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    What I saw at ALTC 2017

    By Mira Vogel, on 8 September 2017

    I’ve been at ALTC , the Association for Learning Technology Conference 2017. To come, a harder piece to write where I make sense of it all – but for now I’m going to summarise each session I attended, mainly because I really enjoyed hearing from everyone else about what they went to. Incidentally, the keynotes and all of the sessions which took place in the largest room are available to watch on ALT’s YouTube (where there will hopefully be a playlist in due course).

    Day 1

    Bonnie Stewart, a keynote speaker from a non-traditional background, spoke about the exclusions which ensue from only planning for norms. Among many insights she shared was Ronald Heifetz’s about actively distinguishing between problems which technology can solve and problems which require humans to adapt their behaviour.

    Helen Walmsley-Smith introduced eDAT, a tool for analysing the content of online learning activity design. The data  could then be analysed with feedback and retention data to allow a learning design to be evaluated, and successful types in different contexts to be identified. eDAT is freely available. There are early signs that interactivity is related to improved retention.
    Emma Mayhew and Vicki Holmes from Reading described the shift from paper-based to digital assessment processes. Part of a major programme of EMA funding. With eight academic and student secondees, they aim to improve each part of cycle, from better awareness at the ‘Setting’ stage to better monitoring of progress at the ‘Reflection’ stage. They found that the idea of ‘consistency’ was problematic and might refer to satisfaction rather than practices. Their review of other institutions found that the most successful outcomes were in institutions which consulted carefully.
    Peter Alston (Liverpool) discussed how ‘the academy’ does not mean the same thing when it discusses e-assessment. This highlighted the differences between professional services and academic perspectives. Adopting Whitchurch’s (2008) ‘third space’ approach, and the contestation, reconciliation and reconstruction (Whitchurch 2010) around practices, rules, regulations and language.
    Why are the rates of e-submission and feedback at the University of Essex so high? Ben Steeples looked back at a decade of electronic submission and feedback on a platform built in-house, which designed out a number of problems affecting other platforms. Maintaining the in-house system costs £75k a year, but the integrations with e.g. calendar and student records are excellent and the service is very reliable. They expect to develop analytics. I love hearing from in-house developers making large strategically important institutional systems which work well.
    Daniel Roberts and Tunde Varga-Atkins #1637 discussed the minimum standards (‘hygiene factors’) for Liverpool’s VLE, and the development of an evaluation model involving students which could be used with other initiatives. Students are a transient presence who can be hard to reach; different evaluation approaches to involving them included as auditors and in focus groups. Between staff and students at Liverpool there was little mutual recognition of the respective effort which goes into using the VLE.
    One of the stand-out sessions for me, Simon Thomson and Lawrie Phipps summarised Jisc’s #Codesign16 consultation on needs for a next-generation digital learning environment. There was a sense that the tools drive the pedagogy, that they exist to control the academy, and that administration processes were de facto more important than education. Jisc found that students were using laptops and phones had almost equally (only 40% used a tablet). Students arrive at university networked, but the VLE currently stands alone without interfacing with those networks. At Leeds Beckett PULSE (Personalised User Learning and Social Environment) set out to address this by letting individuals connect spaces where they had existing relationships, allowing them to post once and selectively release to multiple places. The data within PULSE is entirely owned by students. When they leave, they can take it with them. Unsurprisingly, student’s expressed no strong desire to integrate personal tools with uni platforms – as ever, educators needs to design use of PULSE into the curriculum. However, the VLE vendor would not give access to the APIs to allow the kind of integration this would require.
    Helen Beetham and Ellen Lessner introduced video accounts of learning digitally from 12 students not all of whom loved technology. The institutional technologies do not come out well in Jisc’s ‘Student digital experience tracker 2017’, but we have no idea whether that is to do with the task design, the support for new ways of learning, or the technologies themselves. Find resources at
    Carina Dolch asked whether students are getting used to learning technology. She described the massification and diversification of Germany’s higher education system, and how students’ media usage was changing over time. A survey of 3666 students confirmed that while there was an increase in time spent online since 2012. However – which is hard to explain – the frequency of text media use has been decreasing, as did the use of both general tools (search engines, Skype, etc) and e-learning tools and services (Moocs, lecture recordings, etc). Non-traditional students tend to use technologies functionally tied to their institution, whereas traditional students tended to use technologies more recreationally. Students expressed reluctance to be at the forefront of innovations, and there were more active decisions to be offline.

