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Thoughts and issues from the AltC conference

September 10th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

The first in a series of posts on the recent Association for Learning Technologies Conference (AltC) in Nottingham.  Besides the social side of meeting up with friends from across the UK, AltC is a good place for picking up on the trends in educational technology and, above all judging the mood of the community.

But first, a little about the formal part of the conference (at least the first day, more to follow on subsequent sessions).

I had some trouble getting to the conference due to strikes in London, and ended up listening to the first morning’s keynote through Elluminate on a G3 connection to my computer on a slow cross country train. That felt a little strange but worked quite well. The presentation by Donald Woods Clark (CEO of Epic Learning) was quite strange. variously described by delegates as a ‘traincrash’ and a ‘Glasgow Kiss’ (non UK readers will have to look that one up on Wikipedia!). Woods generally treated delegates to a didactic rant around his prejudices about education. He had never been to Alt C before, he told delegates, because conferences were a waste of time. He was getting angry, he said on a number of occasions (his swearing attracted some comments on twitter). His presentation was focused on the uselessness of lectures. Yet his preferred learning, apart from blogging, appeared to be watching recordings of lectures on iTunes U! It was overall a curious presentation, which although having the virtue of provoking much discussion over form, had little in content to discuss. A pity because I think he did have a theme which got lost in the invective. His general line, with which I have some sympathy, was that the present model of education is unsustainable and especially at university level cannot be expanded to include all those who wish to pursue a higher education. However, where he totally failed, was in putting forward any coherent vision of what an alternative might be – either at an organisational or pedagogic level. He seemed to dismiss the idea of any social aspect to learning. Instead he saw technology per se as the answer. or at least that is the impression I got from my train seat vantage point.

I was greatly impressed with the Tuesday early afternoon session with Helen Beetham et al on Digital Literacies. The work she and colleagues are carrying out for Jisc seems to me to be providing a richer pedagogic approach to how we can use technology for learning and an integration of technology as a transformative force in tecahing and learning. Haydon Buckley, in stark contrast to the morning keynote, treated us to an excellent example of the power of the spoken word, when, without powerpoints, he told us about experiences at the University of Glamorgan in introducing digital literacy across the curriculum (that was a speech which should have been streamed). The only thing which slightly puzzled me in the otherwise excellent pack of materials the Jisc funded project has produced is the underpinning Digital Literacies Framework model. The materials are available through the project Cloudworks site (however they link to slideshare and downloads from there do not seem to be working properly).  However my problem was that the model preserves the traditional UK distinction of ‘skills’. This tendency to separate skills from competence or from content underpins many problems in developing and implementing new pedagogic approaches to learning.

The third session I attended was a lot of fun.James Clay led a workshop entitled ‘Do you like books or do you like learning’? He demoed a number of different ebook readers and talked about experiences of using these devices at Gloucester College. This sparked considerable debate particularly about the relationships between publishers and the education community. My personal view is that cheap ebook readers may be one of the most significant scene changers in education, particularly as the use of the devices will span home and work, educational use and uses for pleasure.

One of the mots encouraging trends at the conference was the increasing move away from a focus on educational technology towards a focus on learning. Thus many of the research papers were drawing on social science methodologies and approaches. With the increasing integration of technology in teaching and learning, I wonder how much longer we are going to need conferences geared specifically at learning technologies.

However, underpinning the conference was the looming cutbacks in funding. This has already hit the educational technology sector with the forthcoming closure of Becta and the reduction in funding for Jisc.  The UK’s leading role in the use of technology for learning has been driven both by irelatuively generous unfrastructure investment but above all by very substatial project funding. Those days are over and a mood of uncertainty over the future pervaded the conference. Whilst there were attempts to pput a brave face on things through looking at increased pressues for sharing and the potential of bottom up networks, it seems unlikely the rate of innovation can be sustained without funding. Of course it is possible to question how effective that funding has been with may innovations remeianing isloated in islands of practice. Once more the likelhood is a refocusing on education and the role of technology in tecahing and learning, rather than the focus of many projects on innovationsin learning technologies, with pedagogy and teaching and learning playing second fiddle.

Further reports to follow.

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