This year’s Association of Learning Technology conference (#altc) took place at the University of Warwick (1st -3rd September) and the conference aimed as always to identify and discuss the big questions, challenges and changes in learning technology practice across the UK sector.
Three key themes stood out from the sessions presented on Tuesday 2nd September:
- Open learning spaces and informal learning – acknowledging the need to bridge the divide between formal and informal learning spaces;
Catherine Cronin’s keynote covered familiar ground at ALT conferences in making the case for open practice in the delivery of teaching and support for student learning. In her talk, Catherine defined open practice as relating to the creation and sharing of openly licensed work, but also pointed to a deeper definition for this term – namely a more proactive approach to teaching practice where students are given free licence to make use of these types of resources as part of their formal learning. She contrasted the physical spaces (on-campus classrooms) and bounded online spaces (secure VLE module sites) with open online spaces (e.g. social networks and free-web tools such as wikipedia), where instructor presence and control may be limited but the scope for informal learning and insights is still compelling. In referring to David White’s description of wikipedia usage as the ‘learning black market’, a contrast was made between approved (bounded) learning and informal learning spaces and resources which students are not encouraged to acknowledge that they are using in the performance of formal learning tasks.
Catherine observed that students navigate the dissonance between these formal and informal learning spaces, but argued that what was really needed from instructors was acknowledgement and support for students to negotiate their learning across these different spaces to help provide a more authentic and holistic learning experience. She drew on examples such as the #icollab community (http://icollab.wordpress.com/), which has used Twitter amongst other tools to bring together cohorts from different institutions across the world to share their learning and engage in discussion, with groups of students and instructors acting as nodes in a learning network – combining formal learning tasks with collaboration through social media. Catherine noted that students are navigating and making use of these types of social networking tools for their informal learning anyway, and if we are serious about developing their digital skills and identities, we should be modelling this type of practice and showing how their informal learning can meet academic purposes. Unfortunately little time was left at the end of Catherine’s presentation to address questions, which inevitably touched on the practical considerations for instructors in facilitating learning beyond the formal boundaries of university systems (e-safety, IPR), and the barriers which can emerge in open spaces to effective collaboration and participation (e.g. through the control that individual gate-keepers can exert in unofficial Facebook groups for courses -controlling access and the nature of the discussion that ensues).
- Digital identity for institutions – making the case for a clear articulation by institutions of the digital strategy they are pursuing to students, explaining how digital tools will be used to support their learning.
Helen Beetham gave an engaging talk on the different typologies of institutional digital practice, drawing on her experience as an independent e-learning consultant. She contrasted different institutional approaches to the use of digital tools, using a compass metaphor to illustrate different polarities in digital strategies, ranging from:
- Walled gardens: local learning hubs serving as repositories of skills and knowledge, focusing on the specialist courses and local resources (e.g. performing arts or agricultural colleges which are campus-based and make use of secure closed local digital systems, where the emphasis focuses on the on-campus student experience and the digital strategy is aimed at bringing students to a physical space where learning takes place);
- Global lecture halls: open lecturing -a service provider acting as a partner for lifelong learning, enabling students to dip in and out of study over a period of time;
- Wired communities: open and distributed learning communities
- International franchises: learning mediated across campuses around the world – offering a wide range of disciplines at scale
Helen made the point that universities are competing in the global arena to attract students. Digital technology is now systemic and students are using digital devices to support their learning, whether they are invited to do so or not by the institutions they are enrolled at. It is therefore incumbent upon these institutions to define their digital approach and clarify what type of digital experience they will be offering their students. Stakeholders in shaping the digital strategy range from marketing staff at one end of the spectrum to learning and teaching staff at the other, with employability and careers specialists negotiating the middle ground in the development of a strategic outlook.
Helen cautioned against a digital strategy imposing uniform expectations on the way that digital practices are performed across an institution, arguing that digital practice should embrace a variety of approaches and would therefore naturally ‘expand’ or ‘contract’ according to the requirements of specific disciplines. She therefore questioned the validity of Rogers’ bell curve IT adoption model as a way of measuring institutional adoption of digital media, focusing as it does on a linear trajectory for technology adoption.
- Staff Digital literacies – developing the competencies of teaching staff to fully embrace the affordances of digital tools, helping students in turn to be digitally ready for the workplace.
This theme was ably addressed in De Montfort’s DigiLit Leicester Project presentation (project details are available at http://www.digilitleic.com/ ), which highlighted the importance of enabling staff to develop their digital literacy knowledge, skills and practice through a structured support framework. De Montfort have partnered with Leicester City Council in a knowledge exchange initiative to support the development of digital literacies for teaching staff across 23 of the city’s secondary schools. This has been a two-year engagement, with the initial year focusing on consultation with schools and teachers, out of which was developed a self-evaluation tool. The approach has focused on helping teaching staff to identify their own confidence levels (from entry level, to core level focusing on basic skills to work in the modern classroom, up to developer and pioneer level, where assistance is offered to others) against six themes of digital practice, namely:
- Finding, evaluating and organising course resources: finding ideas and resources for classroom teaching and engaging in critical review of what’s available on the web;
- Creating and sharing: remixing old resources and sharing materials
- Assessment & feedback: exploring different modes of online assessment including peer-to-peer assessment;
- Communication, Collaboration and Participation
- E-Safety and Online Identity: managing your digital identity and reputation;
- Technology supported professional development: how staff can take advantage of new technological affordances to do things differently.
The self-evaluation framework is explained in detail in an article submitted to Research in Learning Technology, available at: http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/21440
Rather than assess the digital skills of staff through a process such as the European Computer Driving Licence, staff are encouraged to self-diagnose areas for development and then seek opportunities for training and support in developing their practice. By repeating the self-evaluation process across the schools in the second year of the project, the project researchers were able to detect a marked increase in the confidence levels of teaching staff– reflecting the heightened awareness that they had of their digital literacies and how they may be applied to classroom practice. The discussion flowing from this presentation focused on the application and adaptation of these themes of digital literacy to higher education with doubts raised over the willingness of HE teaching staff to review their own practice and seek out development opportunities to address any perceived shortcomings.