ALT-C Delegates in a parallel session
ALT-C Delegates in a parallel session

ALT-C 2012: A confrontation with reality

ALT-C 2012 was, as ever, prodigious! Over 500 attendees, hundreds of presenters and papers to consider and, several high profile keynote speakers. No wonder most of us were glad to get back to work for a bit of rest. This article provides an overview of the keynotes and some of the parallel sessions attended by the authors. The ideas, innovations and research being discussed at ALT-C covered a vast range of technologies and pedagogies, and therefore what we present here can only give a small, and quite personal, flavour of the event.

Keynote speakers

by Colin Loughlin (Kingston University)

Photo of Eric Mazur
Eric Mazur

With the possible exception of Daniel Stucke from Stretford High School, Eric Mazur (Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University) was my favourite presentation of the conference. His opening keynote, entitled ‘The scientific approach to teaching: Research as a basis for course design’, discussed his research into the gender gap among science students and how he has been able to significantly reduce that gap using collaborative and peer-to-peer teaching techniques. But of particular interest was his discussion of the lecture format and his early forays into Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) using clickers. Like Donald Clark in his keynote at ALT-C 2010, Professor Mazur identified several major flaws in the traditional didactic lecture format, wonderfully illustrated with a graph showing student brain activity over a week long period; during a lecture the students’ brain activity essentially flat lined, showing significantly less activity than when asleep (Figure 1)! Unlike Clark however, rather than dismissing his large scale lectures as fatally flawed, Professor Mazur set about fixing them, using clickers to engage his students, generating both dialogue and reflection.

Figure 1: Eric Mazur’s data of student brain activity. Brain activity measured during lectures (class) is similar to that observed when watching TV, and lower than during periods of sleep.
Figure 1: Eric Mazur’s data of student brain activity. Brain activity measured during lectures (class) is similar to that observed when watching TV, and lower than during periods of sleep.

Piagetian theory underpins much of Mazur’s approach to teaching, emphasising the creation of cognitive dissonance in students and the importance of allowing time for reflection and assimilation of information. Without time for reflection, information, particularly in the form of demonstrations, can be “adjusted to fit faulty models” held by learners. Mazur advocates confusion, as “to wonder is to begin to understand”.

Professor Mazur’s teaching is Action Research personified and all his techniques are tried, tested and measured, so that he knows exactly which elements are creating the most impact for his students. His belief in analysis rather than ‘gut instinct’ was summed up in the quote:  “The plural of anecdote is not data” (attribution disputed).

Photo of Natasa Milic-Fraying
Natasa Milic-Frayling

Natasa Milic-Frayling, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge, in a presentation entitled ‘Network analysis – Why it matters, how to do it, and what we can learn from it ‘, introduced a recent innovation initiated by Microsoft Research called NodeXL. This is a free, open source, piece of software which works with Microsoft Excel to create a visual representation of data which can be applied to the analysis of social networks.

This technology was demonstrated with a graphic representation of all the ALT-C conference tweets and re-tweets, clearly illustrating the main hubs of activity and underlining the fact that with online content, only “2% of people contribute, everyone else consumes”. With an ever increasing amount of educational activity making use of social networking tools, the ability to effectively analyse online communities will become an essential element in understanding the value and impact of those activities.

Judging by the buzz in the auditorium we can expect a plethora of presentations using NodeXL at next year’s ALT-C!

Photo of Richard Noss
Richard Noss

Research about Technology Enhanced Learning: who needs it? ‘, according to Professor Richard Noss from the London Knowledge Lab, we all do! He went on to describe the Technology Enhanced Learning Research Programme, illustrated with some specific projects which use cutting edge (in educational terms) technology, such as computers controlled by motion detection used by surgeons in operating theatres and interactive multi-touch tables which enable school children to collaborate. These tables can unobtrusively capture user data which can be used to map user participation and the relationship of an activity to its impact on learning outcomes.

These aspirational and innovative applications of TEL were contrasted with the real world battle most of us face: outdated hardware, inflexible and restrictive institutional IT policies, and a pedagogical mindset which often fails to take advantage of new technologies.

Professor Noss raised questions. For example, with the abundance of possibilities for learning and teaching being made available through new technologies, is it time to reconsider what it is that we want people to learn? With some of the more holistic approaches to learning being posited, how and what do we assess? Interestingly, even with all the sophisticated technology being discussed, the role of the teacher remains paramount as, “You need an inspired teacher to help you understand the things you’re unlikely to bump into on your own”.

Keynote and Invited Speaker videos are now available on ALT’s not-for-profit YouTube Channel.

Parallel sessions

There were over 120 parallel sessions at ALT-C. Here Susan Driver, James Turner, James Little and Rose Heaney provide a taster of some of the sessions they attended.

Susan Driver (University of West London)

As an ALT-C first-timer, I looked to the title of the conference A Confrontation with Reality for clues as how the event would unfold. A sense of conflicting ideas grounded in the here-and-now was appealing as all too often ambitious schemes are felled by practical restrictions.

