ALTWM meeting 14.11.16

Following a seismically disruptive week in the world, the theme of the second meeting of the ALT West Midlands Group was Disruptive Learning.  Had we not had enough?  Held in Coventry University’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab, the 20+ participants lounged Nero style on bean bags or shuffled uncomfortably on astro turf to the accompaniment of stimulating presentations and discussion illustrating the depth and breadth of what was commonly assumed to be productive disruption (more on this later).

Warwick’s Teresa Mackinnon kicked off with an illustration of the art of balance between traditionalists and modernisers in her modern languages project, and the satisfactions of maintaining a precarious and exhilarating balance between the two.



The first disruption from the norms of cultural and linguistic exchange occurred with the virtualisation of this traditionally face-to-face activity.  The second disruption lay in the gradual seeding of a formally structured learning platform with communication opportunities taken from informal, social norms (instant messaging);  traditional understanding of learning (a hierarchy of tasks, many involving real time or asynchronous collaboration); and business (live sharing through web conferencing).  The key to communication was to work on both formal and informal levels and include rather than dismiss the students’ own energies, enthusiasms and social fora.  It struck us that the clear successes achieved by this approach were a result of small and simple touches (underpinned by a lot of work) and an intuitive understanding of how relationships happen.  The disruption was to ignore the shiny tech-tools.  We applaud the idea of surfing the fulcrum: it sounds like fun.

Next up was Andy Wright, from Mirrador and the University of Birmingham.  Andy introduced the ALiS platform, an immersive online social environment which encourages engagement and dialogue through a more intuitive interface than other similar environments.  Participants can visit a campus and take a tour, drop in on a recorded or real time class, or jump into a bubble and chat to a colleague.  The ability to personalise your avatar with Linkedin and social profiles raised the possibility of enriching the personalisation of experience.  Keys to success:  excellent quality audio (flipped lecture, anyone?), minimal menu choices, uncluttered and well rendered visuals, and a corporate looking meeting room removing the undignified scrum for parking places on meeting days. We’d be surprised if anyone in the room hadn’t found a use for it by the end of the presentation.  Virtual Open Days, international collaborations, conversational role play and *whisper it* academic collaboration. The website – mentions a Beta Group.  Worth a shot.

Claire Gardener and Louise Hart from Derby University hit a nerve with an overview of their rollout of Office 365 for staff.  Like many of the assembled, students had been given access to this cloud-based, app driven service for years. Also like many of us, Derby were widening provision to staff.  They were sanguine about the false turns taken in sharing the project with practitioners, communicating and training.  Disruptive?  Yes of course.

Laurie Phipps is conducting a JISC consultation for the higher education sector to advise what a digital learning environment should really be like in the future. He is asking what the next generation issues and opportunities will be in digital learning.  He did get what is wrong with the current approach, so that’s a start. Tweet #codesign16 , #NGDLE or @Lawrie with your ideas, or email him directly. Your secret ideas are especially welcome too! Audrey Watters’ sage advice that student online areas should be more human seems to be prevailing in the consultation, instead of being so closed, controlling and quantified by the clever boffins in learning analytics. We wondered if students have too many needs to be represented in just one system, and if this would even be desirable. Using the ideas of Gutierrez (2014) learning is changing in four ways: there is a rise from individual to collective; from passive to active learning; a rise in differentiated instruction; and the phenomenon of multi-tasking affects learners. The overarching theme is people are more important that the platform they inhabit. If this resonates for you, look at Lawrie’s blog; and join in the conversation. We need to capture the full-fat, fast university experience, not just the part that the VLE represents. We need to keep space for innovation and growth:  not be too locked down. Get your ideas together soon.

Jon Rhodes from the University of Wolverhampton did a Pecha Kucha (20 slides for 20 seconds each) on their disruptive intervention using the new Canvas VLE. They intend their implementation to be a positive disruption this time (Rushmans 2013). Past updates had been focussed on resolving single problem, getting by but not getting better.  Using the analogy of a Satnav he described how fixing one problem led to finding further problems, revealed by fixing of just the initial problem.  So they are hoping for a complete solution, not a piecemeal approach. This is part of a significant investment at the university to facilitate a digital campus. The advice given was to go for slow on implementation. We have had slow food, should we now have the slow VLE?

Later Ollie Wood from the Coventry University Disruptive Media Learning Laboratory (DMLL) gave us a tour of the facility. We loved the energetic, bright start-up style space, made possible by expert guidance at the university. Some of us wanted to go into the google sprint room, and join in writing all over the glass walls: however as there was a module being co-designed and written there in five days, we did not want to disturb the team in their important crusade.  The sprint methodology is a compressed delivery model so teams can solve problems in a defined time period. It facilitates rapid prototyping of ideas in a focussed environment, and it certainly looked inspiring. We just looked in wistfully from the outside, like children peering into the colourful sweetie shop. We all want to be here every day.



Jonathan Shaw talked us through the design rationale for the DMLL. He explained the purpose and use of some of the bespoke items and spaces in this innovative learning area. Our event concluded with some Lego Serious Play, thinking about disruption and learning technology with colourful, shiny Lego bricks. Alan Richards asked delegates to use the LEARN model (locate, evaluate, articulate, re-evaluate, and naturalise) to create Lego representations of ‘what HE may look like in the future’. Our outputs were creative and colourful to say the least. Many of us indulged in the opportunity to play by creating team models to metaphor how we saw the future in our sector, with the Lego on the tables around us. We wondered if JISC can take the models into account in their consultation.

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Over a lunchbag scrum and speedy networking session, Pete Lonsdale showed us the new WM ALT web area and urged us to log in and participate. He offered a quick overview of web presence and forum.  Please add your comments in the forum and keep the conversation going.

Our Chair, John Couperthwaite invited us to contribute to the ALT winter conference and attend anyway; the deadline is this week for papers. Everyone was urged to consider input for next year’s conference too. A host venue is sought for the next WM meeting in the Spring 2017 and your ideas for the theme are welcome in the forum.

Final thoughts.

At the beginning of this post, we mentioned assumptions we all make about the positive powers of disruption, and this went unchallenged on the day.  While on hockey mom duty at the roller rink later that evening (surfing Facebook, not fulcrums), the inspiring Amber Thomas drew attention to Helen Beetham’s  blog post published that day (   The second responsibility is worth sharing and considering before we meet again.  It is called ‘Let’s be clear what disruptions we are working for’.  Widening participation realistically for the needs of communities not the salving of corporate consciences may well be on the agenda next time.  Watch this space.

Written by Amanda Black, and Phillippa Seaward, Coventry University.


  • Cheryl Howells says:

    Thank you Amanda and Phillippa for an excellent post. Unfortunately I was unable to attend (still feeling disappointed). However reading your post gave me a real insight into the presentations and the day as a whole.
    Thanks again.

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