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@#altc2009: impressions of ALT 2009
(in more than 140 characters)
by Kevin Donovan, Graham McElearney and Kirsten Thompson

This is not the story of ALT-C. The conference story exists of course. It’s out there on the web. The conference site tells part: for example that the conference was fully booked and had a doubtless disappointed waiting list. A link to tells us about the keynote speakers. The programme, the mechanics, the processes, the administrative details are all there. Seven hundred people couldn’t have found their way around the Manchester event without it. If you weren’t there, just follow the links.

But there’s more to the story than that. The key speakers and other contributors come alive at The Crowdvine site shows nearly 600 members actively discussing, blogging, asking, informing, tweeting – and sharing photos. In fact there are complete photo albums on Josie Fraser and James Clay's flickr pages.

Figure 1: Delegates at ALT-C 09
Figure 1: Delegates at ALT-C 09

Kirsten Thompson corroborates that. “Clearly technology enhanced interaction amongst conference attendees, provided more opportunities to network; lots of people signed up to Crowdvine in advance of the conference and began to find new people to meet as well as using it as an opportunity to arrange to catch up with old friends. Networking is one of the things I love the most about attending the conference – literally hundreds of people, all passionate about learning and technology, all under one roof for three days. Yes, I am a geek (but it is highly likely that you are too)!”

So what’s the story? The real story is the enthusiasm and good humour of ALT staff and volunteers and venue staff organising and running a totally smooth event. It’s conference chairs holding the event on track, professional and inspiring. Conference means session chairs keeping to time and giving a voice to audiences large and small. ALT-C is delegates participating fully and frankly.

And the story doesn’t seem to end. The blogs, tweets, discussions and sharing continue.  A brief web search reveals many colleagues still actively collaborating on-line. The material is yours to use. For example via it is possible to obtain the code fragments to embed the videos of the three keynote speeches and eight invited speaker sessions from ALT-C in a web page.

Anyway… here’s our short chapter of the story. Where shall we begin? Perhaps with Graham McElearney noting that “after the great successes of ALT-C over the last few years, it was with some excitement that I set off over the Snake Pass on a sunny afternoon for this year’s conference, and the second one in Manchester in four years.  After a relaxing evening on the Monday catching up with a few old friends, we were into the conference proper on Tuesday morning.”

And Graham reminds us that, “Of course ALT-C is not just about presentations, and it is a great way to network, and put names to faces.  On the Tuesday night a number of us from the Publications Committee took the chance to chill out with a couple of beers at the Lass O’Gowrie.  We have a number of new members and a great new chair with Dick Moore, so it was a chance to catch up on a few matters of business and also for us to meet Adam Marriott, the newly appointed Head of Operations and Contracts at ALT, and talk about potential new developments for the web site and other initiatives.”

"An inspiring and entertaining start to the conference,” says Kirsten, “was provided by Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University, USA, who delivered a great keynote on Mediated Culture/Mediated Education. He opened with a photograph of his students in a lecture theatre and commented that ‘there is something in the air’. He was talking about Wi-Fi and the availability of the ‘digital artefacts of 1.4 billion people that are connecting everywhere all over the planet’. As Wesch spoke these very words, members of the audience were actively, yet silently, engaged in sharing observations and opinions wirelessly in 140 characters, with anyone who cared to follow #altc2009 on Twitter; and lots of people did care to follow, reply and re-tweet (RT) so much so that #altc2009 became a ‘trending topic’ (one of the most popular topics on Twitter at a given point in time)."

Figure 2: Michael Wesch
Figure 2: Michael Wesch

Graham’s perspective on this session was that “as an archaeologist, I found quite a degree of resonance with his overall approach.  Michael’s video “A Vision of Students Today”, has caused something of a stir since it was uploaded to YouTube, and has attracted nearly 3.5 million views.  It depicts a fairly startling view of the realities of higher education as students perceive it.  Following his anthropological analysis of mass culture, in which people feel lost, anonymous and insignificant, the video paints a picture of student disengagement with university education – a body who all claim to love learning, but with nearly half saying they don’t enjoy college.  Building on the famous work of Marshall McLuhan, who stated that “the medium is the message”, Wesch argues that the “lecture theatre” conveys more messages over and above the substantive content of any lecture delivered therein.  These messages suggest that to learn means to acquire information, that good information is scarce, and that we need to look towards structures of authority as trusted sources of this information.  I felt this set a great agenda for the rest of the conference, as he talked about the need to engage learners by transforming them from being consumers of knowledge to creators of knowledge, and by seeing creative thinking as being the next step on from critical thinking.  For me this was another reminder of an essential theme which I have found cropping up more and more widely in discussion with colleagues – the urgent need for us to get away from simply using new technologies to deliver old pedagogies.”