The Teaching Qualification Further Education (TQFE) team at the University of Dundee overcame a reduction in staffing (as a result of financial constraints) by centralising delivery of learning materials and tutor support (Rules of engagement: developing the online tutor). All tutors contribute to a blog, generic e-mail and microblog account by staffing them on a rota basis. Aileen McGuigan and Lucy Golden explained how this approach, although resulting from constraints, has produced benefits in that learners are no longer reliant on the one member of staff, and the tutor team has gained from the collaboration on this centralised service.

Financial restrictions were also mentioned in connection with the increased focus on learner data. In the symposium Big Data and Learning Analytics: Confronting Reality with Big Data and Learning Analytics (with Simon Buckingham Shum, Rebecca Ferguson, Naomi Jeffery, Sheila MacNeill, Kevin Mayles and Richard Nurse), the need for sense-making from decontextualised data was emphasised. The interpretation of data may vary from one interested stakeholder to another with serious ramifications. I was personally surprised by a graph which clearly showed that those learners gaining first class degrees had accessed e-resources far more frequently than those obtaining a 2:1 and that this pattern was repeated throughout the degree classifications. That is definitely a data analysis which I will pass on to my learners.

Two other conference sessions confronted reality by ‘playing’ with it. The gaming element was the focus of XGames in the Real World (with Joan Archibald and David Renton), which presented the outcomes of the JISC funded SWANI project. Reid Kerr College has developed inexpensive and easy-to-use game templates to enhance learning and teaching, in particular for visual activist learners. Naturally, all session participants were keen to test out the games. I was particularly impressed by David Renton’s later developments in using motion sensing to allow learners to compete against each other by producing angles with arm movements (Kinect Angles).

ALT-C delegates experiencing Augmented Reality in the AR minicamp session
ALT-C delegates experiencing Augmented Reality in the AR minicamp session. Photo: Susan Driver

ARminicamp: Augment your own reality, (a two-year project funded by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching) with Matt Bacon, Danny Munnerley, Robert Fitzgerald, Anna Wilson, James Steele and John Hedberg, enabled us to not only experience some examples of Augmented Reality (AR), but also to explore how it could be used in our own educational settings through a team competition. I was thrilled when a 3D baseball game suddenly appeared from a QR code placed on the table. The winning team’s idea of using AR to produce an interactive supply and demand curve is one which I am sharing with colleagues. The three days at ALT-C 2012 have provided me with lots of practical ideas, topics for consideration and games to play.

James Turner (Liverpool John Moores University)

At this year’s conference, the theme invited us to A Confrontation with Reality. Reality is illusive and subjective, and this was reflected by the vast range of ideas and context explored. However, all these confronted realities contained the ever present and increasing requirement to prove theory, design and technology, by increasing the level of adoption. This theme has always preoccupied educational technology, but a greater level to meet the requirement exposed itself at many sessions. In one session we journeyed through four presentations, all attempting to shed light on this issue from very different perspectives. Liz Bennett (Creation and adoption: Learning from the early adopters: the digital practitioner framework) revealed the deeper level of engagement required by early adopter academics to truly embed the level of chan­­ge needed for meaningful adoption. The message here being skill development is not as powerful as deeper emotional ­­engagement and attitudes. Amanda Jefferies and Marija Cubic (Moving into the mainstream: Researching the institutional introduction of EVS, from the realm of the enthusiasts to supporting the later adopters) attempted to move away from the analysis of individual accounts of adoption to looking at the whole institution such as the impact of the introduction of 7,000 Electronic Voting System handsets on late adopters and the barriers they have or need to overcome. Themes emerged from interviews of the need for technical and pedagogical skill development. Mike Highfield (Creating Course Content: Enhancing the Student Learning Experience without Overloading Academics) took yet another variation of being more individualised and consultative, developing “Rolls Royce” content to a select target group and then building on this to spread that good practice using Xerte. The path to adoption is still illusive, but there is no shortage of paths to try.

Further innovations were demonstrated by Helen Beetham, Rebecca Galley, Alan Masson, Brian Ridley and Sonia Hendy Isaac in their curriculum design workshop – Designing tomorrow’s curriculum today. This project might be familiar to you but is worth further exploration if you are trying to re-engineer the programme design and support validation to bring greater efficiency and innovation to the whole process. They attempt to free academics from constrictive quality based paperwork systems which lock them into processes that inhibit innovation. These very visual, paper based, design methods creating opportunities and structure for dialogue that move away from just talk of content to be delivered.

There were many other sessions that shed light on this issue of increasing adoption of technology, although the neatest summary was perhaps provided by Gary Wood (Linguist at University of Sheffield), a winner of the ALT/Google design challenge. His student empowering Google Sites experience lead him to conclude, “Empower students with tools, opportunity and freedom, trust them, and they’ll show you how awesome they can be.” I echo Seb Schmoller’s comment that this could be equally applied to staff members.

James Little (University of Sheffield)

Disruptive Technologies in Higher Education, a proceedings paper from Michael Flavin, provided a great overview of the current relationship between higher education and technology: highlighting the difference between sustaining technologies (enhancing existing provision) versus disruptive technologies (replacing and change to a different system).

