Electric dreams, dystopian nightmares, big data drudgery, and the rise of networks: some thoughts from #ascilite

So this year, I finally managed to make it to Australia and the annual Ascilite Conference. What a great time I’ve had in Sydney catching up with old friends and colleagues and connecting with many new ones.

In this post I’m gong to try and summarise some of the many thoughts that the conference (and in particular the keynotes and opening debate) raised for me.  Get set for a bit of ramble with the occasional bit of ranting.

The theme of the conference was “electric dreams” celebrating not only that classic tune, but also Ascilites 30th birthday.  The conference started with one of the most entertaining conference debates I’ve ever been to (it’s not often that DVP don wigs and shades) where the panels debated “the dream of technology assisted learning has been realised”. Convincing arguments from both sides, but the nays won out in the end.

Although I fully acknowledge that we still have a ways to go with integrating technology fully and effectively into education, it was (as these things are) a pretty loaded debate statement.  My dreams are generally a bit confused, sometimes brilliantly technicoloured and truly amazing, sometimes darker tones of sepia, and more disturbing – a lot like my experiences with technology. But isn’t that a good thing? Depending on what your vision was/is isn’t most of what keeps us all going the challenge of sorting the confusion and then seeing what else we can do? There are a lot of dreams I really don’t want to see realised, particularly the ones around fully adaptive systems where data rules our every move, failure is not tolerated and existing paradigms are reinforced. But more ranting about that later.

The keynote speakers were asked to present past, present and future visions of technology and education, which (with one exception) gave a sense of continuity to the conference.  Kay O”Hallaron started with the past and a history of computers and human interaction. Illustrated through her work in multimodal analysis she reminded us that although our world is increasingly awash with data, we are at the very early days of understanding how we all create and interact with information and each other.  Our understanding of networks that provide both weak and strong ties needs to increase.  Kay made the case for the need for inter-disciplinary teams of educational technologists and computer scientists to develop a strong, stable research community to build on our knowledge from the past to take us into the future.

Gregor Kennedy, University of Melbourne, then gave us a view of the present by focusing on the question “how well are we designing technology based experiences to enhance teaching and learning?”.  I really enjoyed his presentation as it put the teacher squarely at the forefront.  All too often we are sold a dream of technology enhanced learning that seems to have us almost sleep walking into a place where the role of the teacher, their knowledge and experience, is diminished from the “guide on the side” (which, btw to do well is no mean feat) to as Gregor called it,  the “pleb on the web”.  Gregor made a pretty convincing case that the move to student centred design maybe unintentionally designing out the most important interaction of all –  that of teacher-student. So although in our present we have some really good examples practice, they are still relatively small scale, not consistent across departments, faculty, institutions or scaling.

Another vision of the present where teacher-student interaction was central came from Pare Keiha, Auckland University of Technology. Pare shared a great example of “living the dream ” of technology assisted learning through the development of a number of Māori language and history courses.  In Māori there aren’t separate words for teaching and learning, just one Ako,  the terms are synonymous.  A lesson from the past we should maybe all be working towards in the future?

Sorel Reisman, California State and MERLOT by contrast gave me nightmares with his “educational technology: the impossible dream?” keynote.  I’m afraid it was all a bit too US-centric, instructional design, big data and the cloud will save us all for my liking. Education being reduced to homogenised number crunched instructional designs all shared via a ubiquitous cloud isn’t a dream I want to be living in.  However in the final keynote, Mark Pesce gave a more entertaining and plausible vision of the future based on the increased ease of sharing knowledge and the expansion of new types of networks.

Marc argued that technology is no longer the question. We are living in a moment of existential crisis that only be answered by a change of practice. And central to this change of practice (particularly in teritary education) should be about courses providing connections and gateways to “networks of excellence”. The classroom needs to become the place students go to deepen their networks. As he put it “who you know is now what you know”.  A pretty convincing argument was made, however as was raised in the Q&A session by my colleague Bill Johnston, will these new networks really bring around any significant change to our wider society? Or will they just reinforce existing elites which support our current failing economic and social norms? Something we all need to think about.

I know in my professional life that networks have become increasingly important to my career development. However taking a step back, am I part of a cosy educational technology elite? I’m sure there are many who think so. I’d like to think that any network I am part of is inclusive, extensible and open, but I think we all need to question how our networks are formed and developed and whose voices dominate.

So some overall thoughts from the conference. I presented a paper around work with Edinburgh Napier on the development of a digital university but more on that in the next post.

I’ll leave you now with the song that has been ringing round my brain all week.

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