Circles, triangles, trolls, games, neuro-myth busting, empathy and respect #altc16

It’s always hard to condense 3 days’ worth of conference ideas and discussions. The title of this post is my attempt to reduce last week’s #altc conference to under 10 words.  However almost a week after the start of the conference my mind is still trying to synthesise the myriad of ideas I gained from all the sessions I attended.

For me there were a few key themes which resonated throughout the conference. Pretty high on the list was developing (digital) capabilities around online learning at both personal and institutional levels. This is something the sector is really grappling with just now.  Fully online delivery is far from mainstream activity (say hello and wave goodbye MOOCs).

Sharing findings from research as part of  the Jisc scaling up online learning project, Helen Beetham described the challenges their desk research had uncovered as: lack of organisational structure and staff confidence, lack of linkages to mainstream activity, and lack of understanding of the online experience for both staff and students.  Something I can completely relate to. Helen also touched on the emotional side of online learning,  and how that is still under estimated, again for students and staff alike.

Fear is one emotion that I think anyone who has undertaken online learning has experienced at some point. Fear of the unknown, fear of “being online”, fear of where and how to communicate fear of sharing. I know I’ve experienced all of the above.  Fear and the dangerous side of being online were addressed squarely by Josie Fraser in her opening keynote “In the valley of the trolls”.

The keynotes were, as ever, inspiring and this year I think really captured the concerns and aspirations of the UK edtech/ed dev community. Josie opened the conference with a challenging and timely look at trolling. If online spaces such as twitter provide a “filter free amplifier”, in which AI so far can only emulate every kind of abusive behaviour we have invented, it is more important than ever to ensure that we are all developing the digital capabilities to know where, when and how to interact online.

But fear can also lead to closing down online spaces and online interaction. Josie questioned our use of shared spaces, the role of open education, about our ethical commitments and most importantly she raised the challenge and control paradox. We need to challenge the trolls, but can we/should we control them? What about our ethical assumptions around privacy? Sometimes anonymity is valid. We need to develop respect and our ethical commitment to developing respectful shared spaces where we don’t all necessarily agree, but we don’t have to degrade others with casual racism and sexism in process.

Respect, responsibility, and the power of education to change society was a central part of Jane Secker’s keynote “copyright and e-learning: our privileges and freedoms”.  Again Jane highlighted the tension between the fear of copyright (hello, copyright police,yes I have no illegal music downloads)  and the freedom appropriately copyrighted material (hello, Creative Commons) gives us all.

Jane reminded us of the power and necessity of information literacy and IPR as a human right. We need to respect and acknowledge other’s work. However in our increasingly digital age, sharing has changed. We need to ensure that we aren’t just fostering copying skills but that we also encourage reuse and creation, with proper attribution.  There are many myths around copyright and licensing that once again digital literacy development and sharing through communities of practice can help to alleviate.  All this with cake, cats, star wars and a great history lesson.

More myths were explored in Lia Commissar’s keynote “education and neuroscience”. There are many myths and legends around how our brains work.  A little knowledge can be dangerous and it is amazing how much acceptance of there is in our society of “stuff” that has no scientific research basis. A case in point is learning styles.  I can see why people have empathy for that idea, we all have preferences but  . . . and before I go into fully rant mode, I would urge you to watch Lia’s keynote and join the neuromyth-busters and find out more about some fascinating neuroscience research projects in formal education settings.

One area Lia pointed to where there is a research focus on is games and gaming was the focus of Ian Livingstone’s keynote “code:connect:collaborate”.  Ian’s career has spanned the development of the current gaming age and culture, and for a non gamer and non adventure book reader he gave a very entertaining overview of his career and that sector.

He also emphasised the “real world” skills and learning environment that gaming can naturally foster including collaboration, safe social spaces, problem solving, continuous assessment, a safe place to fail. However games and coding aren’t a panacea for education.

Ian did mention the gender imbalance in the gaming industry but not the  very unpleasant side of – in particular Gamergate,   which Josie highlighted in her opening keynote. There is a lot more work that needs to be done to redress that kind of behaviour and to ensure online spaces are safe, collaborative and respectful to all.

Supporting coding in schools and in the curriculum is great, but it is only part of “the digital”, ensuring digital capabilities are recognised and supported in the curriculum is just as important.

“The digital”,whatever that actually means,  is something that our final keynote double act of Donna Lanclos and David White have been talking and writing about for a number of years.

Their more discursive keynote “being human is your problem” looked at some of the realities of trying to exist in our education systems and the messiness of not only being human but being a human interacting increasingly in digital spaces.

Technology is not the answer, it’s part of the answer and part of the problem. Culture change, or perhaps evolution, is what we really need to address.  But that is hard, so often it’s easier to buy something shiny rather than support (neuro) mythbusting culture change (hello and goodbye digital natives).

Donna and Dave were both adamant that we should move away from thinking about “them” and “us” in institutions, arguing that we are “them”, they are “us”.  I’m not sure sure about that, there are always tribes of them and us – staff/students/managers/senior managers/  the list goes on. Again maybe that takes us back to where Josie started the week around respect and empathy between all our academic related tribes.

One thing that Dave said towards the end of the session was that we need “less triangles and more circles”.  He was referring to an early model of digital literacy from Beethham and Sharpe, but I think it summed up my impression from all of the conference, not just the keynotes. We aren’t all working towards a pinnacle or peak, our work is far more iterative and circular, perhaps more spiral like to give some sense of movement (not a spiral of despair I hasten to add).

So thanks again to the conference chairs, committee and ALT for providing the space for all our triangles and circles it was a great conference this year. I haven’t even mentioned all the great sessions I went to and chaired, the annual awards, #altplay.  I’m looking forward to doing it all again in Liverpool next year.

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