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.
I wasn’t able to attend the ALT Conference this year, but what with the faultless online coverage and following the back channel on twitter, I think I caught more of the conference than I often do when I’m actually there in person. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve heard all three keynotes, and I’m very glad I did, as they were all excellent. Congratulations to the ALTC committee for putting together such a thought provoking programme.
Jeff Haywood’s opening keynote, Designing University Education for 2025 began by focusing on the positivity of open education, while adding the caveat that
“Without vision at policy level, at government and senior management level, the system will not transform.”
He acknowledged that changing higher education takes time and needs both persistence and patience, and he concluded by calling for more modest, purposeful pilots and experiments with learning technology that are designed to scale. That final point seemed to resonate with many listeners and was tweeted many times on the conference hashtag. I could help thinking that this is exactly the kind of experimentation that the Jisc development programmes used to facilitate so successfully; we need such purposeful and experimental innovation now more than ever.
Catherine Cronin’s keynote Navigating the Marvellous explored the potential of openness to bridge educational divides. Catherine framed education as a political and ethical act, urging us as educators to use our voice, and exhorting us to “Always speak, always vote.” A timely reminder, if ever there was one.
Quoting the inimitable Jim Groom, Catherine reminded us that “openness is an ethos not a license”. Open means sharing and building community, however the restrictive nature of both space and technology can inhibit open practice; lecture theatres privilege the lecturers voice, and the privileged position of lecturers in VLEs works against building communities and mutuality.
Taking her inspiration from Seamus Heaney’s Lightenings viii, Catherine explored the different formal and informal educational and social spaces we inhabit as learners and educators, asking
“Have you ever found yourself in a learning environment so strange you are unable to breathe? Many students have.”
Open practices and the use of social media can enable us to cross educational boundaries, to overcome “othering” and to “minimise the differential in power between educators and students”.
This latter point raised an important question for me and when I asked on twitter
a lengthy discussion followed, with Helen Beetham arguing that while open practices may democratise participation they can not extend equal participation if learning and digital capital is unequal. Furthermore, while online spaces can disguise or level some kinds of difference and otherness, surely they amplify others? David Kernohan also suggested that social media just holds a mirror up to existing power structures. To my mind, this is one of the most important points Catherine raised in her thoughtful and astute keynote; there are a lot of issues that need further exploration here and I very much hope we can continue this debate.
It’s hard to know what to say about Audrey Watters keynote that could begin to do it justice. We were very lucky to have Audrey present a keynote at the Cetis conference earlier this year and, if I’m honest, I did wonder how she could top such an inspirational talk. It’s fair to say that with Ed-Tech, Frankenstein’s Monster and Teacher Machines Audrey exceeded even her own high standards. Her talk was personal, inspirational and insightful and covered everything from her own grandfather, an alumni of Bletchley Park, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, Frankenstein’s monster, the Luddites, Skinner and Rand, by way of fairytales, poetry, storytelling and pigeon-guided missiles. I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the points Audrey raised, if you haven’t heard it already, go and listen to her keynote yourself, it’s worth an hour of anyone’s time. After all, as Audrey reminded us, quoting Hannah Arendt
“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.”
Lorna M Campbell
Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards (Cetis), University of Bolton
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