The Reality of the Networked Learning Conference

The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a Conference ( a personal perspective)

This week I have presented for the very first time (with Roy Williams) a paper at a conference (the Networked Learning Conference)

This has been a steep learning curve for me which I reflect on here. I had ideals – yes – and the reality is that I feel disillusioned with the conference process.

My ideals were that the research we were working on was worthwhile, was honest and open, and raised questions which would be of interest to the networked learning community. Big mistake – little or no interest from the 160 participants in the conference.

My ideals also included the hope that the networked learning conference as a whole would address some of the issues raised by the connectivism course – such as the implications of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness for the design of education courses in the future. These seem to me to be very relevant to the future of networked learning – but ‘No’ – I did not come across any discussion of these. In fact most of the sessions I attended (and there were so many parallel sessions that it was a real lottery as to which session to attend) presented material that was not new to me. Only Etienne Wenger (keynote speaker) succeeded in firing up my imagination and enthusiasm for the future of education and thinking about how people learn.

The reality was that whilst the conference was extremely friendly and socially a great experience (it was great to meet in the flesh people I have only met previously online), a conference is a mechanism for people to present their paper to meet the requirements of their HE institutions. If you get your paper presented all is well, but overall I did not get the sense that people were trying to grasp the real issues. The only other Networked Learning Conference I have attended was in 2004, which left me ‘buzzing’ at the end of every session. To be honest – apart from the social contacts – for the most part this conference left me cold. I overheard someone say that the Networked Learning Conference has ‘lost it’s way’ and this resonated with me. As far as I could see, whilst the host country has changed, the format has not changed at all. A very disturbing thought when attending the conference cost me personally, as an independent consultant, over £1000. I would like to see a more innovative approach.

I have in the past academic year, attended some ‘unconferences’. These seem to me to fit better with recent thinking about how we connect to people and negotiate our learning (and discuss our research aspirations) – but I am realistic enough to know that this probably doesn’t fit with the demands of HE institutions (although as an independent consultant these don’t concern me).

I have followed the Twitter stream and frankly am bemused by the ‘isn’t this wonderful’ posts. There is only one which seems to me to be critically evaluative, where someone has said that the conference participants seem to be split between those interested in theory and those interested in practice. I agree.

I would like to see future networked learning conferences change to include:

  • More consideration of value for money. I know for most people institutions pay – but to approach it as if each individual is paying out of their own pocket would, I think, improve it. This conference was hugely expensive and I can see no justification for this.
  • More support of new researchers, e.g. do not have new researcher sessions in parallel with the high flyers – inevitably new researchers are left out in the cold.
  • Fewer parallel sessions (although I realise that this wouldn’t meet institutions requirements for their employees to present) and more opportunity to focus on the themes of the conference and raise questions about the key issues for the future of networked learning and the implications of this for the future of our education systems.
  • More negotiation about the content of the conference.
  • More evidence that the conference is trying to address the issues of massification, privatisation and globalisation that networked education will have to address. Some of the sessions I attended, including some of the symposia presented by well recognised names – were I felt, seriously out of date in their thinking
  • I think I must be coming from a completely different place with regard to my thinking about networked learning and the issues that HE needs to address for the future – but I was disappointed by the content of the networked learning conference – apart from Etienne’s presentation.

However – looking at it from the glass half full perspective:

–          I learned more about myself and my aspirations, what I can do and what I can’t do, what I aspire to and what I will give a miss, what my values are and what I am prepared to speak out about to defend these values

–          I met some wonderful people, including members of the CPsquare community and others

–          The food in Denmark is wonderful, even if it is hugely expensive

–          Copenhagen is a beautiful and intriguing city – especially the hippy community. Aalborg is also worth a visit and wonderfully hospitable

–          The experience has made me reflect deeply on whether or not I wish to continue doing research. I am an independent consultant, so I am only doing this out of interest. There are not career benefits for me – only the benefits of continuing to pursue an interest in how people learn and the role of the teacher.

8 thoughts on “The Reality of the Networked Learning Conference

  1. suifaijohnmak May 8, 2010 / 3:36 am

    Hi Jenny,
    I have responded to your post. I hope you would be excited with our “new” way of researching, as I am more than convinced that we might be the few under the Power Law to practise such collaborative virtual research, or may even be the first few virtual teams who didn’t get any funding, but willing to go for the extra miles to research.

