Thursday, March 17, 2016

In memoriam Erik Duval: TEL Rockstar or TEL-evangelist?

This is a picture of the late Erik Duval talking about "Open learning in practice" on October 24, 2011 during the VLHORA Studiedag "The Educational Highway" at the Flemish Parliament. It was an interesting programme that day, with keynotes by Steven van Bellegem, and Stephen Downes, and parallel workshop sessions with most of Flanders' experts in the field of technology-enhanced learning: Pedro de Bruyckere, Cindy de Smet, Jan Elen, Jos Dumortier, Jan Seurinck, and of course Erik Duval.
The picture illlustrates Erik's typical presentation style: one hand in his pocket, relaxed, eyes sparkling, with a semi-smirk on his face, semi-improvising his way through his never-ending stream of mostly graphical slides. Typical for Erik was that he would be sitting in the audience until 10 minutes before his speech or keynote, refining his presentation, or linking his thoughts to issues mentioned by the speakers before him. An avid Apple-fan, he had a huge collection of slides in Keynote, from which he made a selection on-the-fly to fit the audience, the theme or some recent topic. Also, he didn't rely on his slides, like so many others. The slides would most often illustrate the story that he told, and if the presentation technology failed, Erik would still keep you chained to your chair with his intense, and often somewhat controversial style of storytelling.
In the flood of social media reactions on Twitter and Facebook that was triggered by his untimely passing on March 12th, some people have called him a Science Rockstar, or even the Steve Jobs of Flemish higher education. Of course, some of his talks were controversial or provocative, but that was mainly to start people thinking and get them to reconsider pre-conceived ideas, or look at an issue from a different perspective. But he was no rockstar in the sense of aloofness, prima-donna-ism or inflated ego. Erik was as down-to-earth an academic as you may ever encounter, always stressing the work of others, usually downplaying his own contribution, and friendly to a fault.
He was a Steve Jobs in the sense that he was very influential, innovative and that he passed away much too soon, but the comparison stops there. Erik was first and foremost a family man, firmly rooted in Antwerp, who preferred video-conferencing and skyping above travelling and plane hopping. He was also open and generous with his knowledge, insights and ideas, and not just trying to monetize them. He was the ultimate educator when guiding and supporting his students, PhD researchers and colleagues. His research group often had the highest number of PhD students within the department or even the faculty, mostly due to Erik's network and ideas. When talking with Erik, he would give you his full attention, even though he always seemed to be in a hurry.
Was he a TEL-evangelist, as the title of this post suggests? Definitely not in the sense of someone trying to convince you about his viewpoints at all costs. He didn't just talk the talk, he applied his ideas in his own work with his students and colleagues, and led by example.
Erik and I have been colleagues for more than 10 years, first at KULeuven, in projects such as Pubelo or on the advisory committee for the KULeuven VLE. Later we kept in touch through conferences, workshops, PhD defenses and of course online. I remember a semester where Erik invited some close members of his international network to join his HCI students through Facebook to allow them to test Facebook apps that the students were developing. Last time we had dinner together was at Bozart in Brussels some years ago, when I had arranged a meeting of a number of Flemish TEL-experts, together with Stephen Downes who was visiting for a keynote. When Stephen came down with the flu, the rest of our group went to dinner anyway, and enjoyed a lovely meal and lively conversation.
Erik will be missed in our international family of researchers and practitioners of technology-enhanced learning, but his ideas, his enthousiasm and soul will stay with us for a long time to come.


Steve Wheeler said...

A lovely, thoughtful tribute Steven. Thank you.

@drsmetty said...

Nice tribute/blogpost Steven.

I still remember that dinner. When we were discussing my PhD he said: "don't tell me you are going to write a PhD on LMSes!". The LMS was definitely not his favourite piece of software :)

He will be missed, that's for sure.

Theo Mensen said...

Exactly this inspiring academic frontrunner in knowledge technology and engineering I learned to know 'on the flight'! Thx for this in memoriam And warm tribute Steven.