to be able to!). OE Berlin 95 was wonderfully naïve in its speculation about the future and its predictions of how “systems” that didn’t yet exist would evolve.

Jay's impressionist portrait
of Peter Isackson in Bougival

As this quick review of history is meant to remind you, much has changed in the annual Berlin event since then, and not only the quality and quantity of the catering and the professionalism of the technical infrastructure. Though speculation about the utopia of future systems is still very much part of the official discourse in the city of Bauhaus, the focus in most of the presentations (as opposed to keynote addresses) moved to real experience as early as 1999. The keynotes continue to fulfil their role of providing the inspiring homilies for the religion of technology required in such events, but even there subtle changes have taken place. It’s become a religion that has turned away from traditional technocratic dogma to embrace and glorify its social role as a ”binding” agent (“religio” in Latin literally means “tying together”). On the philosophical (if not theological level), collaboration has become the central theme even for promoters of technology (IBM) or content (BBC), this in strong contradistinction to the ready-to-wear eLearning and centralized management so often promoted in the recent past.

With more than 1700 people officially enrolled and over 400 presenters from 66 countries, Online Educa has reached a point, as Jay has remarked, where its precious sense of intimacy – perhaps it defining characteristic -- is severely threatened. It’s an amazing feat that the growing numbers haven’t turned this three-day global village into an anonymous Metropolis (as imagined by Fritz Lang). The deft management of ICWE deserves our thanks for this. As Jay points out, the refusal to follow his own advice to move out of the Intercontinental Hotel has turned out to be a prudent decision. In their wisdom, the organizers have apparently found at least a short-term fix. A series of parallel sessions this year – including my own, on intercultural issues -- took place in the Davos room of the Hotel Schweizerhof hotel just across the street. I pointed out to my audience the historical and geographical symbolism of the migration, ten years on, from East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz to Davos: from class struggle to first class, from crust of bread to upper crust, from Karl Marx to Warren Buffet. It made me realize that Online Educa has been exceptional in attributing a certain nobility to learning and training, something we rarely find in the corporate and academic environments where it usually takes place.

Part of this sense of nobility is the manifest independence of the event. There were no platinum, gold and silver sponsors in 1995. Now there are lists of them whose names parade across the backdrop of the stage as a kind of screen-saver between talks in the plenary sessions. I’ll mention no names (after all, each sponsor got his euro’s worth during the event), but the relationships between the sponsors and the public were ones of sincere and constructive exchange, or at least appeared to be. Particularly striking and representative of the spirit of things was a first day keynote program that saw, entre autres, Nancy de Viney’s partly canned and expectedly utopian (but also convincingly sincere) IBM vision of business efficacy mediated by infallible technology followed by Robert Caillau’s dream-deflating assessment of the future of technological complexity. The message of the man presented by Jane Massy as one of the author’s of the World Wide Web: humanity – as an identifiable product of the history of the universe -- hasn’t been designed to be compatible with technological utopia. The contrast was invigorating.

Sisley painting

Peter in Sisley painting

East is East and West is West, but even in the luxury of West Berlin’s Intercontinental, the twain continue to meet as the questions of learning and technology engage professionals from five continents, more concerned with the issues – how it all works, how human society and its economic and political institutions will deal it -- than the products. Two years ago Jay and I tried to convince the organization that culture and intercultural issues should be given far more prominence. I continue to chair the one isolated parallel session on that theme (though IBM has asked me to organize a special pre-conference event on culture next year). But even without its official promotion, Online Educa is all about intercultural and international exchange, thought, initiative and action. It’s what happens in practically all the informal conversations and, in varying ways, in many of the presentations. It’s also what was concretely put together in the Middle Eastern E-learning Forum on Wednesday dedicated to privately organized pre-conference sessions. The conference remains open to other initiatives of this type.

Learning isn’t just about transmitting static knowledge and even less about technology. It’s also a vital element of history, interacting with economic and political history in varying ways, as the first ten years of Online Educa has demonstrated.

Peter's new company is InterSmart. Email p.isackson (at) intersmartcom.com

I gave two presentations on Informal Learning and Collaboration the first week in December.

The first was a panel presentation at Online Educa on Thursday; I raced through it in the interst of time and still didn't cover all I'd hoped to. Friday morning I delivered a presentation on the same topics remotely to the 3rd Learning and Development Conference in Athens. They gave me the better part of an hour. I've posted that presentation on the web. Forgive the references to the agora, Socrates, and Heraclitus; I thought you'd prefer the extended version of the talk.


Blogger jay said...

See Donald Clark's report on Educa.


11:16 PM  

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