Association for Learning Technologies Conference 2016

The ALT conference was held at Warwick University this year, bringing together learning technologists, academics, Phd students and a broad range of others from the UK and beyond. Presentations were based around the theme of ‘Connect, Collaborate, Create’. The following are notes and observations from the keynotes and a selection of the conference presentations.

 This icon flags up items that might be of particular interest to learning and teaching practitioners at Durham.

Day 1

Keynote: In the Valley of the Trolls, Josie Fraser

This opening plenary tackled the issue of online trolling, looking at a few case studies and the part that the media plays. Fraser discussed motivations for trolling, explaining that many online trolls do not believe their own inflammatory rants, but instead are entertained by others’ anger or offence (termed ‘lulz’ by Whitney Phillips in This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things) regardless of the subject. She argued that this kind of behaviour should not push online contributors into ‘safer’ walled gardens, nor is it a reason to abandon anonymity on the web. Rather, educators should ensure that digital literacy directly addresses online behaviour and its implications for the individual and for society.

 Conjuring Helen Beetham’s model of digital wellbeing as encompassing all aspects of an individual’s digital capabilities, she suggested that combating trolling requires a long-term cultural shift that should begin with education.

Collaborate session

Learning the Hard Way: Lessons in Designing Open Educational Resources in, for and through Partnership, Anna Page

This presentation introduced the Open Educational Practices in Scotland project and its evolution as project members worked with external organisations to develop Open Educational Resources (OERs). Learning points ranged from the administrative (e.g. asset registers to ensure that content is copyright-cleared and easily retrieved) to the philosophical (what happens if people use open resources in ways that were not intended?).

The OEPScotland project has also produced its own open online course: Becoming an open educator.

Collaborative technologies, higher order thinking and self-sufficient learning: a case study of adult learners, Clare Johnson

In this study, course lecturers used an amalgamation of Salmon’s Five-Stage Model for online interaction, Gunawardena et al’s Social networking spiral and Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model to develop an online platform to supplement face-to-face learning. Students were observed to reach the higher levels of Salmon’s model, answering each others’ questions and taking responsibility for their own understanding. Learning points included ensuring that tutors posted introductory messages and maintained a presence throughout, and signposting activities and deadlines.

Trends in on-line peer-review, Helen Purchase

This presentation centred around Aropä, a free, online peer review tool. Designed by two academics at the University of Glasgow, it automates the process of distributing assignments for peer review and/or marking. The designers analysed system data and email correspondence to identify trends in peer review, concluding that it is important that students are able to respond to feedback (both informally in reply to comments and formally in submitting revised work). It was also evident that students often required extrinsic reward to engage with peer review.

Aropä looks to be a useful and effective tool, but Durham academics interested in using it would need to ensure that data protection was not compromised, especially where students are concerned.

An online resource to support research students: issues of collaboration, viability and design, Michael Hammond

To help Phd students grapple with the difficult concepts involved in social research theory, academics developed a website where students could move from viewing information (e.g. video interviews), to discussing topics introduced in face-to-face sessions and on the site, to actively curating new content for the benefit of their fellow students. The project seemed to be a success, and it was noted that, while the videos that the team had produced were useful in a number of contexts, the academics’ optimal role (as well as the students’) was to curate rather than to create.

‘Wildcard’ session

University teachers’ experiences, and impact on academic practice, of a course in technology-enhanced learning, Vicki Dale

The University of Glasgow piloted an optional PGCAP module which sought to help academics to evaluate different learning technologies for their teaching. Also addressing themes like digital literacies and pedagogies, the aim was to introduce lecturers to new technologies in a thoughtful and reflective way that would have a long-term impact on their practice. The module leaders felt that bite-sized sessions worked well, giving academics the opportunity to try out new  ideas in their teaching over the course of an academic year.

Computing, Chemistry and Business…Oh My! Learning Technology is everywhereLisa Donaldson and Mark Glynn

This presentation introduced the What works and why? project in Ireland, focused on helping educators and students to evaluate effective use of technology in discipline-specific contexts. The project had a number of streams, including traditional workshops and ‘exploration sessions’, but also innovative teaching projects and the formation and development of Teaching Groups. Student perception was seriously considered, and student-produced videos can be found on the website: What works for students. Participants in the Teaching Groups and innovation projects share their discipline-specific findings online as well: What works for teachers.

The project team explained that Teaching Groups were particularly successful in helping academics to share good practice in a more holistic manner. They emphasised the success that lecturers had when evaluating technology pedagogically, and then embedding it into the design of a course from the beginning.

Create session

Creating a k-fffufffl: fast flipped feedback using feed-forward for learning in labs and assessments, Guy Saward

In this study, electronic voting systems (i.e. ‘clickers’) were used to provide students with quick feedback on summative work. Students completed a multiple-choice test individually and then answered the same questions again via the voting system. This allowed students to gain immediate feedback and to discuss their answers with their peers. A similar scenario was also used with lab and tutorial exercises that small groups or individuals completed outside of the classroom. The lecturers found that students were much more interested in their feedback when received immediately after the assessment, and when they had a chance to discuss it with their peers.

