In another change to the normal this year, the annual coming together of the UK learning technology community at the ALT (f2f) conference, was postponed and instead last week saw the ALT Summer Summit. ALT is really evolving its online conference capabilities and ways of keep the community engaged and sharing practice. The winter online conference has been growing steadily over the past few years, this years OER event, was an amazing success given the circumstances and incredibly fast turn around from a full blown face to face conference to an online edition.
Of course participation in online conferences is slightly different. Due to other commitments, I only managed to join the keynotes and final panel discussion live. However, that was more than enough to feel connected with the community, engaged in key issues facing everyone in education (and wider society) just now. It was just the coming to the end of summer energy boost I needed.
The theme of the conference, learning technology in a time of crisis, care and complexity was of course perfectly pitched. Like many during lockdown I found the emphasis on care, for each other, for our families, our communities, our societies, was an unexpected positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. At various times it gave me, hope, a sense of connection and community, and a focus on the really important parts of learning and teaching – human interactions.
Care can manifest itself in many ways, from a simple checking in on people by saying “hello, I’m here if you need me”, to designing learning experiences that take account of changing contextual circumstances. One example of this was the decision to move to open book exams that many universities took early on in the crisis. The stress caused to students by online exam proctoring was, imho, the antithesis of care Technology can mediate care but there are complex issues in its use. The keynote from Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier foregrounded care for both students and staff.
The zoomification of all aspects of professional and personal lives is “the” example of how technology can bring people together. Its ease of use and I guess really being in the “right” online place and price point (40 mins for free – yes, dear reader, I took that!) at a terrible time negated the security issues that many were highlighting, particularly in March/April.
Our need to communicate seemed a fair trade off to access to data about where, how, when and with who we were communicating with. What could anyone do with that data anyway? Even the UK government were having Cabinet meetings via Zoom – what more of a seal of approval could you need. They would have checked out all the security issues, all the implications wouldn’t they?
Our focus on technology during the crisis has also highlighted the many, and sadly growing inequalities in our society around access to data and technology. We may all be in the COVID ocean, but we are not all in the same boats, or even in a boat at all.
The Q&A session with Angela Saini (btw loved that format) raised many questions and discussions around race, the history and context of scientific and wider history and accountability. There was also discussion around how the current UK government seem to be in thrall of technology, without actually always fully understanding the consequences. The recent exams fiasco in both Scotland and the rest of the UK has highlighted what many in the ALT community and beyond have been saying for a long time around the bias of algorithms.
Algorithms are not neutral, they are the constructs of the many biases of the people who develop and build them. Diversity is crucial not only in the development of algorithms but in the decision making process around how /when they are used, the interpretation and use of the results. We need to constantly question the need for, and the use of algorithms and any form of AI.
Charlotte Webb’s keynote addressed issues of structural inequality in relation to COVID-19 head on as well as illustrating some alternative, feminist based approaches she has been involved in developing such as redeveloping Alexa from a feminist perspective. Both sessions are really worth catch up on if didn’t get the chance to see them live.
The final panel session Learning Technology beyond the crisis: Policies for a sustainable future excellently chaired by Keith Smyth, was more focused on the day to day realties for many of the ALT community are facing around policy and, more importantly its implementation, or as Anne-Marie Scott said how can we start to develop policies as “permissive tools”? Again really worth catching the session if you.
If you are like me then your emotions will have been all over the place over the past 5 months. I sway from mild panic to almost despair around the apparent rush to get back “to normal”, despite the virus still being in circulation, despite seeing that alternative approaches can work, that “traditional” exams really are high stakes and too often don’t have a back up plan that doesn’t involve chaos, that care is slipping further down the agenda as money and profit assert themselves as the real priorities. However, from events like the summer summit, I do also get rushes of joy, of care, of a sense that there are better ways for us to live, learn and work together and not go back to the “old normal”.
I’m also quite angry at times. We all should be angry at lots of things just now and that was brought up in the final panel session too. We need to hold on to that anger too and use it as focus. And as Keith quoted in the session “anger is an energy” – and angry energy can be a form of care too.