#altc 2019 – reflecting on my role as Chair of ALT (5)

Picture by Chris Bull for Association for Learning Technology \r\rALT conference 2019 , Edinburgh.\rDay two – Wednesday 4th September.\r\rwww.chrisbullphotographer.com

This is my second post reflecting on ALTs annual conference which was held last week at the University of Edinburgh. It is also the fifth in my open leadership series, where I share and reflect on my role of Chair of the Association.

Our annual conference is, as they say, quite a big deal. It’s the largest event we put on every year.  It is our main income generator and more importantly it is the point in the year where our community come together to share their research and practice. It’s a place for celebration for inspiration, for conversation, questions, critique and reflection.  Although the conference co-chairs provide the main leadership for the actual conference, the Board of Trustees has a role in selecting the successful bids for co-chairs and ensuring that the planning of the conference goes to plan. 

In terms of formal leadership and Association business, the conference is where we hold our AGM (the link takes you to all papers and reports from the AGM which are openly available). During the AGM here Board, led by myself, our President (Martin Weller) and Honorary Treasurer ( Daniel Clark) report back to our community through our annual report on the work and finances of the Association. Once again the Association has made great progress over the past year which is detailed in our annual report, and our finances are in a healthy position. Part of the role of the Chair is to take a lead in the writing of the annual report and support our CEO in ensuring that our annual report and finances meet our strategic objectives. Thanks to clear strategic objectives, a very hard working team, and in particular Maren’s leadership as CEO, and a supportive community, the writing of the annual report is actually one of the highlights of year. This year, following our keynote Jessie Stommel’s lead Martin, Daniel and I decided just to sit on the stage – despite appearances we didn’t break into song!

Picture by Chris Bull for Association for Learning Technology \r\rALT conference 2019 , Edinburgh.\rDay two – Wednesday 4th September.\r\rwww.chrisbullphotographer.com

Our AGM is also where we announce the results of our Trustee elections. This year I was delighted to welcome Sharon Flynn and Natalie Lafferty to the Board of Trustees and to announce that Keith Smyth is our new Vice Chair.  I also want to thank outgoing Trustees Sarah Sherman and Nic Whitton for their valuable contribution to the Association.

Our CMALT ceremony is now becoming a regular, celebratory end to the AGM. I was delighted to be able to personally congratulate 20 new CMALT holders.  It is fantastic to see our CPD scheme continuing to grow and our new pathways of Associate and Senior CMALT gain traction.

We also held a face to face meeting of the ALT Assembly, which will be a staple part of the conference from now on. During the Assembly meeting we launched the consultation phase for our new strategy, and shared the many ways we are encouraging participation from our members and the wider community. So if you have any thoughts on where and what areas ALT should be developing and supporting please share them here.

The conference lasts 3 days, however the planning for it really does take 362 days. A huge amount of work is done by our core team (which I have to remind people is very, very small –  just 6 people – not all full time). Working with the venue to ensure we have the right space, tech, catering, accommodation and working with our sponsors takes up a lot of time.

Thanks also need to go to our conference co-chairs who ensured that their decisions around the conference themes and their choice of  keynote speakers set just the right tone for the event.  Of course, we need to thank our volunteer conference committee (100+ members this year), who once  again put in a huge amount of time reviewing papers and during the conference chairing sessions. Again, being involved in the conference committee is not only really fun and interesting, it is a great way to support the community and your own personal development.

This post is a very public way for me to to say a huge thank you to everyone who was part of the organisation of this year’s conference, as well as to all the delegates, presenters and keynotes who once again made the event such a success.

As well as the formal business of the Association, the conference is a point for celebration of our community. This culminates in our Learning Technologist of the Year Awards. This year we once again had a superb quality of entries across all the categories. And once again, huge congratulations to all our winners, they really do exemplify the diversity and richness of research and practice carried out by everyone involved in supporting learning technology. If you are involved in a great project, or a great team, then get working on your application for next year. Remember lots of senior managers love award winners!

This year we also awarded an honorary life membership to Frances Bell who has, and continues to, make a huge contribution to the ALT community and many other communities including FemEdTech

Picture by Chris Bull for Association for Learning Technology \r\rALT conference 2019 , Edinburgh.\rDay two – Wednesday 4th September.\r\rwww.chrisbullphotographer.com

For me, the conference is where I get to meet our members, I have so many good friends in the community, it does really feel like coming home wherever the conference is being held. It’s also really important for me to speak to members and delegates I don’t know and I had many really engaging conversations with delegates. 

Picture by Chris Bull for Association for Learning Technology

As well as my formal ALT role, the conference is a key place for me to share my current work and practice. I was involved in 2 sessions this year, one with Keith Smyth around our recent book, and one with Stuart Nicol on the staff development resource for supporting online teaching we are developing for the University of Edinburgh. I’ve always found ALT conferences a really useful place to share my work and get honest feedback from my peers. It’s a really supportive atmosphere, and I think a really good space for those who are new to conference presentations to share their work.  