Impact of visualization and learning environment on the effectiveness of interactive simulation, Niels Walet

To investigate the effectiveness of student sketching when working with interactive computer simulations, lecturers in a physics module had some students write about their observations and some draw sketches. Using screen capture, observation notes, interviews and the results of assignments and tests, the lecturers concluded that sketching did have a positive effect on student understanding, and even on their stress levels.

Examining the role of ‘Carpe Diem’ learning design in improving the learner experience in a Western Australian context, Astrid Davine

This presentation reviewed how the University of Western Australia has been using the Carpe Diem learning design process to bring academics, learning technologists and librarians together from the beginning when (re)designing modules. UWA actually took the decision to stop running ‘how-to’ sessions about learning technologies in favour of this holistic approach. The current study investigating the impact of Carpe Diem indicates that academics find value in the process, and will be published when the data analysis is complete.

It is interesting to note that here (as in the What works and why? project), learning technologies were seen as part of the bigger picture from the start. An equally important facet of both of these projects was the opportunity for academics to work together to share good practice and develop innovations in teaching together. This is a theme that emerged at the Inaugural Learning and Teaching conference at Durham a week later, in Contrasting experiences of postgraduate and staff education forums in Earth Sciences (Dr Christopher Saville, Earth Sciences).

Keynote: Education and Neuroscience: Issues and Opportunities, Lia Commissar

Introducing the Education and Neuroscience Initiative, this presentation explored the developing links between research in neuroscience, psychology and education. It also flagged up popular ‘neuromyths’ that have little or no evidence base, such as individual learning styles and the right brain / left brain divide. Commissar encouraged educators to be careful to adopt learning theories that were the result of rigorous research, pointing to sources of information such as the Education Endowment Foundation and the Digital Promise project.

Day 2

Keynote: Code Create Collaborate, Ian Livingstone

Co-founder of the Games Workshop and author of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series Ian Livingstone discussed his work in the evolving world of gaming and its relationship to education. He emphasised how games in education help learners to develop problem-solving skills in a risk-free environment where they can receive instant feedback. The social nature of gaming, Livingstone suggested, and its experiential nature, make the skills learnt in this context transferable to other environments. He also discussed the importance of teaching coding in schools, as per the Livingstone-Hope Next Gen review.

Connect session

The implementation of Blackboard Analytics: A partnership with academics to improve the Student Experience, Chris Bell

This presentation reviewed how one university implemented Blackboard Analytics and a dashboard application (Cognos) to improve the student experience (defined as ‘attainment, satisfaction, engagement, retention, personal tutoring and progression’). Academic staff opinion was garnered to ensure that useful data would be provided, informing the development of the dashboard. Initial findings showed that academics appreciated the tool and suggested that engaging with analytics could have a positive effect on online course design.

A multivariate exploration for potential predictors of educational achievement in a technology enhanced environment for learning computer programming, Nick Day

This study looked at a number of variables to predict student attainment in undergraduate computer programming modules. It was found that factors like UCAS points were not good predictors, but that attendance and previous resits were correlated with overall marks.

Evaluating Evaluation! – A four tiered approach encapsulating evaluation techniques and methods in staff training and delivery, peer review, participant experience and formal feedback in Higher Education, Rebecca Vickerstaff, Emma Purnell & Liz Mcgregor

Presenters explained how the Academic, Support, Technology and Innovation team at Plymouth University overhauled their training programme using a four-stage model:

  • ensuring consistency across resources
  • introducing a new, long-term participant engagement process
  • evaluating course numbers, feedback and team reflection to make necessary changes
  • reviewing the above process and planning its next iteration

Connections between theory and practice: rhizomatic teaching with digital technologies, Louise Drumm

In this study, academics were interviewed about their use of technology in teaching. The researcher analysed the interviews in terms of how theory was applied to practice, finding that most interviewees drew from a number of theoretical frameworks (some more robust than others). She suggested that it was helpful to draw on multiple theories as well as personal experience, but that academics should be supported in finding evidence-based principles on which to base digital teaching practice.

E-portfolios as communication and sharing tool: students’ perspective, Eman Ghallab

Based in activity theory, this longitudinal study investigated students’ perspectives on the extensive use of an online portfolio tool in a healthcare education setting. The tool allowed students to decide with whom they would share each portfolio object and how that person could interact (e.g. view-only, comment, edit).

Lessons learned for e-portfolios included:

  • Tutors found it useful to be able to give students instant feedback, but needed to manage student expectations about when to expect feedback and how detailed it would be.
  • Both staff and students required training in using the system.
  • The ‘three-click rule’ seemed to apply to e-portfolios as well–material could get lost if buried too deeply.
  • Group submissions needed to be carefully handled to avoid confusion.

Create session

Exploring the educational implications of ‘making construals’, Wiliam Beynon, Steve Russ, Piet Kommers, Hamish Macleod, Rene Alimisi, Ilkka Jormanainen, Russell Boyatt and Emma King

This presentation introduced construals, a broadly-defined term for digital artefacts that allow the user to manipulate multiple aspects of a simulation, model, visualisation, etc. The Construit! project has developed an environment in which those with some programming knowledge can create construals, and where users can engage with them. The intention is that practitioners will be able to easily share their construals as Open Educational Resources.

Connect session

Tracking students’ digital experience: development and use of a cross sector benchmarking tool, Tabetha Newman, Rