Recapping the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference & Some Italy Sidetrips

Last week, I was in Naples and Capri, Italy to attend the Federica Web Learning International MOOC Conference. My brief talk/presentation/position statement (everyone just gave small talks) was more or less called “A Small View of MOOCs: A Limited Look at the Recent Past and Likely Future of MOOCs at the Edges of Higher Education in the United States,” and that link takes you to a Google Doc version of my talk– the slides and the script I more or less followed. Here are links to my tourism pictures of Naples, Anacapri, and Pompeii on Flickr.

After the break, I go into way more detail than necessary about the conference and the trip. Read on if you’re interested, though a lot of it is really me writing/thinking out loud for myself, which is often the case on my blog, right?


I have to say I’ve been going to academic conferences for over 20 years now and I’ve even had a handful of invited talks and presentations, but this was unique. This was my first international conference and the first one where it was just 19 people presenting (20 if you count the video from a guy who couldn’t make it), and this was also one of these weird things that just kind of came out of the blue. Back in March, I received an email from someone at Federica Learning, which is at the University of Naples Federico II. Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of the original invitation because every once in a while, I’ll get similar emails from conferences that end up being some kind of scam. But I emailed back and one thing lead to another, and sure enough, the invite was legit and they were covering the expenses.

Roughly speaking, I’d say about a third of the people there were education policy people or higher ed administrators, about a third were faculty-types, and about a third were there on behalf of some MOOC provider– though there’s a lot of overlap between those generalized categories.  The reason I was there was the edited collection Invasion of the MOOCs, which (as a slight tangent) proves at least for myself once again the value of academic blogging. I sort of fell into MOOC scholarship by first writing about it here, which led to articles and presentations, which led to more blogging, which led to the edited collection, which led to more blogging and also to invited presentations in Italy and more later in the year. So the next time someone asks me why I bother to keep blogging in an age of Facebook and Twitter and whatever else, I’ll tell this story again.

I definitely had the feeling of being sort of the odd person out at this event since most of the people there were pretty high-power folks from high-power institutions. But I think that actually worked out since part of what I was trying to do with my presentation was to point out that the potential promises and perils of MOOCs at institutions like EMU is radically different from institutions like Oxford, Edinburgh, Harvard, etc., etc. And everyone was extremely welcoming and generous and friendly, a happy by-product of such a small event. Also as a slight tangent: I was reminded again about how Europeans and others outside of the U.S. know a lot more about what’s going on here than we tend to know about what’s going on there. For example, I found myself in a few conversations where I was the “token American,” and my European colleagues were very curious about the craziness of the Republican primary process and if I thought Donald Trump really had a chance at getting the nomination. (I said no, but I didn’t think he had a chance of getting as far as he’s gotten so far either.)

The opening session was in an enormous and formal room where they must have held board meetings and such. Various dignitaries gave some brief speeches in Italian for the benefit of the press (and it turns out there was a small article about it all) and I also assume for the other dignitaries. I suppose that made some sense, but I literally have no idea what they were saying and it brought back to me one of the nightmares about teaching I’ve had before where I’m in front of a class and talking to them only they literally don’t speak the same language as me and they just stare back politely.

In any event, after that, we all were carted off to Capri where the conference proper was to be held– more specifically, Anacapri, which is the smaller of the two towns on the island Capri (the other town being Capri) located on the top of the mountain/cliffs.  It’s a beautiful place and I’ll get to that in the “tourist/sidetrips” part of thing in a moment, but as far as the conference goes, it was a peaceful setting though the sessions were in a room in the lower level of what I presume once was some sort of villa– kind of cool, but not exactly set up for a conference, which made for some odd seating and viewing arrangements.

In terms of the presentations themselves: I think we represented a fairly balanced group in terms of those who I would describe as critics (in the sense of being aware of the potential concerns and problems of MOOCs while at the same time wanting to explore the possibilities), and those I would describe as enthusiasts. Several folks talked about the application of MOOCs in tandem with regular classroom teaching experiences (I wasn’t the only one who mentioned MOOCs as a textbook), while others were talking about the big and grand picture of MOOCs both in terms of just the social value of open education and also in terms of way toward college credit. Partly as a result of the nature of the forum and who they invited, there was a lot of talk and concern about the nuanced differences between platforms– that is, between what EdX has to offer versus FutureLearn versus Iversity versus the platform they’re rolling out at the University of Naples.

