In 2020, when so many events that would have once taken place in person switched to being fully online ones, I feasted at the newly laden CPD table, gorging on a seemingly far higher serving of webinars, conferences and group discussions than I’d typically attend in a ‘normal’ year. This meant a deeper and accelerated understanding of what was happening globally with educational technologies and in higher education as a result of the pandemic. It also meant that the next one had come along before I’d had a chance to fully absorb or process the implications of the previous one.
Like all universities, City had taken its teaching and learning offer online by circumstance rather than by choice in 2020. With the realities of supporting some of the digital education requirements of this context having taken their toll and having also overindulged at the CPD table in the previous year, I became rather more frugal in what online events I attended in 2021. Either a bit more picky, or the relentlessness of life at the screen face wore even me down a little.
As with universities, many conferences found themselves having to move online in 2020. The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) was one organisation that some turned to in order to find out more about how to take a conference online, given that ALT had been successfully running online conferences for a number of years. The online summits were usually a much more cut down version of ALTc, the annual in-person conference gathering for all those with an interest in learning technologies. In 2021 though, ALTc remained fully online and delivered the whole regular conference in that way – again, pointing the way towards how to do a fully online conference well. With 390 participants attending from 24 different countries, the format clearly didn’t impede participation.
So, in the same spirit as the follow-up to my first ALTc in 2014, here are ten (belated) personal highlights from ALTc 2021 to give a little flavour of the event.
- 1. Being on the committee
- 2. My session
- 3. ALT Radio
- 4. The quality of the online conference
- 5. Tim Neumann’s background
- 6. Racial literacy in technology model
- 7. Placemaking online
- 8. Scaling portfolio assessment, under pressure
- 9. Short, fat, long, thin
- 10. Imperial’s learning journey visualisation
1. Being on the committee
Full disclosure – last year, I was part of the organising committee. We had monthly online meetings, got to help shape the social events calendar, and acted as assessors of the year’s submissions, as well as having an inside eye on the preparations for the event. ALTc is one of the key events in the learning technology calendar, so it was really insightful to see what it was like organising things from the inside and being part of helping to shape the event.
Conferences themselves give you a chance to step out of the day-to-day of the day job and talk, listen and meet with others that share your field of work. Being part of the organising committee allows you to take those peer connections deeper and contribute to your sector in a bigger way than just through sharing your knowledge.
2. My session
Every conference attended has a very different spin on things when you’re also actually part of the programme. At ALTc21, I took part in a session titled ‘How do I become an anti-racist researcher?’ alongside a stellar cast of others (Katie Gardner of University of the Arts London, Dr Melissa Highton from University of Edinburgh, Teeroumanee Nadan, independent researcher on racism, Sukhtinder Kaur from Leicester De Montford University and Jim Turner of Liverpool John Moores University). Our session represented a subgroup of the Anti-racism and Learning Technology Community of Practice (CoP) that emerged in late 2020 from within the ALT community and which aims to address the lack of ethnic diversity in the learning technology sector amongst other goals.
Performatively, I got off to a bad start, with my mic on mute and my lighting too dark throughout – factors you don’t typically have to trouble yourself with at an in-person event. However, the session went fine and was well received by the audience. Our pitch was that we were collectively aiming to foster more inclusive working environments and that gathering data is one way towards acheiving that. We ran a poll on perceived sphere of influence and power within attendees’ own institutions, with respondents generally feeling that they had more influence within their own team and with direct colleagues than they had with elsewhere in their institution or within the wider sector. We encouraged participants to engage in action research within their own institutions as a way of evaluating and measuring the impact of anti-racist initiatives, deepening personal practice through structured reflection and for providing documentation of actions for the continuing advancement of particular anti-racist initiatives.
Melissa described action research as a legitimate research method to conduct within an HEI within having to do a full PhD, and suggested that as academic colleagues are encouraged to do it themselves, learning technologists should also do so. To encourage those that had not engaged in action research before, we highlighted an Advance HE guide as a useful starting point to the methodology. I mentioned that there is very little in the way of data sets about diversity in learning technology, without which it becomes quite difficult to answer the question ‘how diverse is learning technology?’ as a field. Action research therefore becomes one way route towards addressing that.
