Thursday, 4 October 2012

Event Report: ALT-C 2012 from Graham McElearney

Apple on Statue of Turing
Image by ptc24 CC BY 2.0
   A couple of weeks ago a few of us journeyed over the Pennines to Manchester for this year’s e-learning equivalent of Glastonbury - ALT-C. Bumping into good friend Dick Moore at the station was an omen that it would be a good one, and indeed it was.  

The conference opened with it’s familiar format - a welcome introduction from The University of Manchester’s Vice Chancellor, and then into the opening keynote from Eric Mazur. Having the pleasure of interviewing Eric a few weeks ago, I'd heard some of his talk before. Sarah’s already reviewed it in greater detail, along with the other keynotes in her recent blog - so I’m going to focus my review of ALT-C on some the standout sessions I attended.

Mainstreaming e-Learning

With a few of us attending from our team, we were in a position to be able to identify key areas to pursue individually, to make the best collective use of the conference experience. My main these was “mainstreaming” - a concept that has eluded me for many years.

The first set of short papers I attended on mainstreaming opened up with a look at the use of voting systems at the University of Hertfordshire with Amanda Jeffries. They looked at how the use of clickers was being mainstreamed from department to whole institution. Both top-down and  bottom-up approaches were favoured - which in this case meant getting institutional support to ensure that the technology was available, as well as having a “local geek” on hand at departmental level to help people when they needed it. Clickers were very popular amongst the students too - and having the handsets paired up with the students meant that their use for formative assessment could be recorded - frequent and “low stakes” assessment seemed to be a really strong driver here, and once staff had built up some banks of questions to re-use, the technology became easier to embed.

In the same session, Liz Bennet, from Huddersfield, presented recent work looking at what can be learned from early adopters, and to see whether these could be extrapolated to the greater majority. Liz firstly outlined some of the issues with the plethora of models and descriptions surrounding web 2.0 pedagogies and some of the problems with these, such as their rhetorical and anecdotal nature. She then went on to discuss the Digital Practitioner Framework. In this research she interviewed a number of colleagues who had all experimented with introducing web 2.0 technologies, and assessed their responses against a number of key factors.  Interestingly and quite surprisingly, she found that competence and access to  technology of itself was not necessarily a key attribute of being an early adopter. Instead early adopters are characterised by their willingness to take risks, invest a bit of time in trying something new, and generally experiment. These attributes could then drive the necessary acquisition of skills it would seem. What I found most interesting about this paper was Liz’s conclusion that an approach to staff development focusing on skills development may not be effective at all and instead we should be trying to foster those very attributes she uncovered.

Later on in the day I went along to Clive Young’s presentation on “How to move beyond lecture capture”. Clive looked specifically at some of the pedagogic questions that are now emerging from the lecture capture - a refreshing development on the lecture capture theme which a couple of years ago was more dominated by discussion about implementation, copyright etc. Clive discussed something we’ve been thinking about here, which is trying to move towards an understanding of what people are really doing with lecture capture, and what they could be doing with it. I think this means moving beyond the simple notion of capturing classroom events and just giving the recordings to students to do what they will with them (although we know from Sheffield alone that students find them tremendously useful). Interesting questions are raised along the way - what is the purpose of the video component of recorded lectures, and does it justify the frequent hassles we have with managing this? Does the technology simply reinforce a transmission based model of learning and teaching or can it be subverted and used for more disruptive and modern pedagogies? Clive also drew attention to a couple of groups and web resources that are currently looking at these pedagogical issues - the Rec-all, OASE and the VITAL special interest groups.

Wednesday morning started with more sessions on mainstreaming. Possibly the most unexpected and startling story I heard at the conference was that given by Pandeli Glavanis from the American University in Cairo (AUC). AUC had been a somewhat traditional institution, with conventional students taught via the primacy of the “course textbook”, and with virtually no emphasis on engaging the students with active learning. But one day a revolution came - literally. As events unfolded from January 25th 2011 onwards, enormous amounts of disruption and closure were threatening the future of the school. Lecture capture via Panopto was quickly introduced as a means of getting learning materials out to the students. As well as saving the AUC from closure by rescuing their Spring semester, they found that staff adapted to this new form of delivery by completely changing their teaching styles - face to face classroom time, opportunistically grabbed in any location in which it could take place e.g. cafes, became discussion and activity based rather than didactic.  The story made quite an adjunct to Clive’s session the previous day.