To me, the European conversation was both ahead and behind what I’ve been following in the U.S. It’s ahead in the sense that I think folks there are building off of the mistakes and data here. For example, the target audience (for the most part) in Europe is adult learners seeking some kind of additional credential and/or corporate/professional training. One speaker talked about how corporate training is a $32 Billion industry worldwide, and that’s definitely the direction the MOOC providers were talking about heading. And I don’t know if this makes the Europeans ahead or behind, but the funding model is very different in that there is a lot of government investment in MOOC experiments, particularly in Italy and in France– I think also in the UK, not so much in Germany.

But it also seems to me that some of the conversation was behind and/or missing the point. For example, I don’t think the platform is really that big of a deal, at least from the point of view of a user. There seemed to be a largely unspoken sense at the conference that MOOCs would save money for everyone involved (students, institutions, etc.), and I’m not sure that’s actually true. We never really cracked into the notion of “massive,” why (or why not) that’s a good idea, and we didn’t talk much about where MOOCs might work or not work. I didn’t get a firm understanding in my own head how higher education “works” in Europe, nothing beyond that a smaller percentage of Europeans attend college than Americans and the government is more invested in it (though it isn’t quite as free as it used to be). All of which is to say that we’re all still trying to figure out what to do with these MOOC things.

As for the tourism part of things: it was too short and it isn’t as much fun to be a tourist by yourself, but it was still a good time.

September is the off-season there, but I didn’t mind it one bit because it was sunny and in the mid to lower 70s. The funny thing to me about it was the locals thought it was freezing and they were bundled up in sweatshirts and jackets. You could spot the locals versus the tourists just by how much clothes they were wearing (I wore shorts while not at the conference), and when I told the locals about how we’ll go for two months back in Michigan where it won’t often get above freezing, they just gave me a look that clearly said “why would you live there?”

Naples seemed a little like Detroit to me in that while I am certain there is a lot of cool stuff to do, it isn’t the kind of place where you can just wander around, and while I am certain Naples is less violent and dangerous than Detroit, I did go by parts in cabs and busses that looked awfully sketchy. I pretty much stuck to the Via Partenope, which is a cafe-lined street along the bay and near the Ovo Castle. The driving was insane with four lanes of scooters, cars, busses, and whatever else snaking through a space about the size of a normal residential street in my neighborhood. On the bus ride both to and from Pompeii where we got on what I assume is the Italian equivalent of the interstate, the bus driver got right up on a car in front of us going too slow and honked the horn steadily, the universal and impatient signal of “get the hell out of my way.”

Capri was beautiful– or to be more specific, Anacapri was beautiful. I (and everyone else in the group) took a cab up from the bay up the winding road that was supposedly two lanes but clearly it was not. The easiest way for me to describe the place is it looks like the image of Italy most Americans have based on the popular imagination: picturesque though slightly run-down, colorful and sun-bleached stucco facades, cobblestones, impossibly beautiful flowering plants, twisting alleys and walkways. My room at the hotel where they put me up featured a small patio area, and there were both lemons and kiwis growing beside it.

There are a lot of things to do on the island, and on the half-day off I had, I mostly just walked around Anacapri. I went to the very nice Villa San Michelle, and I thought about going down the stairs that leads to the bay and Capri below, but that seemed more work/trouble than I wanted to get into. I also thought about taking a bus down to Capri, but there was too much of a wait and I don’t think I really missed a whole lot by staying at the top. At the same time, there was easily another day’s worth of stuff one could do in Capri, so that’s definitely worth another visit.

I was on my own Sunday, and after checking into to the hotel in Naples (which was a very funky and cool boutique place called Partenope Relais), I went to Pompeii. The folks at the conference were suggesting I should take the light rail/train there from Naples, and if I had more time, spoke Italian, and/or generally knew what I was doing, I would have done that. Instead, I took the easy touristy way out, which was a bus that picked me up and dropped me off. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly huge site. I got a good tip from one of my Italian colleagues to not bother with the guided tours and to get one of the audio tours offered officially by the site. What I didn’t do was pick up a map, which means I kind of just wandered around rather than pick specific things to go see. Maybe that worked out for the best.

Anyway, besides the fact that there was a lot I didn’t get to see (even though I was there almost 3 hours), I’d want to go back to the area generally because it turns out a ton of the stuff that used to be at Pompeii (and Herculaneum for that matter) is now at a museum in Naples. I’d like to see that. So next time.

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