A free education world explored in a fortress by the sea

iCommons has a talent for holding its conferences in beautiful places. Last year it was Copacabana Beach in Rio. This year we met in Dubrovnik, in the Revelin fortress on the edge of the centuries-old city walls. Very different to Rio, but some similarities – an intensely blue Adriatic sea, muggy heat, a laid-back atmosphere. But there the similarities ended. Dubrovnik is very much a European city, perhaps even surprisingly so, given its location on the far edge of a Mediterranean culture. In some ways it feels more Germanic than Southern, with its pristine city walls in blond stone, impeccably restored after the war with Serbia and Montenegro, and its gleaming polished marble streets in the old town. But then there are the villas climbing steep hills behind the old town, the patches of brilliant colour from flowering trees, the grape vine pergolas over sea-facing terraces, the scent of pine resin over cafe tables and the olive green foliage of the islands – all this is decidedly southern.

The conference rooms in the Revelin fortress were all in blond stone, with vaulted stone ceilings, soft light and shadows. Ironical perhaps that this was the setting for an often passionate discussion about the nature of free culture, often anarchic, never boring. It is hard to capture the spirit of what was this year a diverse event, from deep intellectual discussion to presentations by free culture radicals, to the workshop sessions of the Open Education stream. This challenged the formal conference structure of the rest of the Summit, with its more rigid panel discussions, where expert opinions provided a framework of authority and response. Instead, the nature of Open Education was explored in what some speculated might be a subversive symbolic setting, the Lazar-house set on the rocks over Dubrovnik’s most fashionable beach.

The discussions led with gusto by Allen Gunn revealed a wide diversity of views from a global patchwork of people. What emerged was the capacity to reconcile the sometimes extreme dogmatic views about what constitutes Open Education, whether the dogmatism be free content, open source software, collaborative communities, or whatever. The workshop context allowed discussion of these diverging views and, above all, the emergence of a much more complex and pedagogically-informed
tapestry of the potential that could be offered by Open Education in a variety of geographical and educational contexts. It is much more than just content, the participants agreed. Also, they concurred, there has been too little attention paid
to informal education and lifelong learning, the possibilities offered for mature learners.

The process was sometimes anarchic – go to Steve Foersters blog on the speed-geeking session on the iCommons website, or look at the podcast of the workshop participants acting out open education as a flight of geese. As is familiar to many educationists, a collaborative workshopping process like this one can be playful, but the results are often more serious and complex that earnest discussion can be. Perhaps this is a model for future Commons conferencing (along the lines that I believe Sakai has taken). This has opened up a blog discussion on the iCommons site – it will be interesting to see where this leads.

The workshop participants commented rather acerbically that the panel discussion on Open Education held in the main stream of the conference did not contain one teacher. But was acknowledged was that this was the one stream that produced a
series of concrete recommendations and projects for tracking in iCommons 2008 in Tokio.

There is a plethora of blog articles on the new iCommons site – see the education track on the iCommons blog for a wide-ranging discussion of the issues.

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