Later on wednesday I attended a demonstration from JiSC, looking at a new resource that has been developed to support widespread implementation of e-portfolios. The resource builds on a previous publication about e-portfolios, although this newer work features 18 case studies and is really aimed more at addressing larger scale adoption. I have to admit being a bit late to the e-portfolio party having never really been involved with them here at Sheffield, and always considered them as “not really my thing”. This session totally transformed my view of them, as I discovered tha they had many different purposes, from reflection to personal academic planning as well as using as evidence for future employment, and that of course being digital they can encompass such a rich diversity of digital artefacts over and above text.  s we strat to roll out Pebblepad here over the next academic year I can see this session as being a really valuable one, along with the implementation toolkit and associated case studies.

I went to a host of other presentations in the mainstreaming strand on top of these, including one by Gilly Salmon, reflecting on some of her earlier work in this area. Gilly proposed a model of mainstreaming which featured a need for some policies and strategies (but without letting these dominate), the importance of structures which enable low cost delivery but which also include a facility for R&D (i.e. looking at newer technologies and approaches), and actual implementation. Gilly made some interesting points along the way - such as if we’re not engaging our academic colleagues it’s because we’re not approaching them in the right way, and if we’re not improving the student experience or reducing costs then we’re in the wrong game.  Throughout all these sessions though it appears that mainstreaming is something we’re all still grappling with.

Abject Geekery*

Fortunately there was enough space and diversity in the programme as ever, for me to pursue a few more technical areas of personal interest, and an ongoing one for me is in all things mobile (see this posting for an honest bit of auto-biography). Something I’ve been very keen to try since doing my PhD is the application of some Augmented Reality (AR) techniques to my work in archaeology. When I did my thesis, AR was really only in proof of concept stage, with more emphasis having been placed in reconstructing archaeological monuments using more “traditional” Virtual Reality technologies. Augmented Reality technologies have a real role to play in archaeology, as they offer the ability to provide alternative views of archaeological monuments and artefacts in their real settings - real landscape contexts that are so important to our understanding of what things like stone circles and prehistoric rock art actually mean.

I was aware that developments in AR were moving rapidly, and I wanted to get up to speed with these. Specifically I wanted to find out about where the tools were at, already understanding the principles. I didn’t get to any hands-on sessions as they clashed with the mainstreaming ones, but still managed to hear a couple of good overview presentations, from Danny Munnerley and colleagues, and from Farzana Latif. Farzana’s short paper specifically demonstrated some real applications from the UK, showing how AR can be used to provide context aware information in a number of disciplines.

Also on the mobile theme, I went to an excellent demo of the iBooks Authoring programme freely available from Apple’s App Store, given by Natalia Auer. Although this is of course somewhat proprietary approach, it’s very exciting to see what can be done really quite simply using the technology, and look forward to giving it a proper go myself. I hope that interoperability between formats is not something that creates a barrier between users of the different platforms.

And the rest....

Of course the formal sessions are just one component of an event like ALT-C, and much value come from those nauseatingly entitled “networking opportunities”. So it was in talking to David Hilton from the University of Nottingham between sessions  that enough of my questions about AR authoring tools were answered, to the point where I can go ahead and try my idea for a prototype. An excellent informal demo of Pebblepad from Colin Dalziel really opened my eyes to what e-portfolio tools can do.

And then there were the more social components. On tuesday night I was very fortunate to be invited to a small gathering to mark Seb Schmoller’s retirement from ALT. Like many I suspect, Seb’s energy, enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge and experience have been a great inspiration to me since I met him many years ago. Also like many others, Seb’s enormous humanity has touched me when he’s been very supportive during some darker moments I’ve had to experience in the not so distant past. You’ll be sadly missed from ALT Seb - bit not gone as we know you’ll still be working hard.

Finally, on wednesday night we had the conference dinner. I got to sit with Robin Gissing, Sue Bamford and Sue Beckingham from Sheffield Hallam, which gave us a great opportunity to catch up and discuss issues we’re facing in common, and we look forward to forging closer links together in the future. We were also joined by my colleague Gary Wood. Gary had been specially invited because, as was announced during the dinner, Gary won the first ever jointly sponsored ALT and Google prize for best use of Google Apps in learning and teaching, for his excellent project All About Linguistics. We’ll be bringing you more information about this project soon.  Having to leave first thing the next morning to come back and teach, my conference came to a close enjoying a couple of lager-based drinks with my travelling partner Dick Moore, Eoin McDonnell, Kris Rogers and a few others - most civilised indeed.

I thoroughly enjoyed ALT-C this year. I went thinking that I’d been missing a trick somewhere with mainstreaming e-learning, and came back slightly reassured that it’s been eluding everyone else as well it seems.

*That’s what Sarah calls it. It’s R&D really.......

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