Community is at the heart of ALT, and really at the heart of my leadership of the organisation, so being part of the conference and being with so many members of our community really is a very special time for me.   It’s exhilarating but also quite exhausting – in a good way of course. As I enter the final year of my time as Chair, I’m already looking forward to next year in London. 

#altc 2019 – data, dialogue, doing and lining up our ducks . . .

image: Sheila MacNeill

Another year, another successful ALT-C.  Last week 471 congregated at the magnificent McEwen Hall at the University of Edinburgh for our annual conference. With all the keynotes, and all the sessions in McEwen Hall being lived streamed many more were able to openly join the conference, and you can still catch up with the sessions here

This is the first of two posts I hope to write about the conference. This is more a personal reflection of my reactions to the dialogue over the conference.

It’s always tricky, if not impossible to summarise a conference – particularly one as large as ALT-C. However, for me, there were some key themes that weaved in and out of the keynote, the presentations (tales of doing)  the dialogue at the conference and online. 

There was a focus on data from the first two keynotes, particularly around our access to it and our attitudes towards the perceived payback/usefulness of just accepting terms and conditions (mea culpa, more often than not I do not read them – so a bit note to self for me was to try and not blindly accept them) .  

We as a community also need to be better at informing and leading the sector in developing relevant procurement procedures that ensure that the systems we use in our institutions are transparent about their data use.  All of the keynotes all gave us some hope about the positive aspects of technology around joy, curiosity and the power of play and networking.   Hats off to Ollie Bray for raising the level of interactivity in a keynote and getting c400 people building lego ducks in 40 seconds. But I want to reflect on another aspect of metaphorically lining our our ducks.

Ensuring our staff and students really understand about data use is an increasingly important and urgent issue.  Whilst the education sector does have a duty of care in terms of the technology systems it uses, it also needs to ensure that the curriculum(s) it supports also include opportunities for students and staff jointly to critique and understand how data is used and often abused.  GDPR alone will not “solve” this.  In many ways I think it can just make institutions more risk averse.

 Unsurprisingly Turnitin data did create quite a bit of dialogue, particularly in Jessie Stommel’s keynote.  I think this just exemplifies the problems we have with technology. leadership, decision making and linking educational technology purchases back to learning and teaching.  Turnitin has (and still is to an extent) perceived as the solution to plagiarism. Having that perception of a solution I am sure continues to ensure that many institutions pay for it. However that security is based on a totally false premise. Technology will not/can not solve plagiarism – changing human behaviour (through changing modes of assessment) just might.   But the realities, and media hype around essay mills, education being broken, grade inflation all work towards the perceived need for a technological solution.

Conference co-chair Melissa Highton and ALT CEO Maren Deepwell published a post on WonkHE entitled Educational technology is political and we need professionals to make it work. Whilst agreeing with the articles premise of needing to support learning technology professionals to be at the heart of educational technology decision making, there is a wider political context that we need to address. 

The myths and realities around education – learning styles, plagiarism, exams getting easier etc emerge and are perpetuated by our political and Political contexts.  During the conference Lorna Campbell highlighted Carole Cadwalladr’s excellent TedTalk around the abuse of data and the scale of misinformation channelled through Facebook in the Brexit referendum. I’m not sure how I missed seeing this when it came out. I’m tempted to blame biased algorithms but my own social media censorship may also have played a part.

The talk describes the destruction of democratic rules through the lack of accountability of spending, of content ( much of which was downright lies) that the campaign got away with. There is no openly available trace of the adverts or the accounting of the actual cost of them. Mark Zuckerberg refuses to face UK parliamentary Committee questioning (and many other similar situations across Europe).  

The normalisation of this type of social media manipulation continues with the current UK government. Boris Johnston talks to “the people” directly via Facebook – with no right to reply or clarity on how questions are chosen. The “liberal elite”, and investigative journalists are seen as an inconvenience, a threat to democracy but our Prime Minister and his special advisor. The wheels within wheels of power, funding stretch across the globe with frighteningly right wing shared values and ambitions. 

This context has a huge impact on education.  This weekend Joi Ito resigned from the MIT Media Lab in the wake of the Jeffery Epstein sex scandal. It turns out there was knowledge of Mr Epstein’s criminal behaviour, but when a white man has lots of money there does seem to be a tendency not to ask to many questions and just look the other way.  Ah, dear reader, it was ever thus, I hear you say . . . that doesn’t make it right, or mean that it has to continue to be like that.

There was a quite a bit of dialogue around justice in the conference, social justice in education in particular.  The whole Epstein MIT Media lab scandal leads me to think about decolonising the curriculum and the “reparative justice” that the University of Glasgow took a lead in last year. Only 200 or so years later the University is finally addressing the fact that much of its funding came directly from the slave trade – despite many alumni of the time fighting to make it illegal.  

We can’t take 200 years to address the political context we are living in.  Quoting  Paulo Friere we all need to ensure that we are challenging and changing what needs to be challenged and changed. We, in education need to  ensure that our students, our colleagues, our leaders are doing just that. We also need communities like ALT to continue to provide spaces for community dialogue to continue, to allow us to line our ducks up to address these challenges. Particularly when you see quotes from commercial educational providers like this.