    Day 2

    I loved Sian Bayne’s keynote about anonymity. She used the demise of Yik Yak the anonymous hyperlocal networking app, to talk about campus networks and privacy. Yik Yak’s high point in the download chart was 2014. In 2016 they withdrew anonymity, which is reflected by a plunge in usage at Edinburgh. Yik Yak restored anonymity shortly before closing in 2017 to no particular regret in the media. It had not been able to use personal data to finance itself. Moral panics about anonymous social media served platform capitalism by demanding that everyone be reachable and accountable. Edinburgh students discussed student life (including mental health), sex and dating, with some academic and political issues. Most students found it a kind and supportive network. Anonymity studies notes the ‘psychic numbing’ which allows most social media users to join up their accounts in the interests of living an “effective life”, inuring them to the risks of surveillance capitalism. Some users resist surveillance by cloaking one’s identity – however this seems over-reliant on other users not cloaking theirs, otherwise the enterprise, relying as it does on personal data, inevitably folds. I can’t see any other way to escape platform capitalism than to organise sustainable resourcing for open platforms such as Mastodon and Diaspora.
    Fotios Mispoulos took a University of Liverpool instructor’s perspective on the effectiveness of learner-to-learner interactions. Most of the research into learner-to-learner interactions happened in the 1990s and found improved satisfaction and outcomes, though there are some counter findings. As usual the particulars of the task design, year group etc were glossed so we may be trying to compare apples and bananas.
    Vicki Holmes and Adam Bailey talked about introducing Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (which we have at UCL) for web meeting at Reading. I thought their approach was very good – to clarify purposes and promote commitment hey asked for formal expressions of interest, they then ran workshops with selected colleagues to build confidence and technical readiness (headphones, the right web browser). These refined designs for meetings around placement support, sessions between campuses, assessment support tutorials, and pre-session workshops, among other purposes. Participants from Politics, Finance, Careers observed positive outcomes. Recommendations include avoiding simply lecturing since students disengage quickly,  designing interactions carefully (rather than expecting them to happen), to develop the distinct presentation techniques, and to prepare students (again around technical readiness and role). 87% of students felt it was appropriate to their learning.
    Beth Snowden and Bronwen Swinnerton presented on rethinking lectures in three redesigned tiered theatres at the University of Leeds. Each ‘pod’ has a mic, top-lighting, and a wired-in thinkpad device which can be used to send responses and also to present via the data projector. Lecturers observed how students who had chatted to each other were more likely to chat with him and to ask questions. Another doubted he could continue referring to the session as a ‘lecture’. Responses to the evaluation survey found that the average time listening to the lecturer was 49%, which was assumed to be less than in the other lecture theatres. Just over half of staff felt that the new lecture theatres created extra work, but more felt they were a positive development. Future evaluation will focus on educational uses.
    [See YouTube University of Leeds “upgrade of teaching spaces”]
    Catherine Naamani looked at the impact of space design on collaborative approaches at the University of South Wales. The flexible spaces had colour coded chairs round triangular tables with their own screen which students could present to using an app, and which the tutor could access. The more confident groups gained more tutor attention while the least engaged groups tended to be international students, so more group-to-group activity needed to be designed. Staff tended to identify training needs with the technology, but not developmental needs around educational approach using that technology.
    Another stand-out session – as digital education strategists and academics at their respective institutions, Kyriaki Agnostopoulou, Don Passey, Neil Morris and Amber Thomas looked at the evidence bases and business cases for digital education. Amber noted academic, administrative and technical don’t speak to each other until the top of the organisation. How do digital education workers influence their organisations strategies? There are four distinct origins of evidence: technology affordances, uses, outcomes and impact. The former kinds of evidence can be provided through qualitative case studies while the latter through quantitative independent control group studies. Case studies are abundant, but far rarer are studies which show evidence of impact over time. Amber urged us to learn the language of ITIL and Prince 2 to “understand them as much as you want them to understand you”. Return on investment, laying out true costs (staff time, supply costs, simultaneous users), use cases (and edge cases), capital spend and recurrent spend) strategic alignment, gains (educational, efficiency and PR), options appraisals, sustainability and scalability, and risk analyses are a way to be ready for management critique of any idea. Neil Morris (Leeds) took the view that using evidence is the most powerful way of making change. Making the academic case first gets the idea talked about.
    Online submission continues to outstrip e-marking at the University of Nottingham. Helen Whitehead introduced ‘Escape from paper mountain‘, an educational development escape game through which staff would understand how to use an online marking environment [see ALT Winter Conference]. The scenario is an assessor who has completed his marking but then disappeared; the mission is to find his marking and get it to the Exam Board in 60 minutes. The puzzles, to be solved in groups, are all localised, sometimes even at the subject-specific level. There are plenty of materials at
    Kamakshi Rajagopal from the Open University of The Netherland ran a workshop on practical measures to break out of online echo chambers aka filter bubbles – people from similar backgrounds and strata of societies in the context of an egocentric, personally and intentionally created personal learning network. One group came up with the idea of a ‘Challenge me’ or ‘Forget me’ button to be able to serve yourself different feeds

