More than seven hundred delegates descended on Leeds last month for ALT-C 2008 – themed Rethinking the digital divide – and were treated to some excellent presentations alongside plenty of opportunities to network: both formally and informally, offline and online. This year’s conference review intends to reflect as many opinions as possible and the three authors have been greatly assisted by a large number of comments on both Crowdvine, the conference’s social networking site, and a wiki setup to elicit delegates’ views. Many thanks to all who contributed. Tom Franklin echoed the view of many delegates in calling ALT-C 2008 “a huge success” and rating it as “the best ever”. For many people it’s the networking element that makes conferences such a worthwhile format and many would agree with Anne Dickinson, a Senior Lecturer from the University of Coventry, who obtained most enjoyment from “chance encounters with people and the fruitful exchange of conversations”.
A personal reflection
On a personal note it was my first ALT-C for 5-years and it provided a great opportunity to meet online “friends” face-to-face for the first time and to catch up with old faces. I particularly enjoyed the online aspects of the conference as well the fringe events; both flourished in Leeds and provided me with a very different experience to the ALT conference in 2003 in Sheffield.
Other highlights for me were Hans Rosling’s keynote and the interesting variety of presentations, in particular the more interactive ones. Let me emphasise just one here with more to follow from others below. My personal favourite was given by staff from the Universities of Hertfordshire and Bradford who staged a debate along the lines of Web 2.0 vs. institutional VLE. The positions put forward by the four protagonists were purposely polarised to encourage debate, which they did. It seems to me that the middle-road is the likely way forward, including firstly, teaching that takes advantage of Web 2.0 technologies alongside a more traditional use of the VLE and, similarly, staff using a mix of institutionally provided services in conjunction with institutional support enabling them to take advantage of innovative external Web 2.0 services.
ALT-C Workshop (Photo by photoshy.com)
An inspiring start
The conference was kicked off in style by Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, with a superb keynote which captured delegates’ attention. Steve Wheeler, Senior Lecturer at the University of Plymouth described it as “inspiring, entertaining and captivating… [it] set the tone for the whole conference”.
Hans Rosling with Director of Development, Mark van Harmelen
(Photo by Helen Keegan)
Professor Rosling talked about “finding ways to bring data back to the world”, which he achieved in his own talk using both traditional teaching techniques – humour and a 2-metre pointer – and outstanding animations that he had developed (see http://www.gapminder.org/). His presentation created a real buzz on the first day and beyond. He demonstrated how animations can be used effectively to present complex data in a meaningful way and used them to debunk a number of pre-conceptions that many of us have, particularly regarding the ‘Western world’ and the ‘developing world’. In particular he questioned the use of the term ‘divide’: ‘digital continuum’ rather than ‘digital divide’ was one of his messages.
The second keynote was given by Itiel Dror, a Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at the School of Psychology, University of Southampton. He argued that the digital divide is between the learners and the technology rather than being about access to the technology. His examples illustrated how learners can ‘read’ the same information in different ways and how the brain will often ignore what it perceives as superfluous information. He highlighted the importance of presenting information in ways that are easy to remember and urged us to produce e-learning content that is interactive, simplifies representations and exaggerates the distinctions.
In the final keynote David Cavallo, Chief Learning Architect for One Laptop per Child (OLPC) gave a thought-provoking account of the excellent work that the project is doing around the world.
This year's conference provided a great mix of research papers, short papers, symposia, workshops and posters. One delegate highlighted the quality of the short papers and felt that the sessions he had attended all “showed real evidence of critical reflection or good use of data”. The quality of many presentations was very high and there were lots of positive reports on individual sessions.
It was the more interactive sessions that especially caught the eye. One delegate highlighted the Alternate Reality Game organised by the Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes (PPP) Special Interest Group (SIG) as being an enjoyable and fun way to “get out there and talk to people”. The game involved searching for clues both physical and virtual in order to make up a phrase and to find out more about podcasting. The PPP SIG is covered in more detail in Andrew Middleton's article in this edition of ALT-N. There was also a live radio broadcast by the JISC Emerge Project.
Now over to Kris Roger for further highlights, starting with "Crossing the Chasm", a particularly interactive session by Rospigliosi and Greener from Brighton Business School. This workshop looked at bridging the chasm between early adopters of learning technology and the early majority (Moore 1991), in turn building on Rogers' diffusion of innovations theory.