Graham stayed active: “Later on Tuesday morning I was very pleased to be invited to contribute to a panel presentation focusing on two very important strands of ALT’s activities, the first of these being CMALT, our accreditation scheme.  Maren Deepwell outlined the CMALT programme, clearly identifying the process and criteria required for accreditation, with a very valuable contribution from Kirsten Thompson.  Kirsten had successfully run a ‘fast-track’ programme for her colleagues at the University of Leeds, showing how it was possible for a group of applicants to plan and draft the portfolio successfully within two intensive sessions over two days.  During the second strand of the session, Frances Bell, Matt Lingard and I were able to promote a second core activity of the Association, which are our publications channels.  Frances and I discussed ALT-J and ALT-N, our peer reviewed journal and newsletter respectively.  We were very pleased to have Matt with us to outline how the Publications Committee are using some of the newer channels available to us, most notably our new presence in the Twitter stream, via our A_L_T account.  We hope to bring more to our members via these new routes as appropriate.

“For myself and I suspect many others, one of the most notable sessions of the conference came on Tuesday afternoon.  There can only be a few people in the field of learning technology who have been able to survive the last 10 years without encountering the virtual learning environment in one way or another.  Whilst it has been a stalwart of delivery for e-learning resources across many a campus during this time, we do of course need to retain a critical eye on its ongoing development and use.  Some might say we need to get away from it all together and move towards the ‘personal learning environment’.  So it was within this context that the symposium ‘The VLE is Dead’ was convened, led bravely by Steve Wheeler, James Clay, Graham Attwell, Nick Sharratt and chaired by Josie Fraser.  I think it is the first time I’ve ever encountered people queuing to get into an ALT-C session, with at least 100 of our delegates crammed in to listen to a lively debate.  There were far too many valuable points raised to summarise here, and fortunately the session was recorded and is available from James Clay’s blog.

“Not surprisingly the debate stimulated much discussion but, slightly frustratingly, it was only towards the session that I found the really big question for me was being addressed – that of new technology being used to reify old pedagogy.  I suspect we could have a whole conference devoted to this though.”

Figure 3: Participants in ‘The VLE is Dead’ session
Figure 3: ‘The VLE is Dead’

Later on Tuesday afternoon Graham was involved in “an informal meeting of our Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes Special Interest Group, for which we have funding from the Higher Education Academy.  It was a good opportunity for members of the steering group to meet for updates on a few matters, and also welcome a few new members.  We are planning a series of events for the coming year, with the next one at the University of Bath on November 11th.  More details of the group’s activities can be found at our website. “

Graham "was very lucky to be presenting a short paper first thing on Wednesday morning about some work we had done here at Sheffield on student generated podcasts".  The session was pretty well attended, and also featured a presentation from Ming Nie about the excellent distance learning work being done at Leicester, and a fascinating initiative conducted in Italy, where schools at great distance from each other were collaborating via web based video conferencing.  This project also showed a very heartening example of how technology was being used to increase inclusivity amongst those who might never get to go to school and learn with other students, in this case because of severe disability.

“Later on Wednesday morning came the second keynote of the conference.  This was an excellent presentation from Martin Bean, the new Vice Chancellor of the Open University.  Martin’s talk opened by giving us some insight into some of those scary facts we know to be true but don’t always like to confront: the fact that globalisation is a reality which creates competition on a global level, the fact that 2.5 million students study outside their home countries, that demand still outstrips supply, and as a result, that the growth in privately funded HE establishments outstrips any other part of the sector.  As part of a response to what Martin called ‘Our Collective Challenge’, he showed us some exciting developments in open educational resources.  These included the OU’s OpenLearn site, which provides free access to many educational resources, their recently unveiled iTunes U site, which has truly impressive access and download statistics, and their latest initiative, SocialLearn, which will be launched later in 2009.  Few of us could fail to be struck by Martin’s enthusiasm and commitment to ‘what we do’ as a senior university manager.  Some may have even been left feeling a bit jealous.”

