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#altc21 Guest Post – On Finding A Community

Dominic Pates, Senior Educational Technologist (City, University of London)

Starting with a portfolio

I first encountered ALT when Maren Deepwell came to talk to a group of colleagues at a meeting in a college in Oxford, around about ten years ago. Most of us in that meeting were teachers at the various colleges we collectively taught at that had a special dispensation or agreement to help other teaching staff to be able to use digital technologies to support or enhance their teaching. A former teacher turned IT trainer, I was along for the ride at the invite of the conveyer of the meeting – the only one of us that had learning technologies in her job title and who was consequently able to do learning technology work full time. Maren had been invited along to talk to the assembled group about considering undertaking CMALT portfolios.

Having not long completed a Postgraduate Teaching Diploma, I’d become used to some of the practices used by teachers to develop in what they do – educational research methods, observations of others’ teaching, peer observation of my own teaching – but reflective practice as an approach to thinking about my own professional development was pretty new to me. However, as someone that had been blogging for several years already, it was also a natural approach to take. I subsequently decided to commit myself to attempting my first CMALT portfolio.

There’s almost a simplicity to putting a CMALT portfolio together that only really seems to come clear after you’ve completed one. Essentially, I think it can be boiled down to ‘what did I do?’ (in the relevant or specific areas) and ‘how did it go?’ although in practice, it can take a lot of drafting, note-taking, thinking and discussing to get your portfolio to a submissible state. Long story short, of those of us that met Maren in that Oxford classroom, quite a few started the portfolio but only two of us made that initial submission window (and that was with a good dose of buddy support for each other). Although it felt like an uphill struggle at the time, given that I was also undertaking an MA while putting it together, it gave me a good opportunity to have a serious think about where I’d been, where I wanted to go, and left me with a record of the journey so far. Arguably, it could have even set me on the path towards becoming an Educational Technologist full time. My first and updated CMALT portfolios are available on WordPress.

In 2014, I joined City University London (as it was then known) and made this learning technology thing the full time day job. We’d had an annual teacher’s conference at the place I’d previously worked, but the kind of gathering where the whole sector would come together, share stories of what they’d done, and debate the issues of the day was something that other people did, not me. To my delight, not long after joining City and along with a cluster of other new Ed Techs, I was given the opportunity to attend my first ALTc, in full. This meant heading off to Warwick for most of the week, where ALTc 2014 was being held, and immersing myself fully in this world I’d now joined.

Getting the conference bug

There was such a huge amount of things on the programme that I struggled to choose between the talks and workshops on the menu, even though it felt like every other one had something to do with MOOCs (which I had limited interest in at the time). That said, this accelerated programme of CPD gave me so much to read, think or talk about that it felt like a whole year’s worth of learning packed into just a few days. From Audrey Watters’ inspirational keynote and a dinner with Diana Laurillard to exploring the use of QR codes for augmenting experiential learning and the notion of iPad Coffee Clubs, there is much that stays with me today. I managed to capture this review of the event in a subsequent post for our Learning at City blog.

For the first half of the 90s, I spent every summer at Glastonbury Festival as my main holiday of the year, soaking up the musical sights and sounds from around the world that the festival served up to its ample audience. For me, ALTc was like a professional Glastonbury (just without Joe Bananas Blanket Stall and with much better toilets 😉). After my last Glastonbury in 1994, I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to return until I was somehow part of the bill. After ALTc 2014, I made a similar pledge to myself – I wouldn’t return until I was part of the programme.

Due to the openness of ALT and the community around it, I found that pledge harder to keep to than my Glastonbury one (yet to set foot back on Worthy Farm since ‘94), when I discovered in 2016 that I could still sample some of the goodies from wherever I was. Keynotes were streamed live on YouTube, I was able to take part in conversations at ‘fringe events’ via Virtually Connecting, and many of the digital conversations around the event took place on Twitter, so I could feel part of ALTc 2016 even from my pocket. Reflections on 2016 found their way into a blog post too, and I even ended up as a colleague of an ALTc keynote speaker when Dr Jane Secker joined my department at City.

By 2019, five years on from my first ALTc, I was able to fulfil the learning technology equivalent of my ‘94 Glastonbury pledge. I had a story to tell, a ticket to Edinburgh to help me tell it, and a place in the programme for ALTc 2019. With a first book chapter pending, titled ‘The Holographic Academic: Rethinking Telepresence in Higher Education’, I gave my first ALTc workshop with a speculative look at potential uses of holography in HE. Nervous as I was to be treading the same boards as those I’d learned all about the world of learning technology from, I was delighted to be able to pull off what seemed to be a well-received workshop.

The rest of the event was equally as memorable – from another inspirational keynote (Jesse Strommel) and several fascinating sessions (eg Edinburgh’s ‘Wikimedian-In-Residence’ initiative or a build-your-own-ed-tech-bot workshop) to the splendour of the main venue where the keynotes were held. While I never quite managed the full blog post that I intended to write about the rest of the event, I at least managed a summary of my own workshop.

That year, I couldn’t resist a second lap, and put something in for the ALT Winter Summit too. I’d been working for a few years at City on ways to enable wireless sharing on content

from mobile devices onto projection screens in learning spaces, and reached out to the ALT community with another question that was going round my head at the time – what shape should a service to promote and encourage ‘active mobile learning’ take (as I’d come to define the pedagogical approach that was intended to accompany the technical solution we’d developed)? This, I discovered, was another great function of ALT events. Not only did they serve as places to learn from others or to share your stories, but also as forums from which to receive developmental input from peers on your works-in-progress. Although I wasn’t quite able to attend as much else of the programme as I’d like to have done – it’s harder to attend a remote conference when you’re still in the office – it gave me a greater immersion in ALT’s approach to online events than my 2016 tasters had done.

Of course, nobody in Edinburgh or online at the 2019 Winter Summit had any idea of what was in store for teaching, learning and assessment via digitally mediated means in the year that was to come.

The Great Onlining

The day I landed at Narita Airport in September 2003 was the same day that Japan’s northern island of Hokkaidō was hit by one of its most intense earthquakes in over a hundred years. Although fortunately only two people died, the quake still caused considerable damage, triggering power outages and extensive landslides, and destroying roads all around Hokkaidō. I experienced my first earthquake in Tokyo a few months later, while crossing a main road in the busy central Shinjuku ward. I had no idea what it was at first, assuming that it must have been a powerful underground train passing by beneath my feet. Needless to say, I got off that road quickly. Having left Japan in 2008, I was just three years shy of experiencing the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that was the most powerful ever recorded in the country’s history.

An earthquake is an imperfect metaphor for describing what happened to educational establishments centred around physical presence when the rampaging of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 led to schools, colleges and universities ‘pivoting’ to fully online modes of education at very short notice. It is an imperfect metaphor because for those affected, the physical ground never shock, nor did it break up under their feet. However, it was the metaphor of an earthquake that I turned to in order to help academic colleagues at my institution come to terms with what had abruptly happened to the certainties that had underpinned how they thought about teaching, learning and assessment. So much that had once been solid was suddenly swept away – one massive disruption, and a series of aftershocks.

When Summer 2020 came around and ALT was one of many organisations – arguably better placed than many others – that decided to run the main event of the year online, I put in a submission that attempted a long view on what was happening. ‘After the Quake’ (YouTube recording here) looked at how higher education had historically been impacted by significant periods of disruption, such as the Bubonic Plague or World War I, as a comparison to the impact that Covid was having on HE in 2020. Picking up the notion of ’speculative learning design’ that I’d introduced in the 2019 workshop, I asked workshop participants to consider possible futures for HE in a post-Covid world, using a series of ‘What if…?’ prompts. This led

to some fascinating thoughts about what lay ahead (see linked Padlet board). The session ran back-to-back with colleague Julie Voce’s ‘Have I Got TEL For You?’ panel show spoof session (on which I was also a panellist; YouTube recording here). As Julie’s session was described described by one of the attendees as ’the funniest conference sessions they’d ever been to’, following up with a slot about earthquakes, wars and plagues inevitably made my session a bit of a comedown, but I think it was fairly well received on the whole!

One other thing that I managed to organise during 2020 was to bring together two online communities that I’m part of. Since 2012, I’ve been co-running an online radio station called The Thursday Night Show (TTNS). DJs broadcast over the internet from their own homes, so TTNS was well set up to provide some entertainment for others that found themselves stuck indoors a lot when lockdowns started happening. For the Summer Summit, I offered up a TTNS slot to members of the ALT community who fancied trying their hands at DJing. This was reprised in time for the 2020 Winter Summit (I played a short slot of tracks from previous ALTc city venues; listen on Mixcloud) and is also planned for the 2021 Summer Summit. Having gained so much professionally from being a part of the ALT community, it was nice to be able to give a little something back by contributing towards the entertainment side of the online conferences.

2021 has seen my relationship with ALT grow in different ways. I’ve become a CMALT assessor. I’ve played a part in the conference committee for this year’s Summer Summit. I’ve joined with other colleagues from across the sector to look at ways that ways that learning technology can be more explicitly anti-racist (see first blog post here). And it seems that once the summer is over, I’m going to be attempting my first shot at putting a new SCMALT portfolio together. Not sure whether this is a good idea or not at this stage, but looking back on the journey that the first one started off for me, who knows where it will lead to?

Now, where did I put that WordPress login?

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