Thoughts on Geekretreat 2010

I got back yesterday from Geekretreat in Stanford Valley (beautiful, by the way) and these are some of my thoughts after reflecting on the experience. The theme of this year’s retreat was (broadly) the role of the internet in South African education, which is what motivated me to apply for a scholarship. I have to agree with @pete_flynn, the retreat completely exceeded my expectations. I was worried that it would be a group of self-interested business-types, who would spend the weekend telling each other how cool they were. I’m happy to say that my perceptions were completely overturned. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around so many friendly, interesting and intelligent people.

As far as the structure of the weekend went, I loved the idea of the open grid format, and my initial concern that the event would devolve into chaos was unfounded. I liked that not every timeslot was “serious”, with the skillshare sessions being both entertaining and providing a lighter note to the sometimes intense discussion.

I was fortunate enough to have a “talking head” session, where I got some great feedback from the small group discussion around some of the challenges I’m coming across in my research. The value of the session was in the alternative ideas presented to me, which I almost certainly wouldn’t have come up with alone. In fact, I think that’s the essence of what the weekend was about…that you’re more likely to change your thinking around an idea if you have a conversation around it. And there was plenty of conversation. I can’t remember a single moment when people weren’t engaging with each other around some project or idea.

I wasn’t lucky enough to have a conversation with everyone who was there, but during the ones I did have, I came to realise that we have some very smart and talented people in the South African tech industry who are capable of making a real difference in the country. And while many of the projects and ideas I came across were interesting, the following were particularly note-worthy (at least, to me):

  • Cognician by Barry and Patrick Kayton – a tool for engaging with concepts and ideas that has already changed how I think about my teaching
  • Marlon Parker from CPUT and his community outreach projects using social media
  • The Peer 2 Peer University, with whom I have a commitment in 2010 to create and possibly run a module (now that it’s online, I have no choice but to go through with it)
  • Sam Christie and his ideas around gaming in education. Not the boring, self-righteous “educational” games that all kids hate (and rightly so), but real, entertaining games that can highlight important life skills

Although I found the event to be an inspiring and intensely motivational experience, I do have some critical feedback for the organisers that I hope will be considered for future events. Please don’t see this as negativity. They’re just my own observations:

  • You can’t have a real conversation about this big a deal (i.e. the internet / education in South Africa) without any representation from the country’s largest demographic, the poor and disempowered. To borrow a phrase from the disability movement: “Nothing about us, without us”
  • If you’re going to have a discussion around online education, try to get some input from the people who are actually doing it. The most obvious example would’ve been to invite a representative from UNISA. I’m sure they have very clear ideas about the challenges faced in South African online education
  • I wasn’t sure if I agreed with @EveD’s comment around the lack of a defined set of goals. As a researcher and teacher, I’m probably biased in that I believe objectives can more clearly guide a process. However, she adds that we probably ended up with a more innovative and creative event as a result of that lack of defined parameters. Perhaps in the future, participants could collaborate on the objectives (either prior to, or at the beginning of the event) but still retain an open structure in which discussion can take place
  • I would avoid making premature announcements of success at this early stage. If it ends up not being the success you proclaimed, people will remember. It’s easy to feel fired up and ready to take on the world after an awesome event like this one. But, we all made commitments of our time and resources that we may find difficult to honour when other priorities loom. Can I suggest that we work towards making a huge proclamation of the success of Geekretreat 2010, at Geekretreat 2011?

Having said that, I think the event clearly had a huge impact on everyone who was there, and who are going to go on to do great things in the coming year. I know there are a few projects I’ll definitely be watching (and hopefully be participating in) over the next few months. I wish everyone I had the pleasure of meeting this weekend a fantastic year in which all of your dreams are realised through the collaborative efforts of the beautiful people at Geekretreat.

Note: Thanks to @paul_furber for some of the great pics that I stole to use here. Also, a huge thanks to the sponsors (YolaSeacomISSkyroveOrca wirelessEconsultanctJackie ScalaOld MutualWhite Wall Web), as well as Heather FordEve D and Justin Spratt), without whom Geekretreat just wouldn’t be possible.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.