Photo of Helen Keegan

Plymouth Enhanced Learning Conference (PELeCON) 2012


By Matt Lingard

The 7th Plymouth Enhanced Learning Conference was my third PELeCON in four years. For me conferences are all about conversations and it’s people that have drawn me back to Plymouth each time. The conference just attracts a nice bunch, with many returnees.  The organiser Steve Wheeler and his colleagues at Plymouth always put on an excellent event and line-up a good calibre of keynote speakers as Catherine highlights.

Both last year and this, the Student Showcases presented by primary and secondary school pupils gave those of us in Higher Education (HE) some food for thought. This year they included students providing peer support for Maths via Google groups and graphics tablets, others developing Apps to help with homework, iPads in the classroom, contributions via Skype and students making TV shows.

As ever (at conferences) the parallels were hit-and-miss. My two highlights were Assessing the Impact of a Learning Technologies Module for Academic Staff  and the practical Online Video for Learning.  My colleague Farzana went to Plymouth in search of augmented reality and reports on a couple of related parallels.

This year saw an explosion of activity in cyberspace supporting and enhancing the experience for delegates and virtual delegates alike.  Santanu’s report describes #pelc12 from the remote perspective.

Keynotes and Spotlights

By Catherine Cronin

One of the highlights of PELeCON 2012 was the range and quality of the Keynote and Spotlight speakers. As diverse as they were, each challenged and even unsettled us – looking beyond the classroom, beyond our institutions. The “thinning walls of the classroom”, due to open practices and social technologies, combined with dramatic changes in society and social values, compel us to reimagine schools, reimagine education, and thus reimagine our roles as educators. The walls of the Roland Levinsky Building in Plymouth were thinned during PELeCON, thanks not just to social technologies, but to the passion, politics and insight of each of the Keynote and Spotlight speakers.

David Mitchell (@DeputyMitchell) and Julia Skinner (@TheHeadsOffice)

Photo of David Mitchell
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 foto_mania

David Mitchell, Heathfield Primary School in Bolton, teamed up with Julia Skinner to talk about the power of student blogging, highlighting both the QuadBlogging project and the 100 Word Challenge. David, who teaches in Bolton, prefaced his talk by telling us that children who live just a few miles up the road from his school live an average of eight years longer. The goal of David’s work with student blogging truly is to change lives. Encouraging children to share their writing on school blogs can increase their confidence and improve their writing skills through the simple act of having an audience. David began by authoring a Well Done blog in his school, showcasing student work, but after student requests he opened up blogging to students. QuadBlogging now connects children across the world: in the past year, 70,000 pupils have been involved, from 2000 classes in over 35 countries. Students are motivated to learn by writing and by commenting on one another’s posts. David concluded by reminding us of the importance of commenting on blogs: “it can change a learner’s life”.

Julia Skinner described the 100 Word Challenge (100WC), a weekly creative writing challenge in which students are invited to respond to a prompt, set by Julia, to write 100 words. The mantra “it’s only 100 words” has proven to be a powerful prompt for both the reluctant writer and the more verbose! As with QuadBlogging, one of the special things about the 100WC is the peer interaction. Julia described examples of dramatic improvements in writing arising from suggestions from other children. Both of these initiatives showed the power of creating, as well sharing, imperfect work and learning through iteration. These themes were also touched on by Alec Couros and Leigh Graves Wolf.

> Digitalk – Why Should Schools Blog (YouTube)

> David Mitchell keynote (Prezi): A Quad, a Blog, and a Leap!

> Liveblog: David Mitchell & Julie Skinner keynotes by Oliver Quinlan

> Video of Presentation on Youtube

Simon Finch (@simfin)

Photo of Simon Finch

In the weeks leading up to PELeCON, Simon Finch tantalised us on Twitter with a countdown to his presentation, enigmatic tweets, and even a video trailer. How could he possibly live up to such a build-up? With a passionate and provocative presentation, he did. Simon’s “Something Better Change” keynote included music, video, role play, badges and audience participation – and asked some difficult questions of us. Do we reify technology? Are we doing enough to reform assessment? Does our terminology (e.g. “digital literacies”) alienate those with whom we seek to engage? Simon stressed, once again, that education is not detached from society. We face a multitude of challenges, but our online professional communities can be sources of support and creativity. Our goal, however, must be to work effect change: Something Better Change.

