Never been to DevLearn but what the hell, we took the opportunity to head out early to Vegas, hire a car and set off on a 2000 mile road trip across Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Two weeks later we arrived back in Vegas, with a car coated in bumper bugs and sublime images seared into our heads.
I’m a fan of the SW US but not a fan of Vegas. You can walk from the Pyramid of Luxor (even though the pyramids are hundreds of miles away in Cairo), through Caesar’s Palace (where a statue of Caesar stands among a legion of slot machines), shop in the Appian Way Shops, then into a tacky, medieval England to gamble among the knights at Excalibur, on to Renaissance Venice (where a gondola waits to paddle you through canals in a desert state that is suffering a drought). You may even pop into Paris on the way home. It purports to mimic European culture but it mocks it. Vegas is as tacky as a piece of used flypaper.
Anyway – I was in the MGM Grand for a conference, really a small city full of slot machines (Vegas is not really a high-roller, gambling city - it's mostly slots) and a few Chinese folk who were at the card tables when I went to breakfast, after all-nighters. Our room was at the end of a corridor so long, we couldn't see the end. I'm OK with hedonism but this was ugly.
So, what of the conference? Overall DevLearn is much more rootsy than say, the overly self-promotional Masie Show, down in Florida. It’s practitioners, who work in real organisations do real work for real people. So you get some great, grounded sessions, packed full of tips about how to do things better. On the other hand, some of the bigger thinking can get a little lost. That’s OK. We have a surfeit of big thinking at conferences, often from people who have never really built, run or led anything. I’m tired of hearing about ‘Leadership’ from people who have never ‘led’ anything, other than a course on ‘Leadership’. It was refreshing to be among some realists.
The good stuff….
First reflection: I had a great three days at this meeting. I met (for the first time) some people I’ve long admired – Clark Quinn, Alison Rossett, Will Thalheimer, Mark Britz, Cammy Bean and so on. It was good to have some in-depth conversations with people who have a track record and some depth in their experience and insights.
Then there were the excellent sessions where I gleaned lots of practical advice from expert practitioners. To take just one example, I learnt tons in the session on running Webinars. In one sense there was an abundance of good sessions, so many that it was difficult to choose.
As usual, most of the interesting stuff took place off-piste. I gave three sessions, all of which I found easy to deliver, as they were packed with enthusiastic and informed participants, so I'd like to thank the DevLearn folks for allowing me to speak. The early morning ‘Buzz’ sessions were debates, with no PPT slides – these I loved and the one I ran on AI was full of lively and knowledgeable folk who made time fly.
Futurists are so last year....
But let me come back to the ‘big ideas’ issue. One expects keynotes to provide some new, insightful thinking. Sorry, I didn’t feel or get it. A guy called David Pogue did a second-rate Jim Carey act. His ‘look at these wacky things on the internet’ shtick is becoming a predictable routine. Kids can play the recorder on their iPhone! No they don’t. Only a 50 year old who bills himself as a ‘futurist’ thinks that kids take this stuff seriously. To be fair, I didn’t know about the DickFit, a ring that tracks your sex life. That was the only thing I learnt from that session. I’ve begun to tire of ‘futurists’ – they all seem to be relics from the past.
Not one to give up, I attended the next keynote, an enthusiastic guy called Adam Savage. I had never heard of him, but he’s a TV presenter in the US and hosts a show called Mythbusters. In over an hour the only thing he said that was remotely interesting (unwittingly), was a quote from Wolfgang Pauli, who used the phrase "not even wrong" to describe an argument that claims to be significant but is, in fact, banal. I say ‘unwittingly, as this guy tried to claim that art and science were really the same thing, as both were really (and here comes his big insight) – storytelling. The problem is that the hapless Adam knew nothing about science or art. It was trite, both reductionist and banal. That's bad.
My own view is that these conferences need outsiders who can talk knowledgeably about learning and not just about observing their kids or delivering a thinly disguised autobiography. I want some real relevance.
Hat’s off to the DevLearn team…
But that was only two things out of many. What makes this conference unique is that it’s run by enthusiasts who are also experts. They do it on a shoestring and do it damn well. Sure I had a few beefs, like the keynotes and the boorish E-learning Brothers, who hollered their way in orange tee-shirts through all three days, as if they were on a stag party, making it impossible for people to hear the speakers on the side stages. On the other hand, I enjoyed talking to the developers, who were pushing the limits on adaptive learning, the woman who works in compliance who explained to me, patiently, how the compliance training she had to deliver was an illusory evil that deliberately ignored the very idea of ethical behaviour, compliant only to the idea that these things are a regulatory nuisance and don’t really matter. I enjoyed seeing some good British people out there selling their wares – Ben Betts, the Totara guys, the Learning Pool crew (who wowed their audience with their open source authoring tool ADAPT), the lovely Laura Overton. Lisa Minogue-White, Colin Welch from Brightwave and Julian Stodd, who gave us a running online commentary on the dodgy bars of Vegas. In the end, it’s all about the people.
On reflection, I'd recommend this show for folk who want to learn about making this stuff. It's easy to point to weaknesses but I'd change tack on the keynotes, appeal to a more international audience, have a big debate around some key issue and make sure that the stages in the exhibition area were more functional. One last note - I’m writing this on a Virgin Atlantic 747. Foiled by their labyrinthine online check-in process. I tweeted my frustration and within 30 secs got a Tweet in reply confirming my seat allocation. It made me glad that I’m in the tech business. It’s so damn weird and unpredictable.