EC-TEL 2013: wrap up

From September 18th to 20th, I had the opportunity to join the Eight European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning (EC-TEL 2013), in Paphos, Cyprus. While the main discussions were not directly related to my own research at the moment, it was certainly productive to hear what is going on in the field of TEL, to broaden the views on the topic and, of course, to spot some possibilities for collaboration.

Scaling up and sustainability – The main topic of the conference was “Scaling up learning for sustained impact”. The slogan reflects the attention that the TEL community has been giving to the fact that so many of the advances in the area end up not surviving for long. Implementing technology for education in the real world is a completely different beast than setting up a controlled experiment or a pilot project, and in rare occasions do the initiatives presented in an academic setting survive the end of funding and/or when managers stop monitoring the project.

But, as it happens, the issue of sustainability was given more importance in the keynote speeches, in the panel discussion and in the workshop EC-TEL meets ECSCW (which took place after the EC-TEL conference). Unfortunately, most of the presentations that I attended still followed the same pattern of limited experiments, with limited results. And it is understandable: implementing large scale studies in the real world is easier said than done. After all, as Peter Brusilovsky sharply noted in the panel discussion at the end of the conference: “we’re not scaling because we’re not paid to scale. We’re paid to publish papers”. Sad but true. Still, an interesting take-home message: designing something that does not survive in the real world is almost as bad as not designing anything at all. And one extra challenge: even for successful projects, the pressure from the government and the need to comply with standardized testing and assessment can be very difficult to face.

Serious Games – EC-TEL offered some interesting tracks on Serious Games. Apart from our tutorial on Seamless Assessment for SGs, there was a whole scientific session dedicated to SGs on the last day of the conference, titled “Games – Serious and Fun”. Games for learning were also somewhat present in other works, where researchers showcased the use of gamified applications for children in tablets, tabletops and smartphones. [The proceedings of the conference are already available here.]

In the “Games – Serious and Fun” session there were some interesting projects: the EMuRgency project with its HeartRun mobile game; the University of Cadiz’s cooperative game for learning German language “The Hidden Room”, presented by Anke Berns; and the Business Process Modelling game for health case institutions called ImPROVE, developed by INESC-ID. Albeit interesting, these experiences were somewhat limited to their specific fields, and still did not employ Learning Analytics or in-game assessment – they relied in pre and post-questionnaires or in the observation of the game being played by the target audience. That said, all the games had received positive initial evaluations and are now in phase of improving the implementations based on the feedback and results obtained so far.

The work presented by the Kassel University, in Germany, differed from the other four presentations in which it did not focus on one single game, but instead it presented an effort to define a standardized description of learning processes to achieve learning objectives. The modelling language proposed by them is quite similar to UML diagrams, and it focus on reusability of the components for specific learning outcomes. This work, in particular, is the research that I found most relevant for the work that I am developing currently.

Collaboration in learning – The topic of collaborative learning was also quite relevant in the conference. Many of the experiences described highlighted the role of collaboration in learning. One of the most interesting concepts for my own work in collaborative games was the Metafora Project, which, among other objectives, aims to define a visual language to help in planning and following up on the process of learning collaboratively. Its emphasis in the importance of planning and reflecting on the activities as the crucial point for effective collaboration was an eye-opener for me and one more point to include in the investigation of collaborative SGs.

All in all, the experience in Cyprus was definitely a good one. Apart from Paphos being a gorgeous place, I do think that this visit will result in good advances for my work here in Italy.

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