#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.

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