Giant Waves Swamp University Campus! (a report from ALT-C 2014)


“Makingthedrop”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

This year’s conference of ALT (the Association for Learning Technology) at the University of Warwick last week invited presenters to draw inspiration from a surfing metaphor with its title Riding Giants: How to innovate and educate ahead of the wave. Authors rose to the occasion, and audiences found themselves catching and riding waves (including unstoppable ones), experiencing beach breakers and blow-outs, avoiding shallow waters and coral reefs and, even, taking a surfing safari.

The centrepieces of the conference were its three keynotes.

Designing University Education for 2025: balancing competing priorities

Jeff Haywood, Vice Principal Knowledge Management and Chief Information Officer at the University of Edinburgh, spoke on this topic on the first morning of the conference. He reviewed the past 10 years in educational technology before going on to summarise emergent trends. He reported data suggesting that:

  • faculty are increasingly comfortable with technology,
  • there is an increase in students’ experience of fully online education (even if their own university doesn’t offer it),
  • more students are finding OER, and
  • the proportion of younger people among learners on MOOCs is increasing.

Jeff also cited evidence that senior academic officers are seeing online learning as at least as good as F2F learning, although employers remain less positive.

Looking ahead, Jeff offered the goal of education that is on demand, self-paced, location-flexible, relevant to one’s life and/or career both now and in future, global and local, personalised to one’s learning style and pace, affordable, high value-added, and provided in a range of subjects. This is not about technology specifically, but Jeff argued that it can’t be achieved without technology.

To achieve this goal, Jeff suggested that vision is needed at the policy level – government and vice-chancellors – together with a road map of ‘modest, but purposeful steps’ and evidence that answers the questions ‘is this actually changing quality?’; ‘is it actually cheaper?’. Jeff’s recommendations for ‘serious experiments which are modest but are designed to scale’ include:

  • student-teacher co-creation of courses,
  • digital literacy for all,
  • making most courses available as open online courses, and
  • the systematic application of learning analytics.

However, he warned his audience to watch out for the unexpected as we go along, particularly new technological developments, and concluded with a recipe for action now:

  • investment in learning designers, to work as a coordinated team,
  • online assessment that’s more than just MCQs,
  • learning analytics, and
  • fully online courses for undergraduates.

MOOCs, games and virtual reality would feature on the side, not centre-stage.

Video of Jeff’s talk.

Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education

Catherine Cronin is academic coordinator of online IT programmes and lecturer in Information Technology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, was the our second keynote speaker. Her title was inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem Lightenings viii (see also this charming animation of the poem by Eoghan Kidney). More specifically, she took the legend of the monks of Clonmacnoise as a metaphor for divide between formal and informal learning: just as the crew of the sky-borne ship whose anchor caught in the monks’ altar rail struggled to survive in our world (the ‘marvellous’) – so some students struggle – initially at least – to find their way in the ‘marvellous’ world of academia. In a talk that also explored openness in relation to the themes of division, spaces and identity, Catherine suggested that open practices can minimise the discrepancies in power between students and staff.

Video of Catherine’s talk.

Ed-Tech, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Teacher Machines

In her blog Audrey Watters characterises herself as ‘an education writer, a recovering academic, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and some days, ed-tech’s Cassandra’. She is also a trained folklorist with an interest in what stories we tell and how these stories construct and shape the world.

Her keynote took in Ned Lud, monsters of various kinds, and BF Skinner’s teaching machines. In her ‘Cassandra’ role, Audrey warned her audience against seeing technology as ‘an autonomous creation, one that will move society (and school) forward under its own steam and without our guidance.’ It’s impossible to do Audrey’s talk any kind of justice in a single paragraph, so I strongly recommend reading or watching it for yourself!

And now, over to the surfin’ dudes…

The great attraction of ALT-C (apart from the networking opportunities of course), is its combination of reports from academic research into teaching and learning with technology and accounts of everyday practices.

The research presentations of research which I attended reflect the range of areas in which I’ve been involved over the past several years, including:

  • a conceptual and methodological model for researching self-regulation in students’ learning online (Sue Bennett, University of Wollongong);
  • the challenges to gathering evidence of the impact OER experienced by the OER Research Hub at the Open University; see also their striking visualisations of data, the OER Impact Map;
  • a study of MOOCs as a scalable solution for teachers’ professional development – in this case, preparing them to teach computer science topics in the Australian schools digital technologies curriculum (Rebecca Vivian, University of Adelaide).

I gave a presentation too, based on data from our OER project: Should openness be the default in Higher Education?: links to my slides and notes on SlideShare.

Photo of courtyard outside Oxford Story Museum CC BY Liz Masterman

Photo of courtyard outside Oxford Story Museum CC BY Liz Masterman

A number of the papers reporting practice by teachers, learning technologists librarians contained advice and recommendations that Oxford colleagues might find useful:

  • SMIRK, a mobile app from Glasgow Caledonian University for developing students’ information literacy skills (available as an OER),
  • Reading On Screen, a website from the University of York providing practical guidance to students on reading documents online more easily, and
  • accounts of experience with lecture capture at UCL and Imperial College London which encouraged teachers to think of lecture capture as a gateway to more engaging forms of learning and to expanding one’s pedagogy.

This was the first ALT-C that I’ve attended since 2010, and it provided me with the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and associates from the UK and elsewhere with whom I’ve been involved in research projects over the past decade. I’m already looking ahead to next year’s conference – not least because I will have the privilege of co-chairing it with Amanda Jefferies of the University of Hertfordshire, with whom I have a longstanding acquaintance through our research into the student digital experience. I’ll be blogging about our preparations over the course of the coming year…

ALT-C 2014 was held from 1st-3rd September at the University of Warwick. Abstracts of all the presentations, and links to videos and research papers, are openly available on the ALT-C 2104 conference website.

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