Ambiguous Utopias: Highlights from the EDEN 2023 Annual Conference

This post is a report from the EDEN 2023 Annual Conference held in Dublin, which I attended in June. I’ll share some of the highlights of the event, and a selection of resources I’ve collated.

I left London for Dublin and arrived at Gatwick Airport much earlier than I needed to. My flight was then late. The result was that I spent the morning checking emails and reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven It is a wonderful piece of science fiction on power, ego, and the limits of knowledge. Why is this relevant to this post? We will get to that.

A positive theme: Digital education for better futures

I arrived to a very warm and sunny Dublin, and a powerful theme set the tone for the conference: “Yes, we can!” – Digital Education for Better Futures. It immediately felt like an overwhelmingly positive space. Delegates were excited to explore the potential of digital education in shaping a hopeful future and I had my first conversation beside a poster by the Central European University about Digital Interactive Fiction in the humanities. It asked, What is history and how different is it from storytelling?

Hope punks: An exhilarating keynote from Dr Rikke Toft Nørgård

The key note address was genuinely exhilarating and I urge you to watch Dr Rikke Toft Nørgård’s talk, Between the Real and the Ideal – Human Futures in Digital Education?

Rikke called for a collective, polyphonic, cacophonic dream for a better future and asked us to ‘destroy the university’. Dr Nørgård had delegates inspired for the rest of the conference, and the term Hope Punk on everyone’s lips.

Where have we been and where are we going?

The conference theme is clearly a strong one, reinforced by the touching plenary from Dr. Melissa Bond entitled, Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going? Lessons From EdTech Evidence Synthesis . Melissa reminded us that we’re on the precipice of a new era of teaching and learning and so, to prepare us, she presented an overview of the edtech field and a focus on research, policy, and practice of the future.

Her own definition of student engagement is a slide worth sharing:

Text written on the slide: What is student engagement? Student engagement is the energy and effort that students employ within their learning community, observable via any number of behavioural, cognitive, affective, or social indicators across a continuum. It is shaped by a range of structural and internal influences, including the complex interplay of relationships, learning activities and the learning environment. The more students are engaged and empowered within their learning community, the more likely they are to channel that energy back into their learning, leading to a range of short- and long-term outcomes, that likewise further fuel engagement.

My turn to present: Next generation teachers and learners

My presentation, AI Tutor Pilot: A Scalable Solution for 1:1 Support? gave me an opportunity to share our work on piloting an artificial intelligence (AI) Teaching Assistant. I demonstrated our AI study buddy, Londy, I shared our findings to date, and discussed short to medium term use of AI in education. The questions I received were from a well-informed audience who were keen to understand the ways students might use these emerging AI tools.

I want to take this moment in the spirit of the conference theme “Yes, we can!” to say that if I can present at an international conference then: Yes, you can!

Student views on learning with AI

Next up, Edinburgh Napier University’s presentation, ChatGPT and Me: The Student Voice on Future Learning in the Age of Artificial Intelligence shared the results of a university-wide Amnesty Padlet on student experiences and thoughts about generative AI.

The discussion in this session shows how important co-creation and collaboration is. Inputs from students, academics, professional staff, and industry partners provides us with diverse ideas, fosters innovation, and provides insights we might otherwise be ignorant to.

Do all futures lead to micro-credentials?

Micro-credentials are the latest shiny new thing attracting the interest of educational leaders, policymakers and politicians, so it was good to hear from leading experts with practical experience of micro-credentials.  

In series of presentations about micro-credentials we learned about the practical infrastructure required to issue these awards (something I am pleased to say has been factored into our own Digital Credentials project) and heard a detailed case study about the use of micro-credentials from the team behind the IUA MicroCreds initiative.

We also heard from a leading voice in the field, Professor Mark E Brown, Ireland’s first Chair in Digital Learning and Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL). He shared advice for those responsible for leading and enhancing the quality of micro-credential qualifications, and reviewed some national and intranational efforts to wrangle them.

In an action lab; Talking About Micro-credentials: A Conversation on Learning, Leadership and Institutional Transformation delegates were invited to answer the question “What should educational leaders do in response to the rapidly evolving micro-credentialing movement? You can read what the presenters think in their latest academic paper, A strategic institutional response to micro-credentials: key questions for educational leaders.

And to end the afternoon, a team from Germany presented on the Application of ESCO to Document Lifelong Learning – Case Studies in German Continuing Education Institutions. The authors, Jana Riedel and Lydia Stark, highlighted the importance of lifelong learning and the need for transparency and comparability of competencies – a point not lost on the micro-credential crowd.

Hope on the horizon

As the conference progressed, delegates and presenters found themselves wrangling several difficult questions: What is the purpose of a university? What does a better future look like? How can the sector respond to rapidly evolving and emerging technology? How can we ensure that students are ready for these technologies? Can we set the direction for digital education?

There is a lot of appetite for a better future, demonstrated by the programme being packed with excellent content (including an action lab on Making It Real: Assessment and the Affordances of New Tools for Learning by our colleagues Professor Alan Tait and Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper). Sadly, even the busiest delegate could only manage a quarter of it.

As it ended, Dr Maren Deepwell, the outgoing CEO of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) presented Setting out in a New Direction for Digital Education. Maren introduced us to ALT’s Framework for Ethical Learning Technology and talked about her own experience of the interplay between technology and learning, and how this interplay can help foster creativity and empower the imagination.

This is where Le Guin comes back. Dr Deepwell quotes her: “It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.”

It is imagination that has us asking the right questions: Who has a say in shaping the future and who might we be missing? What does the future hold for learners moving from hybrid learning to hybrid working? What do we need to consider to avoid going backwards or moving into a future that doesn’t deliver?

It reminds me of an interaction from another of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books, The Left Hand of Darkness:

“Well, we come here to the Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”

“But you’re the Answerers!”

“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”


“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”

The delegates to EDEN 2023 were passionate and committed to finding the answers to the right questions, and in doing so working to deliver digital education that, in the daunting face of our current reality, allows for positive and radical visions of our collective future.

A final note: the conference featured a series of GASTA talks. If you have not heard of a Gasta Talk before, look it up!

Further resources from the conference

Space, Hardware, Software: Considerations for designing and building rooms for online teaching (Windle, 2022)

Rewild My Heart: With Pedagogies of Love, Kindness and the Sun and Moon. (Costello, 2022)

N-TUTORR National Project: Student Champions for Promoting Digital Skills, Education for Sustainability, Leadership & Employability Programme (Technological Higher Education Association, 2023)

Global campus: Re-imagining online learning (University of Helsinki, 2023)

Hacking Innovative Pedagogy: Innovation and Digitisation to Rewild Higher Education – A Commented Atlas (Beskorsa et al., 2023)

Higher Education for Good: Teaching and Learning Futures (Czerniewicz and Cronin, 2023)