A stimulating discussion was generated by participants creating their own posters displaying examples of learning technology implementation at their own institutions. Issues and questions arose surrounding why late adopters do not see the benefits of using learning technology; such as fear of loss of identity, loss of role and lack of time, leading to the fear of being replaced by a recorded lecture. It was also interesting to see a good number of examples from colleagues at other institutions which looked at how to encourage staff to embed e-learning tools within their teaching – hopefully creating a perception of usefulness along with ease-of-use.
Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State for Science and Innovation (second from the left) looking at the ALT-C posters
(Photo by photoshy.com)
One interesting insight that I personally gained from the workshop was a reminder of how important the use of language is when discussing learning technology with teaching colleagues. It is important to engage them by using language that will grab their attention. For example, many universities have received poor ratings for feedback to students in their teaching quality surveys and so it makes sense to discuss how learning technology, such as Turnitin or providing recorded audio feedback, can help staff be more productive in these areas. Even better, the presenters have found that a teacher showcasing their work to other teachers is particularly convincing, as has been implemented on HEA Pathfinder projects such as CHEETAH.
One approach to addressing the question of access or inclusion was the use of alternate reality games for information skills induction through the ARGOSI project at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Bolton. To introduce delegates to the concept of these games the presenters took a very novel approach to presenting their paper: by not actually turning up at the start of the session! Instead, the session chair handed out some paper clues and asked the audience to work as a team to solve a puzzle, which eventually led to a phone number for the presenter. The project aims to use quests, puzzles and games to introduce students to information and library skills over an eight-week period. The games are based on an overall narrative using a tool that brings together other Web 2.0 applications such as Blogger and Elgg. The core application is apparently fully customisable and will be made available to the higher education community.
Online, at the fringe and over dinner
For many delegates – and not just those preparing presentations – ALT-C 2008 started well before our arrival in Leeds. The ALT-C organisers had setup a Crowdvine social networking site specifically for the conference which over 400 delegates joined and it was a great success with lots of positive feedback. It provided a great way to make contacts, find others with similar interests and encouraged greater interaction before, during and after the conference. There was also plenty of action elsewhere in the blogosphere and beyond with both Crowdvine and the use of a conference tag, ‘altc2008’ making it easy to keep up with latest activity from the conference bloggers, photographers, twitterers and social bookmarkers!
Especially active in the online arena were the organisers and participants in F-ALT: the conference fringe meetings. The fringe was another first for ALT-C 2008 and another success for those who stumbled across it. F-ALT organiser and Learning Technologist of the year, Josie Fraser, described it as being “designed to give delegates new spaces and new ways of collaborating and taking forward ideas and topics. The idea was to support activity that fell outside the typical conference format and structure, and allowed for a more creative and inclusive approach”. As well as a number of sessions on Second Life, microblogging, gender and the digital divide, to name but a few, included the 4th ALT-C EduBlog meet-up of ‘edubloggers’.
The highlight of the social programme was undoubtedly the conference dinner, held at the Headingley Cricket Ground, which received an overwhelming thumbs-up from those able to get their hands on a ticket. The food, produced and served by students from Leeds and Sheffield was truly excellent and the evening provided a great occasion for the presentation of the 2008 awards.
View the ALT-C 2008 Gala Dinner video by James Clay
Learning Technologist of the Year, Individual Award: Josie Fraser
(Photo by photoshy.com)
Learning Technologist of the Year, Team Award:
The Learning Technology Group at Lancaster University
(Photo by photoshy.com)
For more information about the winners and those who were commended see: http://www.alt.ac.uk/docs/learning_technologist_of_the_year_award_2008.pdf
The winner of the Learning Object Competition, sponsored by Intrallect, was “Microscope Training” by Mike Lancaster of Keele University. View the five shortlisted entries, including the winner, at: http://www.intrallect.com/index.php/intrallect/news_events/alt_lo_competition_2008
The final word on ALT-C 2008 goes to Haydn Blackey, Head of Innovations in Learning and Teaching at the University of Glamorgan, who left Leeds feeling “enthused and ready to enhance my practice by things I'd heard and given that boost which throws me eagerly into the new academic year”. I’m sure he wasn’t alone and like many others I’m looking forward to another boost at ALT-C 2009. See you in Manchester?
London School of Economics
London School of Economics