Reflecting on Monday’s sessions at the Association of Learning Technology Conference at the University of Warwick (1st -3rd September) there was a refreshing degree of sobriety to proceedings.
In the past, when attending learning technology related conferences, one typically has to accept that there’ll be a number of presentations that follow the pattern of a non-academic member of staff presenting on a learning and teaching orientated use of a currently trending on-line enabled technology. Usually it’s a use that, at the time of presenting, may not have actually been undertaken as yet by any students or, if it has, is too recent to have been evaluated beyond anecdotal feedback.
The sessions I attended on the Monday of this year’s ALT Conference were, however, generally not of this ilk and, from the keynote onwards, displayed a more reflective and evaluation orientated view of using learning technologies to support teaching and learning.
Jeff Haywood’s keynote chose to take a look at what designing university education might look like in 2025. Rather than heading into science fiction territory however, he interestingly explored this through a lens centred over the prior two decades of learning technology usage and also in what his institution had learned from developing and delivering a number of MOOCs (at the University of Edinburgh). One of the most telling observations to come from looking back, he noted, is that technology has constantly been on the cusp of ‘forever changing education’…but without ever quite doing so. In highlighting this ‘Groundhog Day’ aspect of technology in learning he did, however, observe that by 2004 e-Learning had stabilised somewhat from what it was previously (with the mainstreaming of VLEs etc).
In regards to MOOCS (a topic that it seemed hard for Haywood to shake) he showed a Gartner curve that already has MOOCS heading in to the Trough of Despondency and latterly, when quizzed on the business model for MOOCS, suggested that his institution use them as a ‘taster’ for attracting students to the university. Within this he also observed that MOOCS can fit in to typical university activities citing such areas as widening participation and knowledge exchange (endeavours already undertaken by most universities but ‘tackled’ by MOOCs). He also didn’t see an inherent conflict between on-line and residential learning noting that their Masters distance courses are attended largely by people who are in work (in contrast to full-time students who are on campus).
Of the stranded presentations a further theme manifested itself in staff time concerns.
Joe Berry (University of Birmingham) explored the findings of a video feedback trial undertaken at his institution, a key driver of which was NSS dissatisfaction regarding feedback as well as the amount of time it takes to generate personalised feedback for students. The findings were consistent with similar papers we’ve seen regarding use of audio or video feedback (in particular a session I attended at the University of Hull’s learning and teaching conference a few years ago outlining their findings of a similar trial); notably that feedback given in this way increases student engagement but that, where summative assessment is concerned, there is a point at which it is felt to be less appropriate (due to its more personal, less formal nature).
The lack of time available to academic staff to innovate with their teaching practice also came up as a key issue in Alex O’Neill’s presentation on electronic feedback (University of Essex) where the institution has developed a home grown assignment submission and feedback system to help staff manage assignment handling administration. Assignment handling is a hot-topic here at York and it was interesting to see that Essex had opted to use Crocodoc for the in-line marking aspect of their workflow, a system we have integrated with Yorkshare (our VLE).
With staff time again being a factor Debbie Baff presented on a joint initiative across Welsh institutions to develop and maintain a bank of Open Educational Resources (OERs). This chimed well with the day’s keynote where Haywood cited an American survey that had shown 75% of students indicated they had used OERs to help with their learning.
Colin Loughlin (University of Surrey) presented on a study he had undertaken to try and nail down why teaching staff are often resistant to adopting new practices and particularly where integrating use of technology is concerned. He eventually alighted on viewing this resistance via the lens of Attribution Theory (how ordinary people explain events). The most common and stable external attribution as to lack of engagement (identified by staff) was, of course, time. One of the key conclusions of the study was that radical/immediate change of attitude is unlikely but, in providing staff with a small step use of technology that provides an instant ‘win’, the process of integrating technology in to teaching practice can be scaffolded successfully. Colin’s presentation was a stand-out for me over the day; not least because we constantly face resistance to staff integrating technology into their practice. Resistance, as Colin highlighted, that can be better understood and thus tackled more appropriately.
Tackling the earlier mentioned theme of evaluation Evelyn McElhinney (Glasgow Caledonian University) paper on digital residency was particularly interesting and attempted to map how students view on-line spaces on a vertical continuum from Personal Spaces down to Institutional Spaces and, on a horizontal continuum, from Visitor to Resident. The underlying idea of getting both staff and students to ‘map’ their residency in different on-line spaces was to better understand the balance between personal, professional and institutional spaces. The need for such understanding was something picked up in Haywood’s keynote when considering how a university education might look in the future. On this point he suggested that 90% of the technology used by students is brought by students (and not provided by the institution) again suggesting that an understanding of how such spaces are viewed and utilised is critical moving forwards. A striking finding of the Glasgow paper was how differently varying students view their residency, with some students feeling that they are resident in some institutional spaces (such as their VLE) while other students feel they are only visitors in institutional spaces. Looking at the nature of formal and informal learning spaces seems to have been a continued theme picked up by Richard (who has posted his reflections on day two of the conference in this blog).
Again, specifically on the theme of evaluation, Sue Bennett (University of Wollongong) announced a development tackling ‘Evidence on board’ by discussing a new 3-year multi-institution mixed method study investigating how students learn on-line. Although this is in the early stages of development, it’s a study we will be keeping a close eye on to see the outcomes of.
Dawn Alderson explored her evaluative research relating to pedagogy in relation to MOOCs noting early on in proceedings that a medium with such a high initial drop-out rate is clearly not meeting the expectations of a vast majority of its potential consumers. The presentation went on to explore the need for on-line pedagogies to be fit for purpose in some detail and covered some of the pedagogic affordances of a VLE platform for delivery of a MOOC; particularly relating to Constructionist and Constructivist activities in building learning and knowledge. The presentation focused on unpicking the findings from the first-hand delivery of a MOOC that involved over 9,000 enrolled participants in 2013.