Learning Without Frontiers 2012 Conference – Core Points (Part 1)

Last week, I attended the Learning Without Frontiers (#lwf12) conference in Olympia. Aside from Olympia now starting to feel like my second home after spending the early part of this month there at the BETT 2012 show, the conference was arguably the most inspiring and motivating I have attended since Thinking Digital a few years ago (FOTE gets a mention here, also).

Much like Herb Kim of Thinking Digital, Graham Brown Martin and his team have done a brilliant job at curating an amazing line-up of speakers to address the core theme of the conference: The Future of Learning.

With the underlying theme of trying to create an environment that can stimulate a Napster like shift in education, speakers such as Microsoft's very own Anthony Salcito, Noam Chomsky, Ray Kurzweil, Ellen MacArthur and Conrad Wolfram, to name a few, presented some inspiring and often controversial views and ideas about how to transform education.

To recap the content from all of the presentations would probably qualify me for the longest blog post in the world award. For the sake of brevity, though, I will try and summarise the 5 core points from my perspective, made from a selection of speakers across the 2 days. This only skims the surface and I would highly recommend viewing the video content from the conference when it is made available on the conference website.

Also, if you attended the conference, it would be great to hear what you thought where your core points and ideas presented at the event. Leave your thoughts in the comments below. I look forward to continuing the conversation over the coming weeks.

This blog post covers part one of this summary, with part 2 to following tomorrow.

Point 1: Anthony Salcitio (Microsoft)

I am not just highlighting some core points made during Anthony's presentation because he is VP for Education at Microsoft. I personally felt that Anthony's presentation was both thought provoking yet practical, and the fact that Sir Ken Robinson referenced it during his summary means I can't be far off the mark.

Anthony spoke about a number of pragmatic and game changing ideas, but his thoughts around the fact that technology should be used as a service to teachers and students and not be the core focus, really stuck with me.

Technology to support teaching and learning should be at the forefront of our agendas moving forward. Technology, combined with great teaching, is what is going to drive change and improve attainment for students in the future.

Technology and bad teaching is going to add little value and has very little scale at a time when learning is no longer a linear process. Students now come to class with content already pre-wired. It is the teachers role to make that content come alive and add meaningful context and discussion. Technology, when used effectively by great teachers, can give real scale and impact.

The paradigm of learning has changed and simply digitising the old methods of teaching and content delivery is not going to provide the Napster like change the conference was trying to unleash.

The personalisation of learning and creating an emotional connection to this learning is what is going to create the transformation needed.

Anthony, during his presentation, discussed a number of different methods and techniques that can help transform and enhance the emotional connection to learning. Gaming, and the gamification of learning, was a core element of this.

Jane McGonical, in her brilliant TED talk 'Gaming can make a better world', discusses some of these ideas and was referenced by Anthony is his talk. The video is well worth taking the time to view below.

Games based learning requires and builds skill as the game develops, and the gamer creates an emotion connection with the game. With points and reward built in to the game, games based learning essentially creates a new category: the incentivisation of learning.

When gamers play a game, at the beginning they die a lot. Yet they slowly become an expert at the game as they play more often and learn more about the environment and dynamics of the game.

This approach to learning could have a massive impact and is in stark contrast to the traditional methods of teaching and learning that focused on content, retention and assessment.

We must not forget, though, that students and teachers are the future. Not technology.

I have probably done a really bad job at trying to highlight some of the core points from Anthony's presentation, but will post the video from LWF12 to the blog when its available. I will definitely be watching it time and time again!

Point 2: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, in a recorded introductory video to the conference, discussed some fairly controversial ideas regarding how to positively change the future of learning. I didn't agree with all of them, particularly his views around the impact that technologies such as the internet has had on society. That’s maybe something for another blog post, though.

Noam's opening remarks covered a fairly wide range of topics, but ultimately focused on curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

He discussed that we need to create an education system that encourages creative exploration, independence of thought and the ability for people to push the boundaries forward. He argued that we wont get the economic and technical gains society needs without graduates that can achieve this.

Noam went onto talk about that significant changes to how the education curriculum is structured are needed to support this goal. He discussed assessment, in particular.

Noam felt that tests can be a useful benchmark, but beyond this doesn't tell you much. You can study for a test and then 3 weeks later you have forgotten everything. In this sense, assessment managed in this manor is just a set of hurdles and is relatively worthless. Searching and enquiring is more significant than passing tests.

Noam felt that an education system that rewards discovery and independent thought, not standardisation, was needed to build the foundation for a strong economic future.

How do you feel about some of these ideas?

Point 3: Ellen MacArthur

Ellen gave a motivating talk about her experiences of sailing around the world and the lessons she learnt.

Sailing solo around the world presents some very unique and dangerous challenges. With a boat that is built for speed, rather than safety, luxuries such as sleep and 'turning off' for a few hours are soon a distant memory when you are 2,500 miles from the nearest port. Extreme concentration and the full awareness and management of the resources available to you are key to survival. On the boat, the battery is like a heart beat and 5 seconds is all it takes for disaster to hit. What is available on the boat is all you have and the management of these is key!

When Ellen successfully completed her goal, she thought back to the finite resources on the boat and drew comparisons to the earth. Much like on her sailing adventures and the resources on her boat, what we have available on the earth to sustain future generations are also finite.

This led to Ellen leaving professional sailing and launch the Ellen MacArthur foundation that aims to focus on one thing - all our futures.


Societies use of natural resources have spiked since WW2 and are clearly fundamental to life, today. These are finite, though, and will eventually be used up. So if these can be eventually used up, what does society do? Use less?

If this is the case, what are we aiming for as a society. To do less? If so, how do we inspire young people?

Ellen argued that we need to think differently when it comes to manufacturing the things that we need and use in the future. Designing for disassembly, that would allow for products to be broken down and used to produce the next car or carpet tile, would offer the environmental protection the earth needs combined with new economic opportunities.

A system level change is needed, though. In the case of the automotive industry, for example, consumers would purchase miles rather than a car. You would essentially lease the miles and then give it back to the automotive company to breakdown into the next car. Bold steps, but arguably necessary given the facts presented by Ellen during her talk.

A practical expression of this ideology is something called the circular economy, which promotes a continuous circle of production and recycling/re-production of goods.

With the mission to re-think, re-design and build a better future, the foundation is working closely with governments, businesses and, most importantly, young people to encourage a generation to see things differently and safe guard the future of our environment.

Part 2 of this Learning Without Frontiers themed post will follow tomorrow.

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