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Political and Critical – an invitation to share experience

A post by Sue Watling, Teaching Enhancement Advisor, University of Hull.


The 25th ALT conference took place in Manchester, 11-13 September. There was much looking back as well as ahead. Delegates were reminded of Becta, Ferl and Jorum while others recalled Compuserve, AOL, MOOS, MUDS and the early days of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Those with analogue roots have seen great changes in some areas but less than might be expected in others.

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Catherine Cronin and Frances Bell presented a session titled ‘A personal, feminist and critical retrospective of learning (and) technology, 1994-2018.   They opened a conceptual box. Inside was a Google doc (http://bit.ly/ALTC-Bell-Cronin) with links to a selection of retrospectively themed blog posts. Some written over the past year and some more recently in response to an invitation issued by Catherine and Frances. All dealt with different experiences of education technology.

This blog post builds on that invitation.

Catherine and Frances described themselves as IT professionals, lecturers, community educators, PG students, researchers, feminists, social activists, and mothers. It was the word ‘mothers’ which caught my attention. I‘d juggled a career alongside multiple roles, but it was never the ‘done thing’ to discuss home life and I only once referred to it in public. In 2013 I wrote a post asking: Who will clean the toilets after the revolution? Then the shutters came down. Now, five years later, I’m reading stories of others who’d also threaded and weaved the disparate elements of their lives down through the years.

It felt amazing!

The voices included Catherine, Reflecting before #ALTC: personal & political Frances, Reflecting before #ALTC: Rear view mirror and forward visionTeresa MacKinnon, Road to Nowhere (citing Donna Laclos, And you may find yourself… ), and Louise Drumm, Theatre, feminism and learning technology – a personal story.

There’s many more. The google doc http://bit.ly/ALTC-Bell-Cronin is continually being updated with new links and content. There is great power in sharing experience.

Surfacing the voices of women in education technology began with #femedtech, an initiative aimed at creating space for those involved in ‘…a daily struggle to do the work, look for the job and be the person who is and who looks after others.

#femedtech passed me by. I’d interpreted it as being for women who code. Then I saw the ‘M’ word in Catherine and Frances’s ALT conference abstract which motivated me to write Political and critical; a personal reflection. I shared the post and others came forward with similar experiences. The collective voice reinforced how it’s never too late to work towards change, as Teresa MacKinnon wrote so inspiringly ‘I want to see the equality we were promised back in the 70’s delivered to all women along with the necessary support for those who are the most vulnerable in our society’.

The 1970’s were pre-internet and home computers.  It wasn’t so very long ago. You could say I was there at the start and had always been concerned about digital inequality. Tim Berners Lee had called the internet an opportunity for digital democracy. It seemed to offer potential connections for people with disabilities who were already experiencing physical and attitudinal exclusion.

In 1976, the Fundamental Principles of Disability was published (UPIAS, 1976). This called for a social model of disability which challenged the existing medical view whereby impairment caused exclusion. Instead there were new calls to see physical barriers to equal access in the built environment. The 1970s saw increased calls for accessibility, following the principles of Universal Design whereby changes for some create an improved environment for all. Who hasn’t benefited from this and appreciated ramps into public buildings when pushing a bike or buggy or dragging a suitcase or trolley on wheels.

If barriers to access are in the built environment then digital exclusion is the scandal of the 21st century. For all technology can enable people, it can disable too. Yet digital dis-ability is the great shhh……secret. Time and time again I see reference to gender, class, age, race and religion, but disability is missing.

Exclusion comes in many shapes and forms; it can be contextual, environmental, personal. The ALT conference keynotes addressed education technology from broader social and cultural perspectives. Three keynotes by three women, each offering their unique perspectives on education technology; looking back, looking forwards.

Tressie McMillan Cottom Assistant Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University (livestream), stressed the contextual elements and how understanding education technology required an equal understanding of the environment. Amber Thomas, Head of Academic Technology, at the University of Warwick(livestream) looked back over twenty years with the key message being it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people who use it, choose it, and are affected by it. Maren Deepwell, CEO of ALT (livestream), completed the triad with a timely reminder education technology is a field of practice and within that practice, equality is the responsibility of everyone.

While the zeitgeist mood of the conference was about the personal being political, it’s practice which really matters. Our actions have the potential for disempowerment, just as making assumptions can be discriminatory. There’s no better way to uncover the underlying structures of exclusion than through sharing stories. Theory matters but it emerges from narrative. So many lives bear witness to how gendered perspectives have influenced opportunities and choices and continue to do so. These lived experiences contribute so much to our understanding of seeing and being in the world.

Reflecting on my experience of motherhood, divorcehood, single parenthood has been cathartic. For me, reading the narratives of others is validatory and life-affirming.  Together we are stronger. Thank you Catherine and Frances for opening the box.

How was it for you?

Please do keep the stories coming.

Use #ALTC, #PersonalALTC, #FemEdTech to blog, tweet or contribute to the google doc http://bit.ly/ALTC-Bell-Cronin

It’s your turn now!


Sue Watling works as a Teaching Enhancement Advisor at the University of Hull, supporting learning and teaching in a variety of ways including module lead for the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice and promoting activity plus evidence based approaches to learning design. @suewatling

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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