ALT-C 2007

I’ve been meaning to get to an ALT-C conference for years, but something always seems to come up,  so I really made the effort to book my place in advance this year, and I’m glad I did. (Inevitably something came up this year too, in the shape of an enormous abcess under one of my front teeth.  Fortunately my dentist was able to drain it before the conference so I wasn’t in any pain, but I had to miss the last keynote speaker to get back home to have the root canal excavated.)  Still, all the keynotes are available as video downloads via Elluminate, so I’ll try and have a look at it on line.)

Anyway. The conference itself. The first keynote was from Michelle Selinger, and entitled “You cant’ cross a chasm in two small jumps” As the title suggests this was an argument that institutions have to be prepared to take risks. Yes, you might fall in the river and get wet, but you will usually scramble out the other side. Rather than give a full account here, which would make for very boring reading here’s a link to the conference web site.  Essentially I felt Michelle was arguing that it was no longer realistic for providers (that is universities) to be organising IT services in ways that suited them. Really they needed to respond to student needs. But that presumes two things, one that “student needs” are an identifiable entity, which I very much doubt. Students may quite legitimately need quite different and possibly conflicting things to complete their studies. The second presumption is that “student needs” are independent of what we provide. I actually think the environment might play a part in the construction of needs.

There’s another issue here too. There is a lot of evidence that students are using Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. There seems to be a feeling that Universities ought to be “in there” in some way. Actually, I wonder if the attraction of these sites is precisely that they are not “official” and some students might be horrified if we were to start setting up shop in them! Some wouldn’t of course, which goes back to my point about the heterogeneity of “student needs”.

None of this invalidates Michelle’s arguments though. There are chasms to be crossed, between informal and formal learning, between school and HE and between cultures and economies. I think the most telling story she told  though was about the Technical University in Eindhoven, where students are treated as employees and given work placements with local employers. There is apparently a very high drop out rate as students find it difficult to cope with the critical thinking and flexibility that the employers require of them – Perhaps they’re just not ready for it (Learning is surely a process of maturing as much as it is of application and industry). On the other hand one of the remote questions did ask what support the students were given in this approach. I can’ t recall whether this question was answered and if it was, what the answer might have been. I don’t think it was.

There’s also a gap between what needs to be taught, (needed by whom, I wonder) what is actually taught and what is learnt. I quite liked her distinction between the “knowledge society” and the “knowledgeable society” The first has always struck me as being a pretty meaningless buzz phrase, but the second implies people who are interested and active in contributing to the development of knowledge. To achieve a knowledgeable society, we should move away from the three Rs and towards the three Ps (Persistence, Power Tools, and Play) to create richer and more engaging learning experiences. These might include podcasts instead of lectures (NOT “as well as”) more use of e-portfolios as learning passports, closer links between schools and work places.  It’s important to think differently. Curiously she articulated some of my objections to evaluating everything by quoting Henry Ford (although he gets alot of this sort of stuff attributed – I haven’t checked this one) “If I’d asked the customers they’d have asked for a faster horse” If you really want to innovate, I think this means that it’s crucial to give yourself space and time to experiment and play.  This is one of the themes of my research. I don’t think Educational Development Units do have this sort of time and space, because they are forced to play a sort of political game to ensure their own survival.

(It’s hard work, this blogging lark. I’ll have to come back to this tomorrow. Perhaps I should have taken the laptop and liveblogged, but you get given so much paper at these things I’d have struggled to carry everything home!)  Anyway the next entries are going to be about Learning Object Repositories, Online Silence, Second Life, E-learning benchmarking, technology and assessment, Blackboard’s new plagiarism detection tool, Wikis and Podcasts. Quite a varied conference then!