This used to be the next big thing: thoughts on the Learning Technologies exhibition

It is always interesting to watch trends develop in a certain field, and learning technology is no exception. As I have previously explained, I am a bit of a newcomer to the world of technology, let alone learning technology, so this has only recently become possible for me. I first attended the Learning Technologies exhibition two years ago and my notes from that time show that I took the following points away with me:

1) I heard the term “Serious Games” at a seminar, which was new to me then. It sounded interesting and I googled it, which showed there was quite a lot of interest in it. But few or no companies at the exhibition were offering Serious Games products.

2) An e-learning company (Epic) proudly demonstrated their state-of-the-art mobile learning module – an animation delivering health & safety training. This was being seen for the first time at the exhibition.

Anyone who was at this year’s exhibition will see where I am going instantly. This year, many vendors were including among their offerings “Serious Games”, “gamification”, “gaming approaches” and so on. The exhibitors’ list had 37 companies in this category. It was the subject of several free seminars, one of which provided a nice summary of the power of gaming. The example of Foursquare shows that “people will change behaviour to get the badge”.

Clearly, Serious Games have gone mainstream, or maybe into the hype cycle. I am sure there are some real benefits to be gained from incorporating some gaming techniques into learning programmes, such as reward structures and leader boards, and have previously blogged about the potential for these tools in my own educational field. However, developing actual games for educational purposes is still problematic. There were only a few examples cited in the corporate world and my researches so far have shown that adoption of educational gaming in the UK higher education sector is very slow indeed (if anyone has examples, I would love to hear about them).

So there is a lot of talk and a lot of interest, but still some real obstacles to overcome.

As for mobile learning, you could hardly move for vendors proclaiming their “m-learning” offerings. This category had 82 providers in the brochure (yes, I was sad enough to count them). This is driven by the well-known statistics about smartphones outselling pcs and predictions that soon we will predominantly access the internet via our mobile devices. It is all very interesting, but there is a cautionary note being sounded by blogger Donald Clark, who was also responding to the exhibition. The sheer variety of mobile devices and technical issues mean that delivering on the promise of m-learning is very challenging.

From my own experience, bandwidth will surely also be an issue. Streaming video or quality graphics to a mobile device requires a good wifi connection, which will not always be available. The ideal mobile content can be downloaded to your device and played at leisure. This is why I think there is scope to use the humble podcast more in learning.

So if neither Serious Games nor m-learning are the next big thing any more, what is? Of course, I have no real idea, but it may be fun to speculate. One thing I noticed about some of the more impressive offerings is that they are using a range of tools to deliver learning. It’s not just videos and multiple choice questions, it’s videos, chat facility, forums, podcasts, e-books, conferencing and so on. This is a good fit with the developing concept of the Personal Learning Environment (discussed here by Steve Wheeler), which some see as an alternative to the VLE, others as complementary. The idea of a PLE is that it is flexible and personalised, using whatever tools are to hand to learn new things and develop ideas. It is a natural fit with the idea that different learners will use different tools to learn different things at different times.

By definition, this poses a challenge to the companies who make their living developing and selling VLEs and e-learning modules, but a PLE does not just happen – support and help is needed, as Prof Wheeler’s post points out. Maybe a future exhibition will showcase tools to help us develop and manage our PLEs. I will look forward to that.


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