Event report: ALT-C 2013

Image of ALT-C 2013 opens at the University of Nottingham, 10th to 12th of September 2013

ALT-C 2013 opens at the University of Nottingham

ALT-C 2013 has just finished having taken place last week from the 10th to the 12th of September and this year it was held in our region at the University of Nottingham.  Three days of ‘no commute’ were blissful, it’s true, but actually the whole conference this year had a positive vibe about it which was great.  Especially given the difficult educational landscape of the last few years, to be in a constructive, positive, enthusiastic environment was very welcome.

So, some highlights…

Rachel Wenstone, VP for Higher Education, NUS

The over-riding themes of the conference seemed to me to be about partnerships, co-operation, openness and connection and a large slice of digital practice and these were exemplified by the refreshing opening keynote by Rachel Wenstone – VP for Higher Education from the NUS.  She offered a rejection of the ‘student as consumer’ concept which has been so prevalent since ‘Students at the Heart of the System‘ was published a couple of years ago.  Instead, Rachel talked about students as partners – not just ‘survey fillers’ but as real participants in shaping their use of learning technology… and involved in supporting the development of staff skills too (which sounded like a really interesting idea – and so far a missed opportunity).  Real student engagement, real academic partnerships and real defense against students as consumers.  Refreshing stuff!

Digital practice / practitioners

I also found the sessions on the digital practitioner useful.  It’s good to hear what other people are doing / thinking about the issues attached to digital literacy.  Liz Bennett from the University of Huddersfield offered several different ways of thinking about the digital practitioner and shared the thought that what drives uptake of new technology is not necessarily the skills and functional access to technology, but the willingness and attitude of those who may or may not engage with it.  She also offered the following questions for consideration:

  • How do we move the focus from the tools and skills to practices?
  • How do we cultivate application in situated practice?
  • How do we support risk taking?
  • How does the institution allow for radical form [sic] that are not constrained by the institution’s barriers?
  • How does the institution value attributes of the digital practitioner?

I definitely don’t have the answers to those, but I know that they feel like the right questions to be asking and engaging with.  She also made the point that in terms of developing as digital practitioners mimicry, vicarious learning / unintended exposure to others’ practices, ventriloquism (i.e. adopting new strategies and resources without necessarily buying in to them) and modelling were more effective than staff development courses.  So, an additional question emerges – How do we support a culture where the vicarious, the co-operative and connected informal learning and sharing of practice can take place and develop our digital practitioners?

Image of Lesley Gourlay and Martin Oliver offering definitions of digital literacies

Lesley Gourlay and Martin Oliver offering definitions of digital literacies

I also got a lot from Lesley Gourlay and Martin Oliver’s session ‘Why it’s not all about the learner’ – which, again, focused on digital literacy.  Rather than trying to report the detail of their presentation, I’ll instead link to Lesley’s presentation slides, which include the quotes and definitions which were so useful during their engaging session.  They’ve also got a blog about their project at http://diglitpga.jiscinvolve.org/wp/ which is worth taking a look at as well.  Some key points – really small issues (like logging off times / printing arrangements at universities) have big impacts on student learning space choice.  Control of space is important for learners.  The material campus is now saturated with digital mediation – we aren’t in an ‘optional extra’ culture where digital is concerned.  And finally (sorry for the disjointed points!), the meaning making aspect of digital literacy is important as well as the situated aspect.  Context and purpose – as ever – are vital to understanding of digital literacy.

Stephen Downes

The final highlight – though to be honest, there were others! – was Stephen Downes’ keynote entitled ‘What are Cultures of Learning‘.  He made some fascinating points about the change in MOOCs and what they seem to have morphed into from the origins of his first Massive Open Online Course.  One of which stuck out most of all – that it was a mistake to have called the ‘courses’ – and I think that taps into the heart of the problem of determining whether or not MOOCs are successful.  It’s a little like the oft quoted ‘Everybody is a genius.  But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid’ (Albert Einstein) – if you judge success of MOOCs by completion rates then, as in the analogy used by Downes, it’s a little like judging the success of a newspaper by whether or not people have read every single word, front to back.  Success and effectiveness of newspapers is the impact on society.  Did / does the paper act as an agent of change?  Does the MOOC actually help make change and allow learners to use them as *they* need?

Stephen Downs juggling multiple communication channels at ALT-C

Stephen Downs juggling multiple communication channels at ALT-C

He said that the reason MOOCs ‘fail’ was because they’re courses and they’re trying to do something formal in an environment that is essentially informal.  Additionally, massive discussion forums don’t work for MOOCs because they are an alien space in which people cannot make human-scale connections.  You come across this over and over again – an observable ingredient of something that’s successful turned into a formula for success.  Yet, conveniently leaves out the people and informal connection which truly makes the difference.

I also loved his points about ‘Why the Web Won’:

  • big is beautiful – one network prevails – think Facebook
  • scruffy works: let the links fail to make it scale
  • democracy rules: open, free and universal
  • but we lost (for a time) conceptual and contextual – the semantic web

From being a ‘MOOC failure’ myself, I can feel a renewed interest in the thing that got me fascinated by technology enhanced learning in the first place – people learning together and being amazing together, discovering new potential and possibility, connection, cooperation and community – without ever having met.  Enthusiasm being shared is a powerful catalyst.  I would never have thought of an astronaut tweeting from space being a ‘MOOC’ – but Chris Hadfield’s incredible Pied Piper job of playing a tune that everyone wanted to follow, is a slice of learning and sharing which was freeform, scruffy and big.  And not a course in sight.  Fabulous exciting stuff!

Oh, and Stephen’s also a multi-communication-channel-juggling genius.  He actively used the back channel and drew on his experience of the conference to create a performance not just a presentation!  It might be a bit Marmite… with some people disliking the distraction element – but I thought he was fabulous.  If you’re going to be all about open and online… you have to live by it, don’t you! 

So, overall ALT-C 2013 in Nottingham  was well worthwhile.  20 years of ALT, celebrated with constructive, thought-provoking opportunities for meeting with colleagues and making new connections.  Even if the weather in the East Midlands let us down, ever so slightly!!

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