(This journal covers my travels, meetings, and reflections about technology and education around the world with education and government leaders, education researchers and innovators, and Blackboard clients experimenting with changing the education landscape.)
It was 10 a.m. in the ancient capital of Portugal. Several kilometers from the place on the river where Vasco de Gama and others launched their voyages of discovery centuries ago, eLearning Lisboa 2007 was about to launch. In a modern glass and steel structure, the Congress Center, a conference with well over 1,000 people attending from Portugal and across Europe came to life. This was the fourth major European Union conference on education.
eLearning Lisboa 2007 was planned as Portugal takes over the presidency of the European Union. Across the EU, there are a handful of important initiatives that allow the European members to coordinate and integrate discussions about innovation in education. E-Learning is seen as a part of the important process of bringing together learning standards and processes, using technology as a lever for social change.
In the now-famous EU Lisbon Agenda of March 2000, the EU heads of states agreed to make the EU "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010." Likewise, the 1999 Bologna Accord set degree and articulation standards for the length of post-secondary degrees, and established a mechanism for aligning university credits.
eLearning Lisboa 2007 was not the normal e-Learning conference common in the United States, Canada or Australia. Rather, e-Learning in the European Union is seen as a force of innovation, the method by which institutions – schools, universities and training centers – will transform themselves to work hand-in-hand with the governments of Europe to create competitive cultures. It’s about human capital, a term originating with economists in the University of Chicago, but now a mainstay of the European dialogue on change.
As the conference organizers announced, “[I]t is time to bring back the learning agenda at the very core of the European Union efforts to cooperate, to innovate and to compete. Europeans can – should – stand together in the pursuit of standards of excellence in learning designed to better serve peoples….”
There were three primary themes at the two-day conference:
- “Digital and Social Cohesion”
- “Re-Skilling for the Knowledge Society”
- “eLearning Value”
To practical American ears, these are unfamiliar, overly broad themes. Yet, I wonder why we are not having such conferences in the United States, digging to the roots of our problems. Instead, in the U.S., we tend to see e-Learning as a tool to extend education, 24-x-7, or at a distance from the classroom. In Europe, however, e-Learning is the foundation for a more profound social and economic dialogue.
This conference even inaugurated a new term for this European agenda. Posed by one of the conference conveners, and an important e-Learning figure across the Continent, his term is “Learnovation.” Claudio Dondi sees e-Learning as a methodology for organizational change across education, government and industry. The combining of technology and conventional face-to-face activity armed with a change agenda, under this conception, becomes its own new activity.
In the United States, we have another problem not confronted in Europe. Our education is primarily formed and carried out in 50 separate states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Beyond our Department of Education, we have no national ministry or multi-state commission focused on higher education, and no governmental organization with an international focus that can combine tens of millions of dollars and concentrate them on issues of education, economy and social development. It is even rare in the U.S. for multiple states to work together on issues that are essentially identical. There may be a lesson here in the EU model of education worth exploring.
Also, the keynote speaker at eLearning Lisboa 2007, Marc Rosenberg, an e-Learning expert in the corporate sector, and I were the only Americans in the group of over 50 speakers and contributors. Americans are very under-represented in the many European education discussions.
However, there are themes shared on both sides of the Atlantic. The one that is sneaking around the perimeter of the education discussions is focused on empowering students. How do we put the student in the center of their own learning, not as an act of the institutions, but motivated by the student? Going even further: How do we encourage students to begin to manage aspects of their own education?
My earlier detectors have heard these issues recently in Australia, Singapore, England, the Netherlands and around the United States. I think it is next year’s discussion.
Finally, let me end with a word on Portugal itself and its role in e-Learning.
Blackboard, through its local IT partner, Novabase, has higher education, government and training, and some school clients. For those clients, Blackboard provides a stable base for the institutions to build their e-Learning activity step by step. What made this visit to Lisboa memorable for me is that these clients, Novabase, and the government are now in a continual dialogue not just about the in’s and out’s of the software solutions, but about the aims of educational change.
Perhaps, a new age of discoveries was started in Lisboa.