In October, I applied to present at the 45th congress of the Nordic Educational Research Association (NERA). I wasn’t sure what my chances of acceptance were, knowing how well-established the conference is and being a student researcher from a non-Nordic country, but I sent off my abstract anyway. This isn’t the place for a critical comparison of the UK education system against some of the Scandinavian systems, but we could certainly learn a lot from them, and that’s exactly what I was hoping to do. Fortunately, my abstract was accepted, so I was off to Copenhagen, Denmark on the 22nd of March for the biggest conference I’ve ever attended – 25 educational research networks all holding individual symposiums at Aalborg University (located, somewhat inexplicably, not in Aalborg). This involved 699 participants: 229 from Sweden, 182 from Norway, 151 from Denmark, 71 from Finland, 25 from Iceland, 12 (including myself) from the UK, 8 from Japan, 4 from both the US and Germany, 3 from both Switzerland and Ireland, and 1 each from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. This is a short account of the symposiums I attended, which of course is a small fraction of the entire conference.
Aalborg University, Copenhagen
The network sessions were bookended by some very interesting keynote speeches in the impressive venue of the Imperial Cinema in central Copenhagen. A clear theme emerged in the form of technological considerations, providing considered perspectives on a matter too often seen as a panacea to educational issues. Ben Williamson of the University of Stirling kicked off the conference with his keynote speech entitled Imaginaries and Materialities of Educational Data Science. From the first slide, depicting a futuristic classroom of children wearing virtual reality headsets, a provocative and thought-provoking tone was established. I struggle to reconcile the idea of VR technology with the classroom for reasons illuminated in the picture – all the children are engaged by the virtual materials, unseen by us, but by connecting with this technology are they disconnected from each other? At a time when it seemed that the trajectory of technology was moving towards bringing people together, VR is something of an anomalous trend in that it cuts the user off from the world around them. With the mounting culture of constructed worldviews, or opinion over fact, and ‘rampant isolationism’, to borrow a term used in the opening ceremony, virtuality takes on a more cautionary aspect than it used to.
Keynote speaker Ben Williamson
I digress from the actual content of the speech, though this was my train of thought as Dr Williamson presented us with challenging examples of educational big data and big business, alt-schools already using facial expression and voice recognition to analyse student experience and performance, and the emerging development of artificial intelligence teaching assistants. I found this suggestion of continuous automated quantitative performance evaluation disturbing to say the least – At what point does this pervasive influence make education a matter of interaction between machines rather than between people?
This theme was picked up in the later keynote by Katherine Hayles of Duke University, entitled A New Mode of Orientation: Planetary Cognitive Ecologies. Professor Hayles examined the differences in what we term cognition between humans and machines, neatly illustrated at one point with a diagram that showed the time it takes for sensory stimuli to arrive in our consciousness. This latency, incidentally, is 500ms or half a second, a pretty considerable lag when stacked up against modern computational power. I was taken with a fascinating example, which I’ll recount here: It seems that a group of researchers (I haven’t looked this up yet, so I can’t say where) showed participants in a study a repeating clip of a drumstick hitting a drum. Delaying the audio from the video by 10ms intervals up to, if I remember correctly, 100ms (one tenth of a second), what we see and hear are still perceived as synchronised, because we ‘confabulate’ to account for this gap. Essentially, we unconsciously recalibrate to make sense of what we’re seeing and hearing. The interesting thing is, resynchronise the audio and video and we perceive the sound as occurring before the drumstick hits the drum, because the 100ms margin we’ve created has now been taken away. After a few repetitions, we quickly readjust our unconscious focus and perceive the audio and video as synchronised again. Is this margin of human error an indication of our inferiority to computational cognition? Perhaps our capacity to construct virtualities which allow us to make sense of the world is one of the advantages of human cognition? That sounds convincing up until someone mentions ‘fake news’ I suppose.
Keynote speaker Katherine Hayles
The last keynote speech, by Palle Damkjær Rasmussen of Aalborg University, Education and the Future of Society: Material and Social Dimensions, was a practical assessment of some of the wider considerations which had arisen during the course of the conference. Changes in society and technology are intertwined – one influences the other. As some functional roles within society become obsolete and others emerge, and, what’s more, as these changes occur at an exponentially faster rate, how do we as educators prepare our students for life, work, and wellbeing? Furthermore, is the role of the educator not just as susceptible to these changes? As we rely more on big data and computational cognition to chase an ideal of educational quality rooted in business concerns, what will our role become?
Keynote speaker Palle Rasmussen
Between these keynote speeches, we relocated to Aalborg University for networked sessions by guest presenters. I mostly frequented the sessions on ICT in Education, being scheduled to present to this network in the first session. I was pleased with my talk, but more pleased to get some challenging questions and discussion afterwards. I signed up for NERA to address the rigorousness of the educational side of my research, to be asked tough questions by experts and eventually arrive at a more informed position. I learned a lot from other talks in these sessions also, most of which concerned studies on video games and social networking in learning contexts. For later sessions, I attended the symposium on Classroom Research, a network which I understand is now closing, for reasons I never learned. These presentations were almost all concerned with smartphone applications in the classroom, an area of research very close to my own. I’m fascinated by the (largely untapped, in the UK at least) potential of bring-your-own-device (BYOD), but can see issues around social equality – Some children will have newer, faster and more expensive smartphones than others, some will have none at all. Several Scandinavian education systems seem to have gotten around this by ensuring that all children have access to the resources they need, regardless of background. Finland, for example, subsidises all resources, transport and meals for all pupils, ensuring social inequality isn’t a part of school life.
Many guests from many countries
The second day of the conference came to a very nice conclusion with a boat tour around Copenhagen and an extravagantly fancy meal. I’ll admit to having culinary tastes so simple that others may find it depressing, but it was good to try some new things, and the other guests at my table made for interesting company. The boat tour was a welcome addition as I didn’t have much time to explore Copenhagen on foot over what was a very busy few days. I didn’t manage to venture much out of the city centre, where my hotel was located, but I did drop in at the National Museum of Denmark on my last day there, and was astounded by the historical artefacts in their collection. I spent a disproportionate amount of time looking at the reconstructed Viking longboat and cryptically ominous runestones, and unfortunately didn’t make it through all the exhibitions before the museum closed. On the plus side, it was a respectable hour to go for a drink by this point, which I’d been holding off due in no small part to the expensive prices. In the UK, we might have problems with our education system, but at least we can console ourselves with affordable beer.
The conference dinner
I learned a lot from my attendance at NERA 2017, things which I could apply to my own research, and a better understanding and appreciation of Nordic educational values and approaches. It’s a shame that so few of these successes are readily applicable to our own system, often being inherent cultural and social manifestations rather than standalone approaches or policies. This is the case with our system too, of course. The sense of competition and hierarchy which pervades our culture, cropping up as assessments, quantitative categorisations, and league tables, has in a sense led to successes particular to our system. However, it seems increasingly the case that these are successes that benefit the wealthier in society, and in which the priorities of our schools become indistinguishable from those of any for-profit business. I still have a lot to learn, as do we all, so I’ll look forward to my next opportunity to attend such a forum for positive educational attitudes as I encountered at NERA.
I’ve forgotten what this building is called, but it seemed important enough for me to have a photo with it