A Tale of Two Conferences: #oer16 and #LAK16


When Professor Paul Kirschner started his keynote on the second day of the #LAK16 conference,  with the opening lines  from the Dickens’s classic a Tale of Two Cities, it chimed with me on a number of levels. Yes, in the way he intended around the utopian and dystopian views of the potential of data and analytics, but also in terms of my recent two conference experiences.

#oer16 and #LAK16 were neatly planned to run the week after each other, in the same venue at the John McIntyre Conference Centre, University of Edinburgh. The infrastructure for each was very similar, however I found them quite different experiences.

Taking liberty with Dickens, the thought  “it was the best of times, it was the best of times” has been running through my head as I try and synthesise and make sense of both conferences.

Although very different experiences and each conference had a different focus there were a number of key themes that kept surfacing. This post is an attend to bring together some of my thoughts from attending both conferences.

Scale, gender and community

Both conferences were respectively “the biggest” (and best) for each community. Both had more submissions, papers and delegates than previous years.  Both drew an impressive international attendance, and their timing I’m sure made lots of sense for delegates coming from the Southern hemisphere. With over 400 delegates #LAK16 was almost double the size of #oer16. So it was a different scale of event.

I know the  #oer16 co-chairs and committee were very conscious of gender balance (hurrah, there are still too many all male keynote/panel conferences, and too much mansplaining around ed tech).  I didn’t see/hear any gender stats at #LAK16. Anecdotally I can say it seemed like a pretty good balance. With 3 keynotes, there is always going to be an imbalance. I also didn’t go to any all male panel sessions, and I think I pretty much had a 50/50 split on paper presentations.

I’m very lucky in that I have been interacting with both the LAK and OER communities for a number of years.  I’ve actually been to one more LAK conferences than OER ( last year in Cardiff was my first time at OER).  I haven’t been to LAK since 2013 in Leuven so I was surprised by just how much the attendance has grown. Both communities are welcoming, and the twitter backchannel for both was very active and engaging.

I did feel that there was a lack of extended community driven engagement in LAK compared with OER. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. There was more live streaming of sessions at LAK ( a bigger conference +  bigger budget allows for that, there is only so much (and he does an awful lot) that Martin Hawksey can do by himself! ) However LAK did miss  the equivalent of edutalk sessions from John Johnston.  This type of community broadcast is becoming increasing popular, and imho, useful in conference I attend. Of course it  does rely on people like John doing it.

On the other hand I did really like the sessions after each keynote at LAK for an extended conversation with the speakers.  I know there are many community events in the LAK community such as SoLAR flares, and the LASI summer schools. But these do get a bit of funding and support. For example the LACE project has had a specific community building remit for Europe. Now that funding is coming to an end for LACE,  I wonder if more grassroots “stuff’ will emerge?

Data and Culture 

No surprises that data featured highly on the the #LAK16 agenda. Ethics, ownership, use, impact permeated the conference  From the opening keynote from Professor Mireille Hildebrandt, which really got us all (and particularly all of us in Europe) thinking about new data regulations,  ownership and use of data; to the myriad of questions and conversations throughout the conference that looked at the how, why and how of using data.

Data ownership was also a big part of OER16, particularly with Jim Groom’s keynote which centred on reclaiming both data and hosting of said data.  Again this is just my perception, I found LAK discussions working more at the institutional (meso) level and not really engaging with the personal (micro) data as much. Understandable since most of the presentations were dealing with institutional data.

As legislation increasingly gives users more rights over how their data is being used, I think there is potential for some greater cross over between the communities in terms of openly exploring the boundaries and fuzzy areas of educationally relevant data, data ownership and data use.

If more and more learning happens “outside the LMS” as was said more than once last week, then how do we develop the workflows, agreements, sharing practice that allows me, as a learner/individual, to host my data and make informed choices about what systems to share/give access to my data that will help my longer term educational goals? Similarly, where are the crossovers with learning analytics and the third sector ?

The theme of #oer16 was Open Culture, and it was great to have input from third sector organisations around the potential of open-ness (content, data and practice) out with the education sector.  Catherine Cronin’s opening keynote of #oer16 addressed cultural issues around inequality, culture, participation and open-ness head on.   Changing societal, organisational and personal attitudes to open-ness is an ongoing debate in the open education world.

Cultural change was also very high on the agenda at #LAK16.  Just how do you change institutional  and personal cultures to support, adopt, explore the potential of using data and learning analytics is something that many of us, not least myself, are struggling with.

Again another great opportunity for some crossover, and  the development of more informal, open networks around developing practice.  The DELICATE checklist and winning conference paper, Privacy and Analytics – it’s a DELICATE Issues. A Checklist for Trusted Analytics, from Hendrick Drechsler and Wolfgang Greller and the panel session organised by Simon Buckingham Schum on “Institutional Learning Analytics Centres: Contexts, Strategies and Insights”  were really helpful for me.

There was a lot of emphasis on creating more engagement with the learning sciences community, and perhaps that is an obvious and natural fit for the learning analytics community. However I think more links with the open education community would be beneficial, particularly around changing and sharing practice and culture.

Learners and teachers 

Last but of course, not least, what about learners and teachers? Ultimately that’s what anyone in education is really concerned about – creating better experiences for learners. To do that we need to have well supported teachers and effective learning designs.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not a “numbers” person, and I am a bit scared tables of data, and in-jokes about the vagaries of Bayesian modelling techniques, I did notice that a lot of questions for presenters at LAK were around the statistical methodology taken and not about the change in practice/outcomes created by the sharing of the findings. Mea culpa,  I should have asked more questions around that too.

Unsurprisingly then I found the learning analytics and learning design session really useful,  particularly the “A Conceptual Framework linking Learning Design with Learning Analytics” paper describing work being undertaking in Australia. I’m looking forward to following this up and exploring at their open source tool.

Another highlight for me was the paper “Fostering 21st century literacies through a collaborative critical reading and learning analytics environment: User-perceived benefits and problematics”  by Jennifer Pei-Ling Tan, Simon Yang, Elizabeth Koh and Christin Jonathan. The conference reviewers may have thought this a modest contribution to the field, but it made a big impact on me.  It was one of the few presentations I attendedd that actually quoted learners, and some of their reflections on the impact of dashboards.  I  maybe a total sucker for a network graph – but not all students are.

Like I said both conferences were “the best of times” for me. I enjoyed both equally for their differences and similarities.  #oer16 felt smaller and more like family. #lak16 was more like a clan gathering (not least because of the bagpipes welcoming us on day 1), a bit noisy and vague in places but very close to home in others.  My appreciation goes to both conference committees and all involved for organising two excellent conferences.