eLEOT 2014, Giovanni Vincenti: "The change is dictated by those who are learning"

Prof. Giovanni Vincenti is Assistant Professor at the Division of Science, Information Arts and Technologies of the University of Baltimore, USA and director of B.S. in Applied Information Technology program.

Vincenti chaired the 1st International Conference on e-Learning e-Education and Online Training (eLEOT) which took place in Bethesda, Maryland, United States on September 18–20, 2014 . At the conference were discussed the most progressive and exciting ideas for the future of e-Learning. Focusing on education we asked Prof. Vincenti to point his personal view about eLEOT Conference and the role of e-learning on education.

What is your overall impression of eLEOT 2014? What were the main and, perhaps, the most contested topics and debates that have emerged from the discussions?

eLEOT 2014 was a great success. Our main goal was to create a platform that would allow the participants to share their results with others, and especially connect and discuss their projects, their experiences, and their ideas. eLEOT 2014 minimized the presentation time and maximized the time dedicated to unstructured social interaction.

The 2014 edition of eLEOT was very wide in scope. We had presentations ranging from virtual environments, to MOOCs, and also reports of case studies. As I can only speak for myself, all the presentations had at least one aspect that captured my attention. We are all coming from different backgrounds, different experiences, and we all have different goals. The field that unites us is just a medium rather than an end, reducing the overall tension among participants. We are not racing against each other to get to the moon; we are all comparing notes on what worked and what did not in our individual journeys, while trying to reach different destinations.

The overall atmosphere was extremely constructive and collegial. It was our wish to consider all as peers, and that happened immediately. The presentations of students were included in the main track, and we utilized an online system that allowed for some interaction between the remote participants and the ones presenting at the conference.

Prof. Giovanni Vincenti, from University of Baltimore USA, General Chair of eLEOT 2014
Prof. Giovanni Vincenti, from University of Baltimore USA, General Chair of eLEOT 2014

One of the most remarkable aspects of the conference was to be able to take a step back and see what others are doing. We are often too focused on our own world. My main interest in e-learning is to create a series of resources that students learning how to program for the first time can use. As there are conferences dedicated completely to this topic, it is easy at that point to get into contested topics and fiery debates. At eLEOT the main goal was to share and connect. And that’s what we did. Sure, there were some questions that were a little tougher, but overall we met our goal. The participants walked away happy, and we created new connections that are already starting to build the foundations for the 2015 edition of the conference.

How is e-learning changing the world of education? What kind of changes shall we expect in the near future?

The world of e-learning is changing the world of education quite rapidly. It is interesting that such change is not just driven by schools and universities, but also by for-profits, not-for-profits, and individuals who simply want to share their knowledge in a different way. When talking to students, very few projects and resources are “officially” supported by their instructors. Students will find resources that go well beyond what is discussed in class or offered by the university, simply because other resources “make more sense”, or are more accessible. We are living in a time where the change is not dictated by those doing research, but it is indeed dictated by those who are learning.

One of the latest buzz words, or in this case ‘acronym’, is MOOC. Many universities have experimented with MOOCs mainly for marketing purposes. Other institutions have built a business model around this concept, such as Coursera. These are very interesting phenomena that are bound to disrupt the field, and bring innovation. I personally do not believe that MOOCs are going to be the way of the future simply because their model does not attract serious learners, and they typically do not release legally valid degrees, but just completion certificates. This may change in the future, but much has to be done in this regard to ensure that MOOCs can be legitimately and reliably integrated into a formal educational context.

The area that instead I hope will be developed significantly involves the assessment component. As university instructors we are certifying that students KNOW enough of a subject to pass a course. This is relatively simple if we are working directly with the students for three to four months. Keep in mind that a traditional degree in the US requires the student to take approximately 30 to 40 courses, which means that the student has to accumulate 30 to 40 certifications that they passed a particular course to then obtain their degree. Since my OK carries so much weight (roughly 2.5% to 3.3% of progress towards a degree), I would not feel comfortable giving a grade without having even seen or validated the student’s identity. For this reason, I believe that there needs to be a significant amount of work done to authenticate the student’s identity and assess reliably their performance. This is where the field is lagging.

According to eLEOT2014 Keynote Speaker John “Pathfinder” Lester, “Innovative educators are constantly facing the challenge of matching pedagogical goals.” Do you agree with this statement? Why?

I believe that there are many sources of friction well beyond the teacher-student interaction. Let’s keep in mind that, in the end, it is just about such interaction. The teacher helps the student learn, the student demonstrates progress, and the teacher eventually certifies such progress.

As we insert technology and pedagogy into the picture, we have researchers that are working with logic, data, and bytes on one side, and professional educators on the other. When one side makes significant progress, it is not always guaranteed that the other will follow. In the case of computing, what you see in movies and TV shows is rarely representative of the current state of the field. It is great to see that criminalists in CSI are able to reproduce an entire crime scene on some holographic tablet, while three people are instantaneously and remotely interacting with such model. Reality is different, and often lags.

Applying this concept to education, it is only natural that certain pedagogical approaches and goals are able to set milestones that are quite distant, and that cannot be reached easily through technology. Just letting two people interact with some assignment through a web page sounds trivial, but is not necessarily always possible. Let’s think of how many versions of web browsers we experience as we use different computers every day. Creating platforms and solutions that adjust to all infrastructures is time-consuming, if even possible.

It is this friction though that creates the interesting solutions. Just when someone is done creating a new program that will meet goals A and B, someone will think of goals C and D. Innovation is really essential in today’s day and age, and what is most important is to treasure an educator who in equally intrigued by pedagogy as well as technology.