16 February 2009

Horses for courses...

Steve Wheeler muses that it is:

"...interesting after all these years that people still want to come together face to face to do workshops, seminars, participate in lectures and demonstrations, and generally network in a co-present manner. This despite all the issues of travel pollution, rising fuel prices, travel delays, terrorist threats, stress and anxiety, and so on."

It happens that I have just been asked to attend and contribute to a conference in Spain. All expenses paid, which raises the additional issue of how money is spent and how it might (or might not) be better directed. It also happens that prior commitments prevent me from accepting ... but, putting that aside, what would I feel about attending?

Truth to tell, despite my passionate belief in the importance of synthetic simulations as replacement for "co-present experience", there are some things that can't be done through them. Some things need physical, not virtual interaction. And which things those are is not a constant: they vary for each individual and, especially, for each learner.

The interaction around (rather than in) many conferences, workshops, whatever, can in the words of my invitation "create important and helpful synergies". I value the (physical) research group meetings which I attend roughly every other month, and some professional development activities which involve actually being in the same room as other people; but there are those who do not, who regard them as a waste of time. I am generally less than fully energised by physical attendance at conferences, but I know colleagues whose professional passion depends upon it.

I do about ninety percent, perhaps a little more, of my educational work using electronic means of delivery, but there are subjects, groups and individuals for which this is not suitable. I have a very rewarding voluntary involvement with groups of disaffected teenagers, for example, who need their courage validated and confidence boosted by every interpersonal cue available: they just wouldn't get what they need from computer mediated communications. And seeing one of those groups wander in shared wonder around the Natural History Museum or across a wetland habitat I cannot imagine an adequate computer mediated substitute ... supplement, yes, very certainly: but not substitute. On the other hand, there are a couple of similarly disaffected teenagers for whom social contact is difficult and painful, but for whom CMC provides a way forward.

Horses for courses; most (not all) of us need some sort of professional interaction in physical person, but there's no "one size fits all" way to provide it for everyone.

The culture of conference as jolly junket, a sort of paid holiday perk of the job, certainly needs attention. So does knee jerk rejection of the new (still sadly all too common). But technology is a glorious enrichment of the available communication options, not a wholesale replacement of them.

For the past ten years or so, I have been running an introduction to ICT in Teaching and Learning for trainee teachers, lecturers and instructors. I have seen the attendees go on into practice. Those who make the richest contribution to their students' learning are not those who embrace ICT as a new paradigm, nor those who view it as an interesting add on extra; they are the ones who eagerly seek to integrate its advantages into the broadest possible spectrum of educational experience.