This was an article I started to write on the train home, then I left it for a while, wrote a little more, and then a few weeks later, thought, I really ought to get this finished.
The Association of Learning Technology Conference in Manchester is the biggest conference of its kind in the UK. Over the course of three days, hundreds of delegates (in the main from HE and FE) descended onto the University of Manchester to listen, discuss, network and discover what was happening in the world of educational technology.
You get a real mix of attendees at the conference, as well as a large smattering of delegates from overseas, there are people employed across HE, FE and Skills. They are in a variety of departments, from dedicated IT staff, staff development as well as technology enhanced learning. They are also in a variety of roles, from learning technologists, managers, leaders.
This is the first time since 2012 (which was in the same venue) that I have attended the whole conference, I missed it in 2013 and only managed one day in 2014. It was great to meet up with old friends and meet new ones. Back in 2012 there was only a few people from FE at the conference, it was refreshing this year to see many more FE people at the event. The people I spoke to certainly seemed to be enjoying the conference.
As has happened before there was a lot of talk about how there was still too much focus on small scale initiatives with little big picture thinking taking place. I heard discussions about how we had heard many of these things before, but with a slightly different gloss or skin.
To be honest I am not surprised, as the ALT Conference is very much about showcasing the work of learning technologists in institutions, their small scale pilots and projects. They are on the same journey that we made years before in discovering how they and their small cohorts can take advantage of new technologies, tools and services. If you think about it, the conference process isn’t totally conducive to showcasing large scale holistic change,
The paper submission process, geared to attending the conference, will push the focus to those projects that are research based, small scale, small cohorts, the work of individuals or small teams. This is not to say you won’t find gems in the conference on large scale implementations, but they will be rare and limited. Can you really for example talk about whole institutional change in 15 minutes?
This isn’t a criticism of that process and I think it is a valuable way for learning technologists to focus and present on their work in front of an expert critical audience. However if you attend the conference with the aim of finding out how to approach the embedding of learning technologies holistically across an entire organisation, you may find yourself disappointed, and you may need to think about scaling up the projects and outcomes you do get to hear about.
So why do I attend the conference:
- Inspiration: Across the conference you can find out about amazing work going on, really innovative practice that inspires you in your own work.
- Reflection: I find many of the discussion sessions enable me to reflect on my own practice and really think hard about what I do and how I do it.
- Benchmarking: Something I use to do when working within an institution, was to use presentations and papers to benchmark our progress and work against that of other institutions.
- Meeting and networking with old friends and making new ones: Though I spend a lot of time networking through social media, such as the Twitter and Google+, it is still nice to meet people face to face. I took the time to print off my Twitter avatar, which I have used since 2007 and stuck it to my badge so that people could link me to my Twitter account. As a result it was nice to meet many of the friends I have on Twitter for real.
- Connections: As well as meeting old friends and making new ones, conferences also allow me to make connections, other helping connect people together, who both know me, but may not necessarily know each other.
- The Exhibition area: This is interesting to see what new technologies are been pushed by suppliers. At this year’s conference I noticed that Portal were there pushing the IBM Student Experience, whilst Instructure were talking about Canvas, the “next generation” VLE. Usually in the exhibition areas, the exhibitors focus on pushing one aspect of their product portfolio. I find these areas quite interesting as you will often find a gem or nugget of news about how one institution (or another) is using these new products.
As you will have seen in previous blog posts I did plan where and what I was going to do in quite some detail. This was also to help me as I made a point of noting down room numbers too. This worked quite well, there were some last minute changes I sadly missed David Kernohan’s session, which by all accounts was fantastic.
I also forgot to note I was chairing a session and was in another one, when I got tweeted that I was needed somewhere else.
Highlights for me included the session on digital capability, where Helen Beetham talking to a packed room explored the new Jisc digital capability framework. This certainly demonstrated the interest in the framework from the sector and how it is a real issue in institutions in how they build digital capability. The content of the session resonated with people in the room and during the round table discussions, I heard lots of positive comments and interest in the framework and the project as a whole. It was evident from those conversations that people like the framework and see it as a useful tool to discuss digital skills and capabilities.
There is also a demand for some kind of diagnostic tool to assess staff skills in digital and support in helping those same staff to improve their skills. As project manager for this area at Jisc I particularly welcomed the interest in the project.
I also enjoyed Lawrie Phipps and Donna Lanclos’ session, Are learning technologies fit for purpose. I do like a good debate and this session did not disappoint. There was a lot of discucssion about what was a learning technology, it certainly is more than a VLE or an LMS, there was debate about what purposes these tools serve and something we need to define before we can really say anything about fitness for purpose. The discussion really then moved onto the importance of understanding people’s motives when it comes to the use of learning technologies and the levers of change that need to be in place before change can happen. One clear conclusion from the session, was that the technology was less important than the leadership, management and skills of the people involved in the delivery of learning.
I have heard Steve Wheeler speak many times, most recently at FOTE 14, and I felt that Steve wasn’t really saying anything new. It was interesting to hear from his two learners, but as they were his learners, I expected that they would be using learning technologies in interesting ways, well Steve is their teacher. It will be interesting, as they were learning to be teachers, if they utilise technology in their teaching over the next four years, as they did as learners in the last four!
After this session, my plans were slightly scuppered as I was asked to chair the sessions happening in the main hall. Both presentations were certainly interesting and I particularly found the session, Engaging learners in computer-based summative exams: Reflections on a participant-informed assessment interesting and relevant to those who are looking at computer based assessment.
Of all the keynotes I felt that the one that I got the most from was Johnathan Worth. Jonathan Worth is renowned in both the edtech and photography world down to his #phonar photography MOOC which almost built by hand, behind the scenes, attracted 35,000 learners.
What was interesting was the journey he took, starting off as a photographer and moving through the MOOC and other directions.
The keynote has been featured on mainstream tech site Boing Boing.
I spent some of the Wednesday talking about FELTAG, both as part of the FELTAG session which has been accepted as part of the conference proper and the launch of the FELTAG SIG, which attracted a lot of attention, including this article in FE Week.
On Thursday I went to Laura Czerniewicz’s keynote on inequality as higher education goes online. I wasn’t sure how much this was going to be of interest, as it did focus on HE, however I did find it quite an illuminating talk, lots of questions, but as Laura says, very few if any answers to the many problems she discusses in her keynote. It’s one thing to ask questions, but finding and providing answers is a lot more challenging. The main thrust of her talk was the importance of commons and openness. As a result there is a conflict with market-led solutions.
On the coffee front, yes I was disappointed with the fact that the café at the Museum was closed for three weeks, however I did manage to find an equally nice (or even a slightly nicer) place for coffee over the road at the Christie’s Bistro. Those who regularly read the blog will know that I have a thing about conference coffee, and as it usually is quite poor and awful I do try and find alternatives and find some real coffee whenever I am at a conference.
Overall I left Manchester feeling exhausted, but full of enthusiasm for learning technologies. There was so much to take away from the conference that even now weeks later I am still reflecting on the sessions I attended and even those that I missed. Don’t miss it next year.