WCOL2019: new pathways to hope and light in a digital world

My ‘lived experience reflections’ of the ICDE’s 28th World Conference on Online Learning, Dublin, 2019 (4-7 November), hosted by Dublin City University (DCU).

Sense of place

WCOL2019 was well situated in the unique glass-fronted futuristic Conference Centre Dublin. Interaction, innovation and inspiration were first impressions as I rose the heights of its atrium of crisscrossing stairs and escalators which offered amplified panoramic views of Dublin city, its river and its people.

Sense of belonging

An impassioned continuum of novice and experts drawn from education, government, technology and research heartily exchanged experiences, visions, challenges and concerns.

Whether in vibrant discussion, captivated by stories and learning or experimentation, transfixed by the Celtic sounds, or hands conjoined in Irish dancing, the energy of the conference remained tangibly infectious. A culturally rich social programme interwoven into the packed agenda of keynote speakers, concurrent symposiums, lightning talks and poster exhibitions. Friendships and networks initiated or expanded over an ever-flowing supply of tea, coffee and as the evening progressed, something stronger. I did not foresee I would be tapping feet to Irish reels with Brazilians before wearing my shoes through with Lorraine Delaney, Colum Foley, Ruth Grindey, Kate Lindsay and Dr. Sila Kaya along the enchanting street-lit canals and cobblestones with DCU’s soulful fact-wielding Richard Bolger.

Sense of purpose

Set against the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the ability to transform lives and societies through transformative learning and connectedness in open, online and digital educational models was the central focus. Access to affordable, inclusive, experiential and authentic learning underpinning the new zeitgeist for education reform.

Global demand for online courses has seen an exponential rise. Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn led with a clarion call for higher education to rise to meet the new challenges emerging worldwide; widening skills gaps and shortages, climate change and the rise of artificial technology. Higher education needs to recognise there is a small window of opportunity to shape and protect, actions avoided or taken now will have far-reaching implications.

Sense of potential

WCOL2019 opened my mind to the sheer scope of online learning, filling my head with new permutations and applications, from an individualised learning platform to a social and collaborative community with means to open global communication and inquiry and to address weighty issues linked to diversity, inclusion, health, poverty and well-being.

Sense of integrity

It would have been easy for the organising committee, its speakers and delegates to have marketed and celebrated the positive attributes of online education and the good works progressed alone. Good practice, innovative design, and qualitative and quantitative evidence of improved learner outcomes were in plentiful supply. Instead, there was a genuine spirit of openness, challenge and honesty about the role of technology. Questions of who or what will shape the mind-sets of the future, such as tendered by Professor George Siemens, Simon Nelson and Belinda Tynan (Vice President at RMIT University in Melbourn), across the week. This bridged to my own thoughts as shared in ‘Cyborgs: World Without Mind’ [24/09/19] building on the ideas of author Franklin Foer; existential concerns for a global society increasingly exposed to a dark side of technology, a need to scrutinize the drivers and values of those that shape its ever-increasing employ. It’s an interesting challenge as “the developers of educational technologies have a growing influence in our classrooms [leading to] a shift of public education from a democratic controlled system to one designed and run by corporations” (Buchanan & McPherson, 2019). Concerns of fake news, surveillance, manipulation and control abound. Yet through purposeful critique and debate, responsibility and challenge, WCOL2019 illuminated the responsibility and expertise placed on and within education and learning professions, and their respective institutions, to work collaboratively. To find the light, to ensure the positive benefits of technologically supported learning are accessed, adopted and developed in order to free, transform and enhance learner lives, communities and societies.

Prior to WCOL2019 in ‘Taking on the machines: the rise of the Educator’ [01/07/19] I had pledged to fight for a 21c education with a human heart. A world in which educators are not fully replaced by algorithms. At WCOL2019 I discovered a community of online learning design that inspires value, voice and engagement. Learning technologists, academics, researchers and professionals, all hungrily engaged in processes of development, redesign and improvements that may lift the utility of the educational facilitators to empower and advance outcomes for learners.