Watch full session:
3. ALT Radio
There are so many ways to interact with the ALT community online – whether it’s through the full extent of an online conference or down to the simple hashtag #altc on Twitter. I also spend a good chunk of each week with another online community too – The Thursday Night Show, which is an internet radio station that I helped found in 2012 and have been co-running and DJing on since then.
As I sat in my home during the first pandemic lockdown in the Spring of 2020, with my interactions with other people being solely conducted online, I decided to try and bring these two online communities together in the hope that they’d made a good mix. Turned out that they did, or just about anyway. Following on from the Summer and Winter summits of 2020, ALTc21 was the third time I’d managed to bring radio to ALTc. I added a set of my own too, to add to the mix, around the theme of learning and education.
4. The quality of the online conference
From the platform and the programme to the access and social opportunities, this was a really good online conference. It was hosted on StreamYard, which brought a professional look to the online conference that was easy for both presenters and participants to use, and was integrated with YouTube Live, which meant a chat function also running alongside every live video stream. The interactive programme provided a handy single ‘home base’ in a browser that brought all conference activity together in a single space. There were useful pre-conference online workshops, activities around things like ‘chair yoga’, meditation and even an appropriate number of well-placed breaks for recognising the demanding nature of a fully online conference. A Discord server with multiple channels was deployed to provide for the social functions of a conference that are so easily missed when the whole thing happens online. And the overall vibe was sufficiently engaging that I struggled to also find myself doing my emails at the same time – always a risk with an online conference.
5. Tim Neumann’s background
Zoom became one of the poster-child technologies of the pandemic, scaling up the usage of video conferencing exponentially, along with the likes of Microsoft Teams. Many people have now become used to rearranging part of a room in the house for something that looks better on a webcam, or picking any number of flavours of exotic or humorous digital backgrounds. Some have even gone so far as to get themselves a home green screen to improve on those fuzzy lines that AI renders around the shape of their on-screen form.
Attending a session titled ‘Advisor, Broker, Consultant’ on distributed leadership roles for steering rapid technology adoption, I was struck by Tim Neumann’s profile image. Tim had a radio-style mic in the foreground, a plain black background, and no fuzzy lines around himself. He also looked better lit that many webcam images I tend to see on screen. I followed up with him on Twitter after the conference, and it turned out he was using a cheap roller blind from Ikea. It looked very professional from the audience, but clearly a simple thing to sort out. I’ll probably have a go at this myself, one of these days!
Watch full session:
6. Racial literacy in technology model
How can we optimise technology for justice, for fairness? Mutale Nkonde gave a fascinating keynote on the concept of racial literacy via a case study about TikTok that demonstrated the impact of algorithmic bias. She introduced a framework for thinking about racial literacy in technology that was adapted from a model by Howard Stevenson for looking at racial literacy in schools. The three dimensions of the racial literacy framework she introduced were cognitive (‘technologies are more than maths/physics, they take on meanings of race’), emotional (‘we fear talking about race and racism‘) and action plan (‘what kind of world do we want to create?’). She also talked about the importance of embedding racial literacy in the design process. In describing that machine learning uses patterns of the past in order to predict the future, Nkonde’s keynote extolled creators to let this framework become part of their decision-making matrix.
Watch full session:
7. Placemaking online
‘The Art of Placemaking for Online Learning’ was a gem of a session. Kate Lindsay and Dr James Ritson from the University College of Estate Management, an HEI that provides courses by distance learning for people in the real estate and construction industries globally, ran a conversation about placemaking, which included a focus on the parallels between doing so online and doing so in person. They talked about how the language of the design of new courses could compare to the language of the design of buildings, and that a key thing about placemaking is the creation of spaces where people gather and experience community.
Showcasing 11 principles of placemaking from a set of American standards for placemaking, they talked about making engagement part of the assessment, as well as making an online space cleaner, tidier, and more navigable. Lindsay and Ritson asked if we had provided for those that want to get in and get on as well as those that want to come and linger, and pondered on how we create the ‘coffee shop moments’ of online learning. Key factors were a healthy environment that was fit for purpose, with ease of understanding and navigation, accessibility, the right design for the users, and a balance of control and flexibility.
