So this was my first trip to the Learning without Frontiers festival/conference and I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen tweets from last year’s event and it seemed to be something that I would be a fool to miss. But with the very expensive ticket price and a lack of supply cover, I hadn’t given this year’s event a thought until I was invited to take part in a small aspect of the conference. This was to be a debate about whether the VLE is dead or not within schools.

On my side I had Professor Steve Wheeler and we were debating against Drew Buddy and Dughall McCormick. The debate was chaired by Michael Shaw from the TES. We had decided through varying emails to make this debate a light-hearted affair and to try and make it a bit like a game show. We downloaded buzzers and the audience would have cards to vote for the winners of each round.

It was a very tough experience for me as I was amongst seasoned professionals. I had never done this sort of thing before and I did ok, but it wasn’t brilliant. My main challenge was to debate that VLEs were dead while being given random words such as Facebook, flipped learning, fish and security. Yes, fish. The debate started and each time the buzzer sounded, a new word was selected and I had to incorporate that into the debate. As I said, I did ok, but Steve was fantastic and I’m glad he was on my side. We didn’t end up winning but it was a fun way to spend an hour.
We did discover (we sort of knew already) that the debate could have been entitled a number of different things and it could have made it more relevant. What is a VLE? Does having Google Apps and other free tools count as a VLE? After all, I have that and I manage accounts etc for all students.
To make the debate plausible we needed to have polarising viewpoints so we tried to keep this as much as possible, even though we all pretty much agreed with each other. If a VLE is in place, then you need strong leadership in the school and you need enthusiasm and buy-in from the staff. If these are not in place then it won’t happen. It was interesting to hear the views of the audience (40 seated 30+ standing) and they seemed fairly split in their opinions as well.
Overall it has ignited a few questions with me and I will be following those up later. I also posted a survey on my blog a few days ago to ask about people’s opinions about VLEs and I’ll post a summary of that too.
So onto the conference. I arrived a little late so I sat and watched the first speaker (Ray Kurzweil) on my own and I have to say that he used lots of technical words and he sounded very clever but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take from it. I mean I saw lots of graphs and as Doug Belshaw blogged, he used the word exponential a lot. I think the presenters were there to make us think rather than give us anything we could go and do in our class the next day. So it did get me thinking, who was at this conference? Who is it aimed for? Surely the people that can make these decisions about education are the headteachers and school leaders, maybe it is for them. I didn’t feel as a teacher that it was for me at all. Luckily at the break I caught up with Twitter troublemakers Julian Wood and Kevin McLaughlin. We soon found others to chat to including Dughall McCormick, Chris Leach and Dan Bowen. We then spent around two hours in the tea room discussing anything and everything. For me, this was the most useful part of the day.
After our VLE session, we wandered a bit and we went to see Kevin play with the ipads and make some music but we generally didn’t know what to go and do or see. Nothing was grabbing us. So after a bit of discussion we ended up in the pub and again started putting the world to rights. This is what excites me about education, it’s discussing ideas with like-minded people and friends. Maybe I’m not clever enough for conferences like these, maybe I need to read more and research more before attending, but I just didn’t get it.

I did have some fun at the awards ceremony and successfully picked the winners of both the primary and secondary innovator categories. I was very pleased and shocked to be nominated but Sir David Mitchell of Blogging was always going to win and rightly so. The huge scale of his quad-blogging project is just amazing and he has impacted so many people. A very worthy winner. I also said that Ray Chambers would win for his sheer geekiness when it comes to his coding with the Kinect. There was also a touching tribute to Tom Cooper, someone that I never met and never really spoke to on Twitter but we did have the odd chat now and again. He will be missed by many people in Lewisham and beyond. Dawn and tripping Tony did him proud.

Day 2

For the second day, we had been invited to present alongside some incredible teachers and share our work with Digital Leaders so it made sense to take some with me. I chose three year 4 girls and they’d spent a week or so planning their presentation. On the day we took various trains and managed to arrive at the same time as Claire Lotriet (@ohlottie) and her Digital Leaders. They were very excited to see their new badges which I had brought with me! We had about 2 hours before our presentation so we spent half an hour getting cake, then we played on the Nintendo 3DSs and built some Lego models. There wasn’t anything else to do. The children had their photos taken with Mario so they were happy!

For their presentations, they were incredible. We shared a stage with Kevin McLaughlin, Julian Wood, Jodie Collins, Jack Sloan, Claire, Mary Farmer, David Rogers, Nick Dennis and Oliver Quinlan. Phew. As I tweeted about half-way through, imagine working in a school with all of those people! You’d never get anything organised, there would be a hell of a lot of naughtiness going on, but wow it would be fun! Listening to their presentations was inspiring. From simple ideas to crazy ones every speaker was fantastic. My children waited brilliantly and gave some great feedback after saying that they thought Julian was “weird, but they liked him” and that they want to be pupils in David’s school (even though they didn’t understand what he said). High praise indeed. The children were buzzing the whole way home and have since been lauded with praise in the school assembly and rightly so!

Overall as I said, I don’t know who this conference is aimed at, but it really isn’t me. I spoke to a few people who said they were disappointed in this year’s event compared with last year. I know last year that there was a free day and the festival was a great event, but this year it was hard to see what the point in the festival was. Ok so there were a few pods, but nothing that was truly exciting. Even when you had Lego or Nintendo, there wasn’t anyone there to show how this is used in the classroom, it was just there as a toy to play with. The event also suffered from the same problems as many other conferences, the WiFi was annoying. Every time you closed your browser you were required to log-in again. For the pods, they had a dedicated WiFi router but this wasn’t strong enough in our pod and the videos spent more time buffering than they did playing.

Maybe I should’ve sat in on the conference a bit more, maybe I was expecting too much after hearing about last year’s event, maybe I am not the target audience but I had fun because of meeting people, not because of the event. Having said that, I know some people that have enjoyed the conference so it could just be me. The dates for next year’s event have just been released and I know a lot of teachers will have to choose between LWF and Bett as they both fall within the same week…