Another high point for Graham was the Wednesday presentation from Jonathan Drori.  “Jonathan, who was instrumental in setting up BBC’s online presence, led us through a very witty and fantastically illustrated journey through 10 key factors that can determine the success or failure of educational technology development projects.  Having myself been involved in a few turkeys, there were some very insightful points that I wish I had been told many years ago.

“Later on Wednesday evening we had the conference main dinner, with a drinks reception sponsored by JISC Advance, the new organisation that integrates the eight main JISC services.  This year it was held at Manchester Town Hall, in a marvellous dining hall whose walls are adorned with fantastic paintings depicting significant scenes from the city's history.  Once again we were treated to a delicious dinner, cooked and served by students from The Manchester and The Sheffield Colleges, who were quite rightly treated to a standing innovation at the end.”

Figure 4: Conference dinner
Figure 4: Conference dinner

Figure 5: Terry Anderson

Graham also brings us the last morning session: “In the second half of Thursday morning, it was time for Terry Anderson to conduct the third and final keynote of the conference.  As with the previous keynotes, Terry’s presentation cannot fail to have opened a few eyes.  Terry opened his talk by considering the rapidly emerging plethora of Web 2.0 tools and services that are available, drawing our attention to sites such as, which provides a marvellous categorised list of many of these.  After a briefly review, Terry moved on to discuss the importance of ‘Open Scholarship’, and how this was set to become an increasingly important area for HE in the future – both in research and teaching.  Terry’s presentation provided a most fitting conclusion both to the keynotes and to the conference as a whole.

Tweeting began before the conference and continued beyond the conference close, confirms Kirsten. “As I am fairly new to Twitter, this volume of interaction and micro-blogging fascinated me, and it definitely reminded me why I love being part of this vibrant, active and supportive community that comes together for the annual conference – there was always someone willing to respond to your #altc2009 query and if you did not make a note of that URL mentioned in a presentation, plenty of Twitterers were quick to share their love of links: click, tag, save – thanks! There was certainly a lot to tweet about, too, with three great keynotes, guest speakers and lots of other interesting papers and workshops to attend.

“Of course Twitter was not the only technology being used to capture the conference experience, Elluminate was used to stream the keynotes and the altc2009 tag has appeared all over the web, from blogs to clouds to YouTube, enabling a much wider audience to experience the conference and engage with debate.

Figure 6: Diana Laurillard

“The new ALT Open Access Repository ( was launched during the conference and it is great to see the ALT community (and beyond) can now contribute to, and have access to so many valuable resources in one place. The ALT community is growing and becoming stronger each year with more and more people taking an interest in becoming a certified member and achieving that status (this was reinforced by the attendance at the CMALT workshops); personally I am looking forward to seeing the CMALT community grow because it sends a positive message to our institutions and employers about our commitment to our field, and also provides an opportunity to gain professional recognition for the valuable work that learning technologists (and those in related roles) bring to education.”

Kevin Donovan feels rather sad that this was his last conference. “I’ve been attending ALT-C whenever I can over the years and it is remarkable how it has become the key event in our collective calendar. I’m always disappointed that further education’s representation is so small but more than happy that those from the sector make such a huge impact every year. The ALT team have done amazing things to build and develop the event, which becomes more sophisticated, focussed, useful and fun every year.

Kirsten ends our impressions by returning to the first keynote. “Wesch’s entertaining ‘brief history of whatever’ concluded with: ‘I care. Let’s do whatever it takes . . . by whatever means necessary’; clearly a responsibility that lies with us all – it is not what you learn from attending the conference, it is what you do with that knowledge afterwards. Whatever.”

Kevin Donovan

Kirsten Thompson
University of Leeds

Graham McElearney
University of Sheffield

Photographs by Mark Gregory at Photoshy.

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