> Simon Finch keynote (Storify) Simfin’s #pelc12

> Liveblog: Simon Finch keynote by Oliver Quinlan

> Video of Presentation on Youtube

Alec Couros (@courosa)

Photo of Alec Couros
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 foto_mania

Alec Couros gave an inspiring keynote presentation – challenging, personal, interactive, and rich with image, video and compelling stories. In a room of educators who are engaged in open practices, to varying degrees, Alec challenged us further. He spoke of the power of documenting our learning, putting things out before they are perfect. The barriers to openness tend not to be about technology but about people, i.e. power, fear and control. Alec explored the concept of sharing, inviting us to ask ourselves, what does it mean when we share? Ultimately, sharing and openness is an imperative if we wish to “thin the walls of the classroom” and enable authentic learning by connecting our classrooms and our society.

> Alec Couros keynote (Slideshare): Open Scholarship and Connected Learning

> Liveblog: Alec Couros keynote by Oliver Quinlan

Helen Keegan ( @heloukee)

Photo of Helen Keegan

Helen Keegan tipped our world sideways in her outstanding keynote presentation “Who is Rufi Franzen?” There is game-based learning and then there is teaching an entire undergraduate module as an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). Helen did this in Autumn 2011 and she shared that story with us: her decision, the design of the game, student reactions, the drama as the game proceeded, the big “reveal”, and most of all, the learning. Despite some misgivings very early on the process, Helen was fully committed to her students and to the reality/game. She described an amazing level of engagement on the part of most students, with some describing it as their most transformative learning experience. Whether you might consider such an option or not, there was much food for thought here about ethics, engagement, authenticity and learning.

> Helen Keegan keynote [Slideshare] Who is Rufi Franzen?

> Helen Keegan blog post Running a module as an ARG: Who is Rufi Franzen?

> Liveblog: Helen Keegan keynote by Oliver Quinlan

> Video of Presentation on Youtube

Keri Facer ( @kerileef)

Photo of Keri Facer
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 foto_mania

Keri Facer, author of Learning Futures, started her presentation by asking us to think about what age we’d be in 2035. We are not good at predicting the future; we can, however, predict that in 2035, 50% of the population of western Europe will be age 50 or older, with a life expectancy of another 40 years. Our possible futures include conflict between generations, growing inequalities in society, declining energy supplies and resources. Keri outlined various options we have for planning for this future of social and technological change. We can put our heads in the sand and go on with “business as usual”, we can plan for total collapse – “future proofing” – or we can engage in “future building”.

Keri endorses Future Building, which she defined as “looking for the seeds of desirable futures that exist in the present; nurturing these possibilities; recognising complexity; and working to ‘tip the balance’”. Reimagining our future requires us to be willing to play, to suspend reality, to engage in divergent thinking. We can refocus our education systems embracing this concept of Future Building. Schools and universities, “the last public service in every community”, can be spaces for reimagining and re-engaging with their communities and environments. Keri concluded by asking us to consider the digital architectures of our educational institutions – presenting the wonderful concept of subversive “gothic digital architectures”.

> Liveblog: Keri Facer keynote by Oliver Quinlan

> Keri Facer keynote at LWF12 [YouTube] Learning Futures

Leigh Graves Wolf (@gravesle)

Photo of Leigh Graves Wolf
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 catherinecronin

On the morning of Day 3 of PELeCON, Leigh Graves Wolf enlivened us with a Make and Do session. Leigh had travelled from Michigan to deliver her spotlight session, but she is no stranger to southwest England, nor to many of the PELeCON participants due to her engaging online presence in the education and edtech communities. There was suspense followed by hilarity when Leigh handed out mysterious sealed brown paper bags, then asked us to work in teams to create as many “PELeCONs” as possible in 5 minutes.

