Last week I had the honor of addressing a European Union higher education meeting in Malta. I actually presented three times, each session offering a different cut of my thoughts on the future of education and technology.
The conference was titled “The State of Digital Education”, and offered a fine snapshot into how European academia is approaching technology, how it’s responding to new social developments, and looking towards the future. In this post I’ll identify some of the most interesting ones, especially for non-European audiences.
Participants were an intriguing mix of officials (national education ministries, European organizations, NGOs), faculty members, and technologists. Full credit to the event planners for drawing together this variety, and for making them comfortable enough to work with each other. That especially means the excellent Alex Grech. (Here’s a Storify of conference tweets, thanks to veecam)
Antoaneta Angelova-Krasteva (Director for Innovation, International cooperation & Sport at DG EAC, European Commission) began the conference by asking us to address inequalities, and to think hard about why so many students are alienated. She also saw EU citizens as passive consumers in the digital world, and urged them to change into active creators and participants. Angelova-Krasteva impressed me by calling on schools to protect children from marginalization.
Malta’s Education and Employment minister, Evarist Bartolo, impressed me by commending Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society to the audience. He also offered a fine koan: “We need to contaminate school with as much reality as possible, and vice versa.”
A major theme of the conference was open education, championed superbly by Cable Green (here’s our Future Trends Forum session from last year). Many participants explored how to implement open policies, often in legalistic detail, and also considered the benefits.
New technologies drew some attention. I and others spoke to the emerging mix of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. A serious exploration of blockchain for academic credentials occurred, led by Chris Jagers of Learning Machine. The brilliant Jeff Haywood (University of Edinburgh) took us through technological transformations from real-time translation to the growth of video and audio at the expense of text. People were starting to think about automation, especially when I nudged them.
“Older” technologies were much in the air. A Maltese education leader dove into their secondary school laptop initiative. YouTube was simply assumed to be the video hosting and access venue of choice. MOOCs… ah, this is fascinating. Once more I saw how the MOOC hype crash is limited to the United States. Presenter after presenter showed MOOC projects under way. for example, Catherine Mongenet of France Université Numérique explicated a massive project to produce French-language MOOCs for francophonic nations beyond France, with integration into local education systems and labor markets. They are partnering with numerous organizations and NGOs, like this one. Anthony Camilleri described publicly funded European higher ed’s MOOC use as “the real use case” for those classes.
The very bright and manic Anthony Camilleri closed out the conference with a bracing reflection about what the conference hadn’t covered, and what it missed. He agreed with me that we are seeing the emergence of global higher education, including a transnational student body. He chided us for not practicing open often enough in our presentation materials, and for being too reactive.
As always I enjoyed the differences from American higher education. Student life wasn’t a topic, as European post-secondary education is primarily academic. National policies loomed large, in contrast to way US academic is decentralized and often locally focused. People were quite serious about education beyond traditional-age undergraduates, talking as much about lifelong learning, adult education, and vocational training. Accreditation was a major theme, from microcredentials to blockchain to verifying online learning. Few people talked about mobile, because it is far more integrated into life than in the US.
And there are academic presentation differences, like the insistence on session rapporteurs.
Similarities were also there, of course. Many were keenly interested in improving equity and access, although in different ways than in the US, given differences in populations and local politics. The politics of nationalism were in the air, from Brexit (the mention of which always elicited sighs) to Trump (the mention of which elicited confusion and touches of panic) to Marine Le Pen to Hungary’s government. I was struck by the divide between Anglo nations (US, Australia, Canada, the UK) and the European continent, especially in terms of higher education finance and demographic politics. On the technology side, almost nobody liked their LMS, just like in the US.
All of these discussions pointed in some interesting directions. I was delighted to see other people thinking in terms of global higher education, like the promising Commonwealth of Learning project. The emphasis on creating in the digital world, from open education to reducing student alienation, hinted that we could see constructivist pedagogies make headway in Europe. The persistence of MOOCs suggests they will play a key role in global education, perhaps leaving the US behind.
I’d like to imagine American higher education connecting more deeply with this emerging global academic order. We might not, since we don’t like to look beyond our borders, and the Trump administration is, well. But perhaps the ever-escalating adoption of technology and the global connections it affords will draw us there.
(Trump and Bryan photo by Auður Rán Þorgeirsdóttir; Bryan and friends on panel photo by Educación CNIIE)