    Day 3

    (The amount of notes reflects the amount of sleep).
    Peter Goodyear’s keynote was very good. He talked about the designing physical spaces for digital learning, which he called ‘multidimensional chess’. He introduced these as apprentice spaces where students learn to participate in valued practices. While STEM subjects require a lot of physical infrastructure, arts, humanities and social sciences require cognitive structures to learn to use knowledge and work with others. Designers reduce complexity by concentrating on what learners will do in the spaces. The activities themselves are not designable, but the guides and scaffolds are. Active learning risks cognitive overload due to the mechanics of the tasks – the instructions, navigating the task. The activity-centred activity design framework set out how to mitigate this.  Find the slides at
    John Traxler described initial thoughts about an Erasmus+ project to empower refugee learners  from Middle East and North Africa through digital literacy. Few Moocs are oriented to refugees, and those which are depend on the availabilities of volunteers. Engaging in a Mooc obviously depends on digital access and capabilities. Other challenges include language, expectations and cultural assumptions. Digital literacy can be interpreted as employability skills, or alternatively with a more liberal, individualistic definition to do with self-expression. The group is very hard to reach, so it is hard to carry out a valid needs assessment. The project is moonlite.
    Lubna Alharbi talked about emotion analysis to investigate lecturer-student relationship in a fully online setting. Emotions which interfere with learning include isolation and loneliness arising from lack of interaction. To motivate students it is very important for the tutor to interpret and react to emotions. The International Survey on Emotional Antecedents and Reactions (ISEAR) dataset consists of sentences related to different emotions. Synesketch tool.
    Another stand-out, Khaled Abuhlfaia asked how the usability of learning technologies affects learners. In usability research, usability is conceived as effectiveness, efficiency, learnability, memorability, error handling and satisfaction. The literature review was very well reported, and he found that there is far more evidence about the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction dimensions mostly questionnaires and interviews, while the other dimensions, while important, have been neglected.
    Academic course leaders choose textbooks in a climate of acute student worries about living costs (not to mention the huge debts they graduate with). Viv Rolfe, David Kernohan and Martin Weller compared open textbook use in the UK and the US. In the US open textbook use has been driven by student debt – and in the UK nearly 50% of students graduating in 2015 had debt worries.
    Ian McNicoll talked about the learning technologist role as a ‘fleshy interface’ between educators (who view LTs as techies), technies (who view LTs as quasi-academic), students (as helpdesk staff) and the institution (as strategic enablers).
    John Tepper and Alaa Bafail discussed ways to calibrate designs for learning activities in STEM subjects. These are currently tied to outcomes statements, where outcomes are constructivist – teachers create a learning environment supportive of learning activities appropriate to the outcomes. Quality was operationalised as student satisfaction, which I thought might be problematic since it does not itself relate to outcomes. I also wondered about the role of context for each activity e.g. demographic differences, level which I missed in the talk. The presenters took a systems approach to evaluating quality, through which designs which elicited high student satisfaction were surfaced. Anyone interested in designing educational activities will probably be interested in Learning Designer, which was mentioned in the talk, is really good, and is still being maintained. It’s increasingly rare for software developers to talk at ALTC, so it was good to hear about this. I found this talk fascinating and baffling in equal measures, but fully intriguing.
    Sam Ahern discussed learning analytics as a tool for supporting student wellbeing. One fifth of all adults surveyed by the NHS have a longterm common mental health problem, with variation between demographic groups. The numbers reporting mental health problems on entry has jumped 220% as students numbers have climbed. Poor mental health manifests as behaviour change around attendance, meeting deadlines, self-care and signs of frustration. Certain online behaviours can predict depressive episodes.