The Media and Learning Conference (Brussels, December 2013)

I attended the Media and Learning Conference 2013 in Brussels at the end of December and found it really thought provoking and enjoyable. It was great to discuss current issues and share practice with participants from all across Europe and the US (I think there were participants from 27 different countries.) I really struggled to pick between the parallel sessions throughout both days, such was the relevance of each topic.


The underlying theme of the conference was Media Literacy and the ‘urgency of embedding digital and media literacy skills amongst the European workforce.’


During the opening plenary, the ‘modern world’ was addressed, with the discussion around whether dramatic and radical change or gradual systematic adaption within the education sector was the right way forward to meet the needs of today.


The representative from the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training in Belgium (a last minute replacement so didn’t catch his name) urged us to take a step back and really put ourselves in the shoes of a teacher/lecturer who wants to incorporate more media based initiatives in their classroom. Diving in to a world where it’s likely their students are more well-versed, the uncertainty of what others are doing in their teaching, the sense of responsibility that comes with the encouragement of recommending and using tools such as Youtube with their students- all factors among many more that could lead a teacher to see using media as making a ‘brave’ choice. For me, this emphasised the importance of ensuring that we share the great work our academics are already doing across the schools, as a means of reassurance to the less experienced/confident people in faculty.


Professor Renee Hobbs (Harrington School of Communication, Rhode Island, USA) had identified a set of ‘motivators’ through assessing teacher’s attitudes to media. When it comes to the reasoning behind and preferred usage of media tools within their teaching, they could be anything from a ‘trendsetter’ (the want to meet students ‘where they live’ by connecting the classroom to popular culture) to an ‘activist’ (encouraging students to use media to ‘address real-world issues.’) We discuss the importance of learner autonomy quite frequently so it was nice to think about teacher preference.


(To find out what kind of ‘motivator’ you are take the test at


There were some interesting discussions throughout the day around the use of lecture capture and presentations from institutions who have rolled it out on quite a large scale and those who are at the earlier stages of implementation. We had a discussion around the use of video within it and whether or not this component was actually needed (software typically contains the options of slides with audio, video- which is usually of the lecture itself if it was recorded live or the lecturer presenting to a webcam or similar, plus a means of navigation through the lecture.) Research done at the University of Eastern Finland tracked student’s eye movement when shown a captured lecture and hotspots were equal in measure around the slide content and the lecturer presenting. It was argued that as so much of a proportion of communication is visual, a view of the lecturer was an important element, but it was also argued that there’s no evidence it actually aids learning, even if student’s ‘like’ it. Some institutions have totally gone down the slides and audio route for the ease of rolling out lectures in large quantities.


Thinking about video use in HE in general, we debated the use of both simple and quick un-edited video and of higher-end production (a debate which has cropped up more than any other for me during my time in HE!) as well as looking at quality and what this means in terms of video.


Strong views were held in both the ‘quick and simple’ and ‘planned and scripted’ camps and most agreed there is value in both methods. An academic’s preference was also highlighted as an important factor in this choice- some being comfortable to switch on a webcam and address their students directly and distribute it self-sufficiently, whereas others embrace the scripting and direction from a production team.


Although the quick vs scripted debate was not new to me, in contrast to past debates, ‘quality’ seemed to be universally defined as quality of content instead of quality in a technical sense, which was music to my ears. The quality of video in a technical sense was thought of as a given, owing to the standard of today’s recording devices and available bandwidth. Something that was visibly and (especially) audibly high quality was seen by a lot of us as a minimum standard, the structure and relevance of the video content being the most important factor


As the case usually is, there was a lot of discussion around justifying video use in terms of assessing it against learning theory. It’s relevance as a component of recent trends such as the ‘flipped classroom’ model, the importance of it within social learning theories/participatory teaching methods and assessing it in terms of learning styles were all popular debates. These are no doubt very valid and important topics that underlie nearly everything we do as part of a Technology Enhanced Learning department. However, what I’ll take away with me is that there is a shift now towards the thinking that media with learning ‘is happening’ and that this is equally as important as theory behind it’s justification. No matter why or how we use it, culturally it is part of our every day lives and therefore is a part of education.


Overall, a very worthwhile conference and good to see some of the work going on at the Medea Awards Ceremony in the evening. I left with a lot of confidence in what we are doing here at Derby and excitement about all the new projects and initiatives that we will start in 2014.

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 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!!

eAssessment Scotland 2011

Statue of penguins in Dundee

On the 25th and 26th of August I attended the eAssessment Scotland conference in Dundee.  A sound-byte repeated several times during the conference was that we should “assess in the same way that students learn”.  This was partly taken to mean the inclusion of social media and electronic devices that the stereo-typical student immerses themselves in.  However there was a more concrete issue raised both by one of the posters (voted best at the conference) and in Donald Clark’s typically boisterous keynote: students (along with everyone else) are used to the benefits of word processors, which allow creating drafts, re-editing, copy and pasting to rearrange the structure etc.  Expecting students to go into an exam, take-up the seldom used pen and paper, and write essays from start to finish in one go, simply won’t get the best out of them.

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CAA 2011

This year’s Computer Aided Assessment (CAA) conference was held on the 5th and 6th of July; and I attended to present a paper on our migration from one computer-based assessment system (TRIADS) to another (Blackboard). In this post I will attempt to summarise the main themes, and highlight interesting developments.

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