Preparing the foundations for video-based practice-placement support: establishing the role from a students’ perspective, by Teri Taylor, explored the issues surrounding the provision of support to students on placement via video conferencing. A key conclusion of the session was that this is a great way of providing support to students but with potential issues over the amount of emotional support that could be given if a student was struggling or upset if this was the only support available. What if the student was ‘hiding’ the true extent of problems? All issues to be considered.

Photo of Lindsay Jordan
Lindsay Jordan’s Pecha Kucha ‘Engagement by Stealth’

Pecha Kucha (PK) are one/two words that I still have trouble saying correctly! Attending PK Session 2 was a whirlwind – with so many great presentations. For me, the stand-out one was given by Lindsay Jordan (Engagement by stealth: Can a PGCert get teachers excited about tech?) about getting students on an Initial Teacher Training Course excited and engaged with technology. Initially apprehensive, students were asked to produce video work for assessment. After quite a lot of struggling the end results were not only amazing but the students, now as teachers, have gone on to inspire their students in the use of technology and video. Lindsay was dressed as a miner all the way through – to exemplify the ethos that it can be hard or embarrassing to do something – but it gets you positive attention and can produce great results.

Extending opportunities for life-long learning in a digital age (Peter Chatterton, Eta De Cicco, Neil Witt and Andrew Comrie) was a workshop looking at issues between programmes, institutions and employers in enabling lifelong learning. This highlighted how the rigidity of institutions is often a barrier to enabling innovative programmes. In order to provide a good experience the devil was in the detail of getting systems working, or alternatives set up in order to provide courses and resources for workplaces or individuals outside the ‘usual’ context of college or university.

Presenting my short paper about An experience of adapting to the changing reality of study-day based education was an excellent experience. ALT-C was not so large it was totally overwhelming, but big enough to meet plenty of new people and new ideas. The breadth of the sessions and topics covered both highlighted the wide areas and issues that learning technology touches upon but also the collective approaches, discussions and focus that are ongoing.

Rose Heaney (University of East London)

I attended the usual eclectic mix of sessions in my 24 hour visit to ALT-C but for the purposes of this report, and in keeping with the theme of the conference, will stay grounded in reality by highlighting several sessions on e-portfolios.

Kirstie Coolin started her session ePortfolios for Employability: Promoting Career Learning through Business Engagement with a quote from last year’s white paper “The relationship between universities and colleges, students and employers is crucial to ensuring that students experience the higher education they want while studying and leave their course equipped to embark on a rewarding career.” (HE White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, BIS, 2011, p45). She went on to describe how several inter-related projects at the University of Nottingham are using e-portfolios to increase student exposure to employers and in turn are providing employers with access to students and university resources generally. Whilst innovative and progressive, like much similar work at the same university, these projects still grapple with the challenges of motivating both students and employers to fully engage with the process and finding best ways for the institution to open up to a greater range of employers, not just the big names from the annual ‘milkround’.

Subsequent sessions on e-portfolios were more focused on the technology per se. Mike Kelly and John Casey of University of the Arts London (UAL) described the Portfolio Commons project which uses a Mahara plugin to enable students (and staff) to deposit portfolio content directly in open access repositories such as Jorum. This provides students with long term storage and a presence on the public web for their emerging work whilst also automating several of the processes that so often inhibit the creation of open educational resources (OER). Initial results are promising and a fuller evaluation of both the tool’s usability and user perceptions of its value will be welcome, as will the availability of the plugin for others in the sector.

Carl Kennard of Harper Adams Agricultural College described a pilot project on Mahara that involved students on placement using e-portfolios in lieu of traditional paper format to demonstrate skills development. The project (Piloting a Mahara ePortfolio with Undergraduate Students) achieved its aims, though students seemed to restrict themselves to the aspects of Mahara that were directly assessed and didn’t use any of the social networking features, which might have been useful while they were studying off campus. However, it was acknowledged that both staff and students were new to e-portfolios and further work needs to be done to expand and embed this way of working.

In the final session, Guy Pursey of the University of Reading described how the development of a user-friendly front-end to Blackboard’s e-portfolio tool (JISC funded project) for use on a first year Legal skills course enabled students to concentrate on building their portfolio without getting bogged down in technicalities. However, he was quick to say that removal of technical barriers does not lessen the work of developing good reflective skills in students, a constant theme throughout all the presentations.

E-portfolios continue to challenge but their future seems assured in one form or the other as the availability of open source platforms like Mahara with easy integration to Moodle make them more mainstream.

Looking towards ALT-C 2013

Next year ALT-C will celebrate its 20th anniversary in Nottingham and the closing plenary saw Haydn Blackey (University of Glamorgan) and Malcolm Ryan (University of Greenwich) introduce the conference theme of ‘Building new cultures of learning’. Keynotes already confirmed include Stephen Downes and Tara McPherson. For more information see the ALT-C 2013 website.

Haydn Blackey and Malcolm Ryan introduce altc-2013
Haydn Blackey and Malcolm Ryan introduce altc-2013

Colin Loughlin, Kingston University
Susan Driver, University of West London
James Turner, Liverpool John Moores University
James Little, University of Sheffield
Rose Heaney, University of East London

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

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