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Unisa online - ODL conference discourse on a digital future

Back: Dr John Baxter (Open University, United Kingdom), Dr Carlton Wood (Open University, United Kingdom), Dr Paul Prinsloo (Chairperson: Conference Steering Committee, Unisa), and Prof Frank de Langen (Open University of the Netherlands) and front, Dr Andreia Inamorato (OER project OportUnidad, Brazil), Prof Narend Baijnath (Pro-Vice-Chancellor), Prof Laura Czerniewicz, (University of Cape Town) and Dr George Siemens (Athabasca University, Canada)

The first Unisa international Open Distance Learning (ODL) conference has officially started, well on its way in creating a space for African and international ODL scholars, practitioners and researchers to share experiences, research and insights into digital and mobile futures. The theme ‘open distance learning in digital, open and mobile futures’ encourages dialogue to critically interrogate the opportunities, challenges and issues regarding teaching and learning in an increasingly digital, open and mobile world.

Welcoming delegates from all over the world on 5 September 2012, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Prof Narend Baijnath, extended his support of the conference as he sees it taking Unisa closer to understanding how and where it should be positioned within an environment of rapidly advancing technologies. “The first international conference in ODL at Unisa, is intended to enhance inquiry into the current discourses around our digital future especially as these discourses pertain to teaching and learning, student support, different and competing epistemologies in open, distance and e-Learning and in professional development.” He added, “Unisa has been cautious about the transition from print-based instruction to digital processing. As an organisation with a huge social responsibility, we cannot indulge in big bang approaches when it comes to our transformation.”

However, Prof Baijnath believes students shouldn’t be underestimated as most of them do connect with mobile social networking and are already primed to enter a dynamic and innovative learning environment. “Let us acknowledge that we live in a connected, collaborative and transformed world of possibilities. Our collective goal, therefore, should be to prepare our students to become techno-savvy, connected, literate and astute graduates capable of navigating this world with ease, while harvesting the many opportunities it gives rise to.”

Naturally, there are challenges with all spheres of learning and keynote speaker, Dr George Siemens, Athabasca University in Canada, delved into ‘The challenge of coherence and deep learning: implications for social networked learning’.

“As educators, we constantly hear about the wonderful opportunities of new technologies – learners can create and connect, we’ll finally do away with the industrial model of education and everyone can access content. But there is a real concern here.  How do learners develop a nuanced and deep understanding of how concepts are related when learning occurs in fragments?” he questioned.

Driving this question further, Siemens drew attention to the new goals of Harvard General Education (Harvard University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 2007), which advocates that general education: prepare students for civic duty, teach students to understand themselves as products of ideas and values, prepare students to respond critically and constructively to change and develop students’ understanding of the ethical dimensions of what they say and do. “Knowledge development and learning is and should be concerned with learners understanding relationships and not simply memorising facts,” said Siemens.

It seems global connectivity is producing a new type of consciousness. Unfortunately, knowledge creation will be influenced. So what does this mean for educators? Siemens urged the importance of learners creating artifacts that reflect how they view a concept/discipline. Learners should also be assisted in thinking in networks (relationship between concepts) with great emphasis on teaching and learning in networks as well.

Adding value to the 2012 conference, other keynote speakers who are at the forefront of developments in innovative practices in ODL include: Dr Andreia Inamorato, Research Consultant for the European-funded OER project OportUnidad in Brazil, Professor Laura Czerniewicz, Director of the OpenUCT Initiative, University of Cape Town and Professor Frank de Langen, Associate Professor at the Open University of the Netherlands.

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