Giants on Surfboards: personal reflections on #altc 2014

Editor’s note: this article is one of a series of personal reviews of the 2014 ALT Annual Conference which provide different perspectives on the conference.

This is the rule: ALT conferences must be themed, and the theme must be allusive, ideally a literary reference; and when it is set it is important to stick to it and reference it at every opportunity.

I adore this rule, as it gives such solid structure to the whole three days. Who can forget 2010’s “Into Something Rich and Strange”, dripping with Shakespearian importance, or the Nancy Mitford love-fest of 2011; or indeed “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” of 2009.

This year therefore: “Riding Giants”. Ten years after a 2004 documentary about surfing, an ALT theme is born! The metaphor applies rather cleverly to our field in all sorts of ways:

  • “Predicting giants”: waiting around in these shark-infested waters (= education sector), because that thing at the horizon (= new trend) is possibly worth waiting for.
  • “Learning to ride”: in learning technology, there’s a lot of falling off your board and the day ending with muscle ache (= the trial and error approach to piloting edTech learning interventions).
  • “Evidence on board”: being on (surf) board with new ideas.

The giant wave at the (very near) horizon turned out to be MOOCs. It felt as if the majority of presentations I attended this year referenced them. Thankfully the keynotes were broader. Jeff Haywood gave an overview of Learning Technology over the last ten years and how it might pan out over the next ten. We were given a mix of pessimism and optimism. Though it was informative, it could have been more provocative, more divisive, like Donald Clark’s “Don’t lecture me” in 2010, which was very much a marmite performance and created a buzz that lasted the entire conference.

On Tuesday, Catherine Cronin impressed with a beautifully paced Navigation of the Marvellous, exploring the ethics and politics of open education. I loved it, a splendid hour of listening and learning. I came away with three very important things: a) that marvellous is spelled with two “L” in British English and only the one in US English, b) Seamus Heaney and c) that it is not too much to ask that a keynote be expertly crafted and held together by structure and rhetoric and performance.

Audrey Watters’ closing keynote on Wednesday morning was an erudite and rich musing on technology and culture, teaching machines and monsters, framed within a personal history that included Bletchley Park, boyfriends and mothers, and adorned with threads of folklore, mythology, story-telling. I’ve listened to it again since and I urge you to do the same. She ended her talk with a quote by Hannah Arendt, one of my favourite political theorists, and I was entirely won over (except I already had been). Watch the recording. Now.

ALT conferences are above all about the unexpected:

  • the great presentations you catch without having planned them (this year the best one I caught was John Traxler’s Exploring the Missing Middle)
  • the serendipitous lunchtime conversations about linguistics, Chomsky, Halliday and systemic functional grammar
  • catching up with people you’ve not seen for years
  • excellent examples of using Paper by 53 to illustrate your slides, as done by Bryan Mathers
  • being exhausted by endless talking shop
  • keynotes that make you think.

I am looking forward to next year in Manchester: the theme, “Shaping the future of learning together”, with its allusion to Plato, the court of Louis Quatorze and shapeshifters, already has me aquiver with excited expectation.

Sonja Grussendorf, Learning Technologist,
London School of Economics and Political Science.

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 *