    What is in it for us? I think there are many benefits – like learning and research within a community and network, sharing, cooperating and collaborating with wonderful networkers, educators and researchers in an open environment, and reflecting amongst ourselves the praxis of research and its implication.

    I reckon not many people has tried this sort of research, though the wikipedia “experiment” may be closer to a participatory contribution to content development.

    I think we still need to conduct more researches to reflect on any education and learning theories developed, as it is through such means that we could better understand how networked learning, open education be put into application, rather than just a “theory”, “pedagogy” or model of education for us to consider in present and future education.

    Teaching without such action research would only put us back into a “beliefs” system, where education is based on pure experience – a traditional mindset of what works best is the best practice, without considering some of the advances in technology which could enhance teaching and learning, and the media platforms and learning space which are different from the classrooms.

    Would that be a pity?

    Time will tell.


  2. NicolaAvery May 8, 2010 / 7:33 am

    Hi Jenny, I can empathise a little with your disappointment about the conference. And like yourself when you have self-funded your attendance, you do have high expectations – its exciting to attend and connect but…

    I am really excited by the research that you/Roy/John did and it was really useful to learn about it during cck09, even though you are trying to make sense of so many concepts, ideas at the time – to be able to review research from the previous year relating to ‘autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness’, helps bring so much perspective on what the discussions about connectivism are trying to achieve in relation to education as a whole.

    Its also a great inspiration – if you / Roy / John – I looked at the wiki – have collaborated in this way, then maybe we all can contribute in some way. There is so much relating to use of technologies in learning, accessibility, usability as well as the roles of others in networks, where I personally and guessing others still have many questions.

    In my current role, we often have conversations about – some of us are doing this, we have an idea/suggestion and how can we connect with others using online collaboration to evaluate this with others, so it can potentially become something that others can do as well. I think we are still in early stages of finding out how well we can do that, if at all.

    I don’t know for the future? We can all try and negotiate our time to contribute to research work out what kind of roles we could do with our different experiences and ideas – like you I do not have career aspirations as such, for interest and trying to answer questions about concepts that don’t make enough sense or have enough evidence 🙂

    I hope you do get opportunities to continue with research. It looks like the research process itself was a lot of work but also looks like you had some great conversations along the way.

  3. Heli Nurmi May 8, 2010 / 1:46 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    I appreciate your honest story about the NLC2010. I tried to follow you in the conference but there was only one tweet about Roy concerning only external issues.

    This is the world where we live and conferences are a place for competition. You have to “sell” ideas quickly and clearly. I was in OnlineEduca Berlin 2005 and noticed that we Finnish people give too much information and cannot take the audience. Nowadays you must have beautiful images and only few words..
    Last week I got an experience of following twitter and cloudworks – those who participate in these get the attention. New skills, necessary or not? You don’t tweet I suppose? Neither Roy?
    Your research has value and we have to continue and deepen it. Could we say that connectivism is not known or accepted in scientific conferences – and should it be? It is practice, not science. I listened to Stephen Downes presentations nr 250 and 251 (just now in South America) – I thought that Etienne Wenger has written much better than SD 🙂
    What could be the next step I don,t know. Thanks for sharing, I waited it

  4. Wendy Drexler May 8, 2010 / 8:30 pm


    Thank you for sharing your experience. I was disappointed that the Networked Learning Conference coincided with UF graduation and AERA. I had really hoped to be able to attend this year. Please don’t be discouraged. Having just returned from AERA, I’m beginning to understand what it means to walk the line between accepted “scholarly” research and research that ventures into new territory in ways that aren’t necessarily accepted by those maintaining the status quo. I do not think you should let a conference determine whether you continue your research. You have found something for which you are passionate, and all of us can benefit from your work.

    Your post makes me feel better about having to miss the experience, though I think the social connections made at most conferences are much more valuable than the actual presentations.

    Warm regards,

  5. jennymackness May 10, 2010 / 9:54 pm

    John, Nicola, Heli and Wendy – thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my post and for being interested. It meant a lot, as I was depressed when I returned from the NL conference and doubted whether it had been worthwhile. But I am beginning to realise that it was a necessary learning experience, especially since today I have had a very positive experience of a conference in which I was also presenting – albeit a very informal conference that did not involve me presenting a research paper.

    Thank you all so much for your encouragement and words of wisdom.


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