Universities play many roles – preparation for the workforce, development of thinking skills, development as a person. Perhaps the most important role is one of preparing individuals for the future society that they will inherit. This preparation is not only cognitive. There are beingness attributes involved. The absorption of cultural norms and values. And, in humanist traditions, a sense of agency and optimism – George Siemens, WCOL2019

Sense of Direction

Cognizant of the fact that one experience of WCOL2019 simply reflects a bespoke map of speakers, sessions, stories exchanged and social interactions, I humbly share the key messages accessed or reinforced for me:

  • The urgency for traditional education stakeholders to be more proactive in shaping the online learning domain, lest they be left on the periphery, reacting to the design and decisions of the hi-tech companies and commercial entities who will seize and shape this space
  • The need for multi-disciplined, multi-institutional and multi-sector collaborative working, to support global standards, and for consistency of employ of credential frameworks
  • To not reinvent the wheel – tap into the phenomenal work already progressed
  • Scaffolding tools in learning design will not straight-jacket learner experience or outcomes, but can allow for some consistency in programme pedagogic practice that can support quality and drive creativity and innovation
  • The importance of educators ‘being’ connected to thrive
  • Online educators, particularly newer practitioners, require targeted support and exposure to effective and engaging student-centred and connected curriculum design models, in order to improve experiential learning and authentic assessment outcomes

Sense of hope

As I looked down from the plane bound for Wales I felt emotional. As expressed in WCOL2019: the power of voice and story unveiled [04/11/19] I had some anxieties about visiting the country of my recently passed beloved Dad, Jim Healey. Homeward bound, I felt more at peace. WCOL2019 had exceeded my expectations to be an event where a breadth of countries and cultures could conjoin in a shared goal of bringing inclusive, flexible and quality learning and teaching to all in the digital age. The ideas, experiences, stories and connections gathered had energetically stirred excitement and hope. I felt fired up to embrace my role in a new legacy for learners, one now underpinned by the Dublin Declaration 2019, and one that bridges to my own from my father.

I am proud and I am hopeful.

Moments like those at WCOL2019 leave a mark on you. In the words of a celebrated Irish author, John O’ Donohue, “when you come to know something new, you come closer to yourself and to the world. Discovery enlarges and refines your sensibility. When you discover something, you transfigure some of the forsakenness of the world. Creative human thought adds to the brightness of the world”

Thank you WCOL2019, you have lit up direct, deep and meaningful pathways of connections in the sea of limitless networks made possible by technology.

Sense of family

I thank my beloved Dad, Jim Healey for all the light and hope he brought to my life. He continues to inspire. Forever held in my heart.

Particular thanks also go to my warm and inspirational sessional presenter cohort:

Rita Day & Peter Stevenson (St. Mary’s University College, Belfast), Norman Vaughn (Mount Royal University, Calgary), Meghan Collins, Lindsey Gutt, Kareen Sharawy, Sally Abu Sabaa, (York University English Institute, Ontario) and Ruth Grindey and Kate Lindsay (University College of Estate Management, Reading)

Felicity is a lecturer in HRM & Management at the UWTSD’s Institute of Management and Health in Wales. Her doctoral studies focus on educator experiences of facilitating higher-order thinking skills. She presented the shortlisted best concise paper on vlogging as a formative assessment device: To VLOG or Not to VLOG? Assessing Skills for Industry 4.0

Felicity is a student member of the ICDE (International Council for Open and Distance Education) .


Buchanan, R. & McPherson, A. (2019) ‘Education shaped by big data and Silicon Valley. Is this what we want for Australia? [online]. Available: https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=4182 [Accessed 7th November 2019].

O’Donohue, J. (2000) ‘Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger To Belong’, Bantam Press: Great Britain.

At WCOL2019:

Simon Nelson: CEO FutureLearn: Transforming Access to Education: The Future of Learning

Belinda Tynan: Chancellor (Education) and Vice President at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia: Transformative Leadership for New Times: Strength in Diversity

Professor George Siemens: Professor and Executive Director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab: Exploring the Really Big Questions

Cover image: Pexels.com

Extract from the Conference Poem – Learning in the Light by Réaltán Ní Leannáin, 2019

We no longer stop learning when the darkness gathers, Those old webs have crumbled in this era of light. In an age of information, learning squats tight in our grasp, within reach of all. Enthusiasm, hope – an end to endings, Open to all ages, kind or creed, sex, sort or breed. The walls are fallen, open to the light, Runlets of hope gathered into torrent, into flood, into deluge. The wisdom of ages revealed, unsealed, dispersed, no borders, Through fleet formulae and functions and click-clack keys In a clatter and in a swell, flooding the silence. Summer Lugh reborn, and bright Bríd of Spring

Read conference poem here in full

Some highlight picks from WCOL2019

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