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OEB Global 2019: Should skills and lifelong learning be top priorities for universities?

Author: Tom Rees-Davies, Educational Partnerships at FutureLearn

It’s not every conference that begins with a Keynote on Agitprop in the world of EdTech, but that is exactly the way OEB Global 2019 was opened, by Audrey Watters who’s claim that she was going to “kick the hornets’ nest” was right on the mark. This set the scene for two days of intensely interesting, challenging and at times controversial talks and discussions at the world’s largest educational technology conference.

It was a truly eye-opening experience to share discussions with learning technologists and academics from some of the world’s most innovative higher educational institutions. In part, it was encouraging to see that we, as an organisation, are heading in the right direction. On the other hand, it was revelatory to see just how much some European universities have already achieved, for example, some of our colleagues in the Netherlands.

The conference was a hotbed of thought leadership and lively debate and I was lucky enough to take part in a seminar led by Jörg Hafer and Sohia Rost of the University of Potsdam and Ulf-Daniel Ehlers of Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, in which we discussed what the focus should be for the future of higher education institutions. Up for discussion were:

  • lifelong learning
  • inter-institutional pathways
  • personalised academic learning
  • future skills focus

This led to a natural discussion around the need for alternative credentialing and a clear consensus that future skills and lifelong learning should be the priorities for universities in the coming years. It also gave me an impromptu opportunity to outline FutureLearn’s approach to microcredentials to the seminar, which was welcome!

Further sessions covered everything from the reinvention of teachers as coaches to using AI to personalize the learning experience of students in China. There was also a keynote from Ifyad Rahwan that controversially posited the idea that jobs that require more physical skills than social and emotional were inherently ‘bad’, but that it was possible to learn new skills to cross the divide between physical and social and earn more in ‘good jobs’. During and after Ifyad’s talk the #OEB19 surged with lively discussion and heated debate – following the conference’s hashtag not only enriches the overall experience, but also allows one to interact with more attendees than would have been possible offline alone.

In the exhibition hall, a diverse myriad of different providers and organisations set their stalls out. The usual suspects (Moodle, Microsoft, D2L) were all there of course and were joined by companies from the steady hands (Turnitin) to the innovative and quirky (Labster and Open Sesame).

Thursday evening kicked off with the annual plenary debate with speakers from diverse backgrounds for and against the motion that an obsession with economics is harming education. I caught up with one of the speakers during the subsequent free bar along with many other interesting attendees from all over the world. Strangely, many of these conversations came back to the same topic – current post-graduate higher education does not represent value for money, nor is it as applicable as learners need it to be.

OEB appears to be an industry leading conference with genuine thought innovation and leadership. The conversation is happening, education is changing, and we all need to be a part of it. This can all be summed up by a great phrase I heard over the week: “if we’re not at the table, we’ll be on the menu.” I think that the idea that we are either eating or being eaten is directly linked to finding more value for learners and how we, as an industry, address this in the coming year will shape the industry itself for decades to come.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed my first OEB experience. Hopefully, the contacts  and friends I’ve made and conversations that have been started will bear fruit in the future and I’m already looking forward to my next dose of Döner and Glühwein next year!

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