We could ride the surf together – Polarisation and power of riding the wave and not staying in front of it (an ALT-C conference report)

(with apologies and much love to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys for the title, from the amazing track ‘Surfer Girl’)

Held in Warwick on the 1-3 September, the Association of Learning Technology annual conference (ALT-C) brought together 400 plus academics, learning technologists, heads of e-Learning and other engaged practitioners across a programme of keynotes and predominantly practice-led presentations. With the theme ‘Riding Giants: How to innovate and educate ahead of the wave’ the conference posed more questions for me than answers. I was interested to know who or what the ‘giants’ actually were? And for what reason did we need to ride them? Equally, what was the wave we were trying to stay ahead of? Was it something that would wipe us out or carry us to somewhere we didn’t want to be? I know it is a bit glib to interrogate a conference theme in this way. They are designed to set a tone for the millions of words, ideas, tweets and powerpoint slides that would emerge from the programme and the social milieu that followed. But each time I threw myself into the debates and discussions, listened to presentations and talked to people over coffee or an excellent Thornbridge Jaipur IPA, I found myself unable to answer these questions to any great satisfaction.


The overwhelming and confounding sense I took away from the conference was one of polarisation, especially in terms of practice. My choice of the word polarisation is quite a considered one. Learning technology has suffered over the years to engage with the mainstream practices of higher education. MOOCs opened the windows and showed us what can happen with the investment, commitment and attention of the wider institution. The struggle that was clearly demonstrated throughout the conference was the conflicted views about what we as learning technologists, teachers using technology or institutions want to achieve or succeed in. Do we want to lead (be the giant)? Do we want to avoid the impacts of change (stay ahead of the wave)? Do we want to follow the technological trends that shape and impact the rest of society (giants) or do we want to carve out our niche in the institution and let the changes and challenges pass us by? (wave)

I have extracted some tweets that I made during the conference, in response to and sometimes times inspired by the speakers and presentations that go some way towards addressing/interrogating/ignoring some of these issues this have led to what I see as this polarisation of practice.

This tweet was in response to the keynote presentation of Jeff Hayward entitled ‘Designing University Education for 2025: balancing competing priorities’.

He argued that the modern university needed to prepare itself for a raft of changes that represented substantial changes that arise primarily from the technologies of today. There is a clear disconnect between the pace of technological change, the use of technologies by our learners and the pace in which institutions can change and adapt to both of those. I think we have been successful in winning the battles of large scale institutional systems as a means of embedding learning technology. The difference in the post-digital age is that now, these platforms and tools don’t have to be firewalled behemoths of yore. They are lean, agile, accessible and most of all, social. There isn’t a single institutional ‘out of the box’ solution that we can get the institution to invest in. There are micro platforms, single purpose aggregations of tools, agile new start-ups and the continued predominance of a digital backpack hosted and stored in the cloud.

As a sector, we need to move away from our systems mind set and into one that creates the conditions for agility, creativity and innovation. The effort should not be on shaping the systems to be ready for 2025, it should be shaping the institution to be able to adapt to whatever is thrown at it. If we went back to 2005 and asked the institution to prepare itself for 2015, what would we have told it? What has happened in the intervening years that we could have never predicted? Funnily enough, it’s the stuff we are still trying to ways to adapt to now. Social media! Participatory culture! Digital Citizenship!

This was a tweet in response to two quite distinct examples of polarisation. The first arose from a number of comments from the conference that argued strongly that technology gets in the way of learning. The interrogation of the efficacy or impact of the technology was presented in the context of how much negative impact it had on learning, with the lower the negative impact the better. This is a problematic assertion at the best of times. It positions technology as a value-added, rather than as an integrated component of teaching and learning. The assumption was that the technology needed to change to better align with the pedagogy. Better social media platforms. Less kit. What is wrong with good old pen and paper?

The second example arose from an underlying assumption that technology was there to enhance the way we teach now. Hence the debate about students using their smart phones in class, or the ubiquitous shots of a sea of laptops and illuminated apple logos facing the modern lecturer. The elephant in the room here is that all of this was predicated on the argument that the pedagogy we have is fit for purpose. My main takeaway from the whole conference was that debate we need to have is not around the stranger danger of the internet, or the relative merits of lecture capture systems or the administrative benefits of the next generation of VLE products. We need a good, old fashioned barney about pedagogy. We need to debate whether the way we teach now is suitable for the way we learn. Is it practical for the jobs our students are going to do when they graduate? A blind-faced acceptance of pedagogy now asserts that we will always do it as we have done. And ultimately,our teaching and learning practices and their respective pedagogical approaches will be constantly challenged by agile private providers, emerging new modes of higher education entrepreneurship and the ‘gold rush’ like stampede towards a MOOC led future.

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