Greenwich pillars

Looking forward

Like most sectors, higher education looks at trends the affect it and tries to imagine potential futures from them. The University of Greenwich’s 2017 Academic Practice and Technology conference took this theme up this year with relish. Focusing on ‘reimagining higher education in the face of a rapidly changing and sometimes chaotic environment’, APT2017 invited contributions from those ‘imagining and making the futures of higher education’. Whether delegates were pushing boundaries, evolving practices, developing curricula, or creating new collaborations, there was plenty in store to light up those possible paths ahead.

I was lucky enough to be able to participate and share some of the work I’ve been involved in here at City, which also gave me a great opportunity to find out more about how others in the sector are thinking as they look forward. This post brings together some of the key points from my presentation with a few other highlights from the event that I picked up along the way.

Chair Simon Webster kicked off proceedings by noting that with 140 delegates, this was perhaps the perfect number for an educational technology conference (being also the current character limit of a tweet). I first came across the use of Twitter as a conference backchannel back in 2010, noting that it enabled connections with other delegates, responses to presenters and a networked notebook for later reflecting on the event. It’s become a key element to my event toolkit ever since. #uogapt (to reference the conference’s official hashtag) was no exception.

A change in the line-up brought Dr Ed de Quincy’s closing keynote to the start of the day instead. Ed’s presentation was billed as a personal reflection on his professional journey through studying online human behaviour, which has focused on the usability and impact of websites as well as the uses of information collected. He recounted several case studies of using technologies and techniques from Computer Science to enhance his teaching and his students’ learning. His early attempts at keeping separate social media accounts – one personal, one professional – had proved unsustainable, so he’d collapsed them into one account.

His presentation also highlighted the importance of learner-centred design when creating resources for use in teaching. Of particular interest was one activity where he’d asked students to design dashboards for viewing their own learning analytics. This raised an audience question – do we have an automatic duty of care when interacting with students through our personal social media accounts?

Tablets, vortices & talking heads

With ‘Keep Taking The Tablets’, I shared my experiences of investigating ways to enable staff and students to make more effective use of mobile devices in teaching and learning. This mostly relates to the ability to socially share content from a personal device via a wireless connection, dubbed ‘wireless collaboration’ within LEaD.

During 2016-17, I’ve been working with academics in SMCSE’s Civil Engineering department on a project where the member of teaching staff can wirelessly project anything on an iPad to a common room display as part of their lab classes. This brought several benefits to lab teaching, including the ability to share written content on a large screen with the whole group (which can’t be done via the standard route as there is no teaching pod PC with lab projectors), being able to keep unlimited pages on hand and pull in additional content in ways that aren’t possible with a flipchart, and making a more inclusive learning environment, where teachers and students were all able to sit around the same table in a lab setting and use a shared writing device.

I also shared my session slot with a couple of presenters from Greenwich, Yang Yang and Michael Okereke, who gave an interesting talk about leveraging social media for helping students cultivate and employability-oriented online presence.

Main contribution to the event done, I could breathe a sigh of relief and head off to enjoy the rest of the event. First up, was Andrew Middleton’s broad ranging session on learning spaces. This covered so much ground and had so many ideas that it almost left my head spinning trying to take it all in. Andrew covered studio-based learning, brought into some old-time revolutionary thinking around #vortexspace, and exalted us to shift our thinking from ‘space’ to ‘place’, allowing the learner to claim a sense of ownership over where they are physically located when they are learning.

After shaking up our thinking, Andrew put us into groups and asked to to reimagine space without recourse to traditional boundaries or ways of thinking. What started as unsettling became liberating once we started finding our feet with an idea. My partner and I ultimately settled on the idea of a timetable randomiser, where learners start with a core theme to explore then are randomly allocated classes to explore the theme from in a variety of different subjects or disciplines before moving on to an broad and open Learning Commons to congregate with others and work in smaller groups on problems. Our sketch reflected how this might look:

I can’t imagine that such a ‘Dice Man‘ approach to teaching and learning would be wildly popular, but perhaps elements of randomly selected disciplines outside a core specialism would bring beneficial learning gains if done in small doses. The boundaries of my own learning when studying for a Masters at Sussex were certainly pushed when I took a term’s modules within another school, exposing me to both innovative forms of assessment, subject material, and the perspectives of other learners that I wouldn’t have had if I’d kept everything within the confines of my own school.

The next session covered ‘The Changing Role Of The Tutor’, with presentations from Richard Meredith, Jamie Harle and Peter Bryant in rapid succession. Meredith recounted his efforts to ‘stay one step ahead of the algorithm‘, an important reminder of the need to retain our humanity in increasingly digitised teaching environments. Harle revisited Gilly Salmon’s classic 5-step model for supporting and developing participants in (mostly asynchronous) online learning environments and looked at it from a contemporary perspective.

Finally, Bryant invoked the spirit of Talking Heads’ David Byrne with an almost polemical pitch on how teaching in a blended environment cannot be ‘the same as it ever was’. He suggested that today and in the future, new roles are needed that centre around creating experiences for facilitating learning, and that education should consider what it takes to become ‘citizens in the digital world’, a place where none of us are either empty vessels or experts. Other important points made were that students often don’t consider digital tools as ‘technologies’ at all but just things they use to do things, and that while not all students are experts in all technologies, student adoption always moves faster than institutional adaptation.

Drawing to a close

Possible pathways to future teaching and learning had so far suggested learners being more involved in the design of the tools they learn with, greater institutional facilitation of mobile devices in learning spaces and social media in the pursuit of employability, radical rethinks of our learning spaces, remaining distinct from the machines deployed in education, and updating our older models, practices and skills as we move forward. All that was left was to bring proceedings to a close with some broader brush strokes from an ‘all-star’ panel as the closing keynote, comprising George Siemens (via Skype), Helen Beetham, Viv Rolfe, Andrew Middleton and Liz Bacon.

The panel discussion started from the assumption that the future is not pre-shaped and something we wait to happen to us, but rather something that we actively shape. Beetham suggested that binary choices between a future that was either highly collaborative or highly competitive with the automation of cognitive labour were not a foregone conclusion. Middleton cited the agency that social media can give us, while Rolfe pondered what the learners of the future would be like. All agreed that in a time of Trump, Brexit and multiple additional challenges, it wasn’t possible to disentangle the social-political climate from questions about technology in HE.

I asked a closing question around looking for any hints of positivity amidst the talk that had by then descended to possible dystopic scenarios. Chiming with the initial notion that the future is something we choose to shape rather than which just happens to us, Siemens suggested that another way to look at our coming age of automation is of opening up a new era of human creativity – a positive note to draw proceedings to a close.

I’ll leave FutureLearn’s Matt Jenner with the final word:

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