Watch full session:
8. Scaling portfolio assessment, under pressure
Memorable sessions at a conference have different qualities that make them stand out. It could be the novelty of an idea, how something backs up a worldview, or the demonstrable impact of the work done. With a session on a project titled ‘eMORA’ (a collaborative assessment project for midwifery education; MORA = Midwifery Ongoing Record of Achievement), it was the scale of this project that impressed me.
Nine universities (represented by both learning technologists and midwifery academics) and one technology vendor (Pebblepad) worked together on an initiative to take a large document that is used to capture and demonstrate competencies for midwives in practice and to turn it into a more usable digital format. The presentation team described the multiple complexities that they had to navigate in this process, from professional body requirements, and the strictness of midwifery education to assessment in practice, university regulations and the challenges of different universities needing to collaborate with each other.
On top of all that, the project team was then confronted with a global pandemic that upended their expectations of how they would be working together. Ironically, being forced to conduct the entire project online brought great benefit, and turned out to be a more inclusive way of being able to involve multiple stakeholders too.
eMORA has been trialled in Sheffield Hallam already, with the involvement of 90 students. The other universities in this collective got their copies of this new ePortfolio in September 2021, so will have made their initial uses of them by now too. The team described this as a three year programme overall, so will be an interesting one to keep an eye on and come back to in future years.
Watch full session:
9. Short, fat, long, thin
In a learning design workshop once, I overheard an academic in our Law School made a reference to ‘the tyranny of the timetable’. It reminded me of my gradual weaning off of having my day dictated by a timetable designed by somebody else, when I stopped teaching GCSE and moved into an IT training role (many years ago) in order that I could start a Masters degree and attend some of the in-person classes on campus.
The timetable is one of those things that are necessary for education systems to function, which give structure to the learning journey and scaffolding for a curriculum. From a teaching perspective, they can also be very demanding things to have to fit yourself into – fixed time can be unforgiving in the world of session planning and delivery. In higher education, we typically have two types of timetable. These are either considered as ‘long and thin’ (ie with individual sessions not taking all day, but with the whole module stretching out over a whole term or semester) or as ‘short and fat’ (aka ‘block taught’ modules, where all the interactions with teacher and fellow students are compressed in a small number of full days, and the teaching content is over much more quickly than in a full term).
In ‘Short and fat or long and thin’, Moira Sarsfield of Imperial College London gave quality insights into the educational impact of the shape of the timetable, which also made a nice diversion from attending yet another session about learning technologies. I’d expected to end up favouring one approach over the other, but this session gave a nicely balanced view on both types. Plenty of further food for thought too.
Watch full session:
10. Imperial’s learning journey visualisation
Back with Imperial College London for the final parallel session of the conference, for a session with Tarek Zoubir and Gaby Bishop titled ‘Distance makes the heart grow fonder’. This session looked at the fondness that learners can have (or not) for distance learning experiences and environments overall and any lessons picked up during the pandemic into work done at Imperial Business School’s EdTech Lab.
What stood out for me were the graphics that visualised a learner journey through a typical term. Tarek and Gaby began with a depiction of a conventional on-campus learner journey, contrasted with one that showed the conversion of an on-campus experience to a remote-only learner journey, as would have happened in the earlier stages of the pandemic. With a conversion of in-person lectures to ones run on Zoom, the lack of socialisation opportunities for students – key factors for a campus-based experience – was noticeable. The presenters then looked at how they built online programmes in their own VLE (Insendi) via a couple of case studies of approaches taken, specifically at techniques to encourage participation and socialisation in online contexts.
The final graphic depicted a considered blended and hybrid learner journey, where student time was spread across online and in-person activities, and with a variety of different modes. The graphic showed different tracks laid on top of each other. At the top was the meta structure of the institutional calendar, followed by the flow of the topic sequence, the main large group teacher-led activities (online tutorials, live classes), individual and small group learner activities (small group discussions, assessments), and ending up with a foundational layer of informal online discussions and social activities. A summative assessment of the exam and results provided a bookend for the term. A very nice way to depict a student journey through a module.