Using this example of a Quickfire Challenge, Leigh described how activities such as these can help learners to “learn to love failure” and iteration, and can enable the conditions for creativity to flourish. The use of time constraints and “specific yet vague” directions along with a spirit of openness and sharing of results can contribute to deep, and deeply enjoyable, learning.

> Leigh Graves Wolf blog post PELeCON 2012 Spotlight session follow-up

> Liveblog: Leigh Graves Wolf keynote by Oliver Quinlan

> Video of Presentation on Youtube

Jane Hart  (@C4LPT)

Photo of Jane Hart
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 catherinecronin

In the final keynote of the conference, Jane Hart asked us to think about the link from education to the workplace. Jane began by posting the Top 100 Tools for Learning 2011, a list which Jane compiles each year based on votes from learning professionals. The analysis of the list was striking; sharing and collaboration tools topped the list, with personal tools considerably outperforming corporate tools. Jane showed the results of a number of workplace surveys and polled the PELeCON audience with many of the same questions, so that we could compare results in real time. This was fascinating – in industry as in education, social and collaborative tools are preferred. Personal learning strategies and personalised “just in time” learning is preferred to organisational “just in case” training initiatives. Jane’s message was that autonomy, responsibility and learner control must be supported in the workplace, just as in education.

> Jane Hart keynote [Slideshare]: The Top 100 Tools for Learning

> Liveblog: Jane Hart keynote by Oliver Quinlan

> Video of Presentation on Youtube

Emerging Technologies in the Parallels

By Farzana Latif

With the Microsoft Kinect supporting gesture based learning and promising to be a technology that will enhance learning and teaching over the next few year, James Edwards’ talk on the Microsoft Kinect, demonstrated some of the open examples currently available in the Kinect community. Examples included geography, creating pictures and impressively controlling the presentation through gestures. The Microsoft Partners in Learning Network has been set up to support and offer guides to using Kinect in teaching. Still in its infancy in UK education, it will be interesting to see how this technology is utilised in the upcoming years.

Linda Castaneda, University of Murcia, Spain has been setting students the task to develop an AR treasure hunt to explore different aspects of Murcia. As part of this activity students work in groups to complete and evaluate each other’s treasure hunts. Students were offered limited support on how to complete the task, despite many not being familiar with AR. Through setting this activity with students that had no AR experience, Castaneda’s message was clear, she wanted to ”emancipate” her students, giving them confidence that they have the ability to successfully utilise technologies that are new to them. Presentation Slides

PELeCon Virtually Speaking…

By Santanu Vasant

I dipped in and out of the conference as a virtual delegate, often catching up with proceedings via blog posts, videos etc. It was a challenge to keep up with the hundreds of tweets and links in any one session but I picked up the passion of the conference even from a distance, as well as some useful ideas and phrases, including my personal favourite from the conference from @digitalfprint “Couch surfing = hitchhiking for the digital age”.

The PELeCON twitter account reported on the last afternoon of the conference that 10, 592 tweets were available via a Google Docs spread sheet for “your curating and reflecting pleasure”. This was in addition to the PELeCON blog, photographs on the PELeCON Flickr Collection, the Instagram collection and videos of keynotes & ‘confessions’ on the YouTube Channel. This total continues to rise, as organiser Professor Steve Wheeler mentions in his blog post entitled the ‘Pelecon (brief)’

As with most conferences, the use of Twitter was once again a key way for virtual delegates like me to get opinions, discussion, and links to photographs and videos from the conference, which made me feel very much part of the conference, albeit from my office at Brunel University, from my local bus stop via a smartphone (with no refreshments – they haven’t solved this…yet!) or at home in the evening.

It was a rainy Wednesday morning at the bus stop when I first looked at the #pelc12 hashtag and found it was already being used to tweet photographs of the great British summer, this photo from Mary Ann Reilly ‏@MaryAnnReilly particularly summed up the weather – I tweeted a reply back, “as a ‘virtual attendee’ I am really getting the atmosphere ;)!”

I really liked the enthusiasm of the opening session ‘Robot Show’, with a flood of photographs and short video shared via Twitter of some rather cool robots started off the conference on Twitter!

I enjoyed and found extremely informative, the live blogging from Oliver Quinlan (@oliverquinlan). His blog post on the Simon Finch (@simfin) keynote ‘Something better change’ was particularly detailed.  I thought Simon’s analysis was a true reflection of the state of our education system, I liked the quotes Oliver Quinlan picked out in his blog, “So long as we talk about digital literacies we are alienating our colleagues.” and “Digital literacy is just a part of literacy”.

Contributions from our Crowd-sourced Wiki

To help with the writing of this article we had setup a wiki where delegates could contribute; Many thanks to everyone that did.

After a slow take up in the days after the conference, possibly because of the large number of tweets at this year’s conference, there were some very good reflective comments; Rose Heaney (@romieh), University of East London, wrote “My big take homes from this conference are some of the themes from Keri Facer’s keynote. They are harder to face (no pun intended) than some of the more immediate, exciting new techie stuff that we heard, but face them we must. Keri @kerileef helpfully amplified my Twitter query re: what it means to ‘operate pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will’ as ‘be realistic about obstacles we face which are severe, but optimistic and creative about how to overcome. Gramsci quote originally’. So that’s my current challenge.”

Helen Crump (@crumphelen), a “fledgling blogger by the way” in her own words, wrote her own review of PELeCON on Connection and Digital Literacies at PELeCon 2012. She added “the themes of connection and digital literacies resonated with me greatly throughout the conference. Probably a theme that needs extending if you ask me”. I have to agree with this, this was something I also took away with me, that the learning comes before technologies in ‘learning technologies’ and that as educators we need to keep the needs of the learners in the forefront of our minds.

Liz Bennett, University of Huddersfield, commented “The quality of the key notes was exceptional. They were all really excellent performers with interesting things to say. What I take away is being inspired by their ability to present to a large audience. They all had some clever ways of keeping the audience’s attention: there was a lot of use of YouTube, lots of excellent images and some dynamic interactive features such as Alec Couras’ tweets from his PowerPoint and Jane Hart’s embedded Tweets in her PowerPoint. (That was brave.) The quality of their analysis and discussion was lively and informed and I was quite relieved to see Keri Facer using some old fashioned bullet points in her presentation and felt that it added to the clarity of her argument which was against seeing learning as an instrumental process to ‘get a job’ rather to view it in terms of its transformative and self-filling potential. This attitude would serve young people better in the uncertain future.”

Liz went onto comment on David Mitchell (not to be confused with the comedian of the same name!)’s keynote on Quadblogging that “his readiness to self-censor when students asked to use individual blogs and I was relieved that even such a forward thinking innovator ‘reined in’ the potential of the technology in response to his own natural conservatism and anxiety about it adding to his work load. Relieved, not because I thought it was the right thing to do, but because I could related to feeling overwhelmed by the potential of the technology and how to use it effectively!”

A virtual conclusion

It was a pleasure to have contributed to the conference from Twitter, where I first found out about it. The sharing of links, engaging in the live twitter stream, reading the blogs, being inspired by the speakers and their ideas, thinking about things after the presentations was all made possible by the technology, but crucially by the people who shared their experiences of PELeCON 12 with me over those three days that enabled me to have my virtual experience, so thank you to you all!

Catherine Cronin, NUI Galway. @catherinecronin
Farzana Latif, City University London. @farzanalatif
Matt Lingard, City University London. @mattlingard
Santanu Vasant, Brunel University. @santanuvasant

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *