OEB 2023 Conference Notes

A view from one of Europe's most important EdTech conferences

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Last week I attended the twenty-ninth annual Online Educa Berlin (OEB) conference in Berlin, where I ran a workshop (on online learning) and participated in a panel (on hybrid learning). I learned a lot of new things, met some interesting people, and had some good meals. But what about the conference itself?

Conference logistics

OEB is a small conference (2000 attendees), but by far one of the most international and cross-sectoral meetings in the EdTech space. The largest contingent was from the Netherlands, but many countries - including many outside Europe - were also represented. There were, for example, close to thirty attendees (by my count) from South Africa.

We are making efforts to be more global in our coverage at On EdTech, and I was not foolish enough to miss this opportunity to travel.

The conference includes coverage not just of learning in higher education but also in corporate and government settings. This scope can lead to some interesting challenges when trying to address all those constituencies, but it also provided some valuable alternative perspectives. Hearing about trends in the corporate space and discussing the ways that higher education differed expanded my thinking quite a bit.

There were a substantial number of vendors, and they were not limited to the convention hall, meaning that there was ample time to meet with them - a useful ecumenical approach. Some vendors reported to me that traffic was slower than in years past, but others said it was similar. A lot seemed to depend on where the vendor booth was located. I like the way vendors are spread around and not isolated in one area. The downside of this setup for a vendor would be if its booth was in an area that didn’t get a lot of foot traffic.

One thing that was striking to me was the disjuncture between the products represented in the vendor space and the topics in the program. I guess that that is true of most EdTech conferences, but it seems especially true of this conference and this year. In the vendor space I saw a lot of emphasis on assessment, adaptive learning, language learning, third-party content, and video / other tools to support hybrid learning. I saw much less of those topics in the program which was dominated by AI. But I’d like to pick up on a couple of clear themes that emerged for me.

Europe is more about hybrid and less about fully online

There was some coverage of hybrid learning in the program - contrasted with almost none for online learning proper. Many participants in talking about hybrid learning were referring to synchronous hybrid (i.e HyFlex, a term that seems not to have caught on in Europe) rather than hybrid as in shifting between 30%-80% of content online in a manner determined by the instructor. In general, outside of the UK, fully online seems to be much less of a focus than in the US for Europe. Both online and hybrid are also far more concentrated in private institutions rather than public. Business schools are over-represented in terms of adoption of both online and hybrid.

Digital assessment (like rock & roll) is here to stay

A striking feature of the conference was the emphasis on digital assessment. Of the 63 vendors exhibiting at the conference, eight were concerned in whole or in part with assessments (this includes academic integrity products like Proctorio, Smowl and Turnitin). Assessment was less well represented in the program, and many of the sessions that were there were vendor-led sessions.

But assessment did seem to be a priority for many institutions. To an extent, this reflects the fact that Europe has long been a leader in the digital assessment space, with many of the major digital assessment vendors such as Inspera and Cirrus based there. But going to the sessions and speaking to attendees and vendors, I was struck by the extent to which the move to digital in assessment was accelerated far more by the pandemic in Europe than it was in the US, and that this move has continued post-pandemic. And the take-up of digital assessments has not just been about moving exams into a digital format. It is also about rethinking how to do assessments in general and trying to come up with more authentic ways of understanding what students have learned. To some extent this is driven by pedagogy and an understanding that assessment needs to change. But I think that the simple fact of working with technology also drives some of this change. Years ago, I wrote about the concept of accidental pedagogy, where the act of trying to incorporate EdTech made people rethink and usually improve pedagogy. I see some of the same dynamics at play in the assessment space right now.

I also see the embrace of digital even in that part of the market represented by vendors supporting academic integrity, such as with proctoring vendors. For example, Smowl now offers a service for in-class exams. It is essentially a way to monitor users activity using technology. Various versions of this technology have been available for years, and I associate it especially with K12, but it is also used in higher education. Lanschool is another vendor I associate with this approach, but there are others.

Many institutions have long been using secure browsers to lock down student computers in testing centers. Some might cynically say that proctoring vendors seeking to apply their technology to in-person settings is a way to keep business, even as the pandemic subsides and people move away from remote proctoring. That is probably part of the story, but for me, moves like Smowl’s are an interesting sign of practices that became established during the pandemic staying around, albeit in new formats. It is a small tweak but an interesting one.

It’s all AI, all the time

Naturally the big focus at the conference was on AI. The topic dominated the program but was far less evident in the exhibit hall.

I appreciated the framing of Luciano Floridi’s keynote in terms of the difference and tension between law and education in the way we think about and try to manage AI. The debate between AI enthusiasts and AI skeptics was also a nice approach and enjoyed by many who attended.

But ultimately at this conference, like so many others I have attended this year, I found the content and the advice around AI too empty and unhelpful.

But clearly, once you get past the hype, people and institutions are looking for guidance about what to do and how to approach this new technology. The problem is that they do not get it at conferences [Phil: I’m finding the same thing at US conferences]. Sitting in the sessions I was struck by how we go through similar stages in our thinking about all emerging technologies. I find the Gartner hype cycle a helpful (though much misunderstood) tool for understanding the progression of technologies from emergent to productive and commonly used tools. But I also find the hype cycle limiting in the following ways:

  • It is too linear. Even though it is cycle there is no feedback loop to it and it doesn’t capture the back-and-forth nature of how we feel about and use tech.

  • Even though emotion is in some ways at the heart of the hype cycle (expectations, disillusionment), it doesn’t capture the way that our thinking about innovation and the psychology behind it is a critical driver of how we approach new things.

  • It is also a tad deterministic, portraying the passage of technologies through the hype cycle as a given, such that our choices ultimately don’t make a difference, it’s just a question of when we join. In reality, our choices do make a difference in how technologies evolve and what form they take.

An emerging model to consider

In thinking of how we are all thinking about AI and the predominant boom / bust view so common in education circles, I found myself coming up with a version of how we approach innovation and emerging technologies in terms of stages, inspired in no small part by Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief (there were some sessions where I felt I would die if they did not stop talking about AI). This is what I came up with, the six stages of thinking about emerging EdTech.

Stage 1:  Denial

In this stage, we deny the relevance of this technology to higher education. It’s fine and dandy and all, and probably has some relevance for other industries, but not for education. And it probably would be bad if it did. Many people get stuck at this stage for a long time.

Stage 2: Excitement and Singularity of Focus

In this stage, we think that the emerging technology is for real (this time!) and will profoundly alter everything as we know it. We spend our time describing the uses of the technology and the ways that it will change the practice of what we do. It is all we can talk about and consumes most of the bandwidth in our conferences and journals. Many people get stuck at this stage for a long time.

Stage 3: Panic

In this stage, most of what we think about is that this technology has all sorts of bad consequences and implications. We highlight the ways that the technology undermines the fabric of higher education and come up with ways to ban it, regulate it, or severely limit its use. Most of these efforts are futile. Vendors issue guidelines about how they will integrate the technologies into the products they produce in responsible ways. They are usually sincere in these efforts, but ultimately those guidelines will be forgotten. Some people get stuck at this stage, especially if they build a career, identity, or business around the concept of panic.

Stage 4: Big Projects

Some institutions implement high profile projects using the new technology that garner a lot of attention but ultimately get stuck. These projects are driven by a need to be seen getting out ahead of an issue (and to some extent by CIO ego) but ultimately are flawed by an approach that is too centralized or a design that is unsound because it is too early.

Stage 5: Forgetting

The next shiny thing emerges, and most people move on. This time next year I will be complaining about some other technology that consumes all the bandwidth.

Stage 6: Impact

Quietly the technology permeates higher education and changes some aspects in profound but unanticipated (and occasionally unseen) ways. Few of the impacts visible at this stage correspond to those identified in Stage 2. Many aspects of the technology are so baked in to how we do things that we don’t even notice them anymore.

We don’t move through the phases in a linear fashion. Some people go straight to the Excitement phase, others to the Panic phase, and as a group we cycle back and forth between the phases. There is a general movement toward the final phases in we do eventually shift our attention elsewhere and the technology becomes embedded and changes how we work in some quiet ways that we hardly even notice.

Parting thoughts

OEB was a good experience and an opportunity to get outside of the North American EdTech bubble. European EdTech folks are at different stages in their thinking about technologies, and being in their midst for a few days provided an interesting lens both on where we have been, and where we are going.

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