Bob Harrison witnesses a dazzling conclusion to Learning Without Frontiers
At the Learning Without Frontiers conference – hybrid offspring of Handheld, Game Based and E-safety in Learning events – it was appropriate that Ed Vaizey MP, minister for communications, culture and creative industries, demonstrated what a cool dude he is by reading out tweets from the #lwf11 twitter stream just after his prepared speech.

The words all came out, and in the right order, but comments in the back channel and questions from the floor suggested that it was the lack of focus on digital technologies in the Department for Education that was of more concern to the 1,000 delegates. Fortunately for him, Ed Vaizey is not allowed a view on matters outside his departmental portfolio...

Derek RobertsonDerek Robertson: audience raptBut Derek Robertson from Learning and Teaching Scotland and Consolarium fame soon had the audience purring with his powerful, evidence-based explanation of how digital games can improve learning through co-construction, collaboration, communication and creativity.

David Yarnton, general manager of Nintendo was honest enough to admit that he “didn’t know much about education or gaming" and he was more of a business man. But that didn't stop him going on to demonstrate the potential of the Nintendo machines to be adapted to support learning.

Also anxious to stress that "Sony are not in the education business”, Ray Maguire, managing director of Sony Computer Entertainment (UK) followed David Yarnton's lead and demonstrated how an innovative, enthusiastic teacher could use Sony technology to provide quality learning experiences for children.

This was a fantastic cue for 'queen of Twitter', and Handheld Learning 2009 Award winner, Dawn Hallybone, from Oakfield Junior School, East London, to liven things up by describing her experiences using the Nintendo DS and the joy of “secret playful learning”. So it doesn’t really matter whether the big bosses at Nintendo and Sony choose to be in the education business or not because the children are making that decision themselves.

Cameos from David Braben, Frontier Developments, and Alex Evans, Little Big Planet, teed up Mr Xbox Kinect himself, Andrew Blake, managing director of Microsoft Research, who gave a glimpse into the technological design behind the  human motion interface gaming movement. The potential for learning on the XBox Kinect will soon emerge I am sure (we hear that Promethean is already playing with the technology).

The conference they couldn't leave...

Normally in the last session of a three-day conference energy flags, people have trains to catch and, despite the many tricks of conference organisers, attendance usually trails off. But LWF is NOT a normal conference!

"Tory Girl" Katharine Birbalsingh, who is credited with apparently exposing the failings of the comprehensive school system in a speech at the Conservative Party conference, was either very brave, very silly or needed the fee by drawing on her limited teaching experience and goading an audience of very experienced, passionate techno-educationalists that what the education really system needed was a return to quills, parchment and neat and tidy rows of silent, obedient (non –gruesome) children. She stopped just short of a return to sending them up chimneys but if she gets her “free” school off the ground who knows?

Not surprisingly she got short shrift. And Professor Keri Facer took just 20 seconds and two rather eloquent, but short, sentences to put the 'Birbalsingh theory' back where it belongs – in The Daily Mail. But spies allege that, when Birbalsingh expressed her passion for learning face-to-face at the ensuing dinner, she won herself some new friends despite the ideological gulf between them.

David PuttnamDavid Puttnam: digital godfatherAnd so the finale beckoned. Professor Stephen Heppell, as always dry, funny, powerful and poignant, set the scene for his old pal Lord David Puttnam (surely the godfather of all things digital, learning, teaching and creative?).

Convincing, coherent, creative and caring, he warned of the dangers of teachers not taking control and being innovative in the use of digital technologies for learning. “Super-imposing digital technologies on to existing pedagogical practices is like asking the man with a red flag who used to walk in front of the motor car to start jogging,” he suggested.

He also thought that gaming will be the catalyst for the revolution that will make informal learning more important than formal schooling.

But even Lord Puttnam was upstaged by Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder, whose presentation "Dream of free knowledge for everyone" ought to be compulsory viewing for the absentees from the Department for Education. And the three-way conversation between him, conference organiser Graham Brown-Martin and David Puttnam could have gone on for another three days and I doubt whether anyone would have wanted to leave the room!

There are very few conferences I have attended in my more than 35 years in education where the audience was still enthralled, engaged, excited and not racing for the exit doors at 6pm on day three! Graham Brown-Martin and the Learning without Frontiers team managed to achieve that once again.

From a germ of an idea which started life in a cramped room in Goldsmiths College seven years ago, to a 3,000 delegate, three-day, 50,000 website hits, global digital social network movement is a fantastic achievement. I would call that disruptive.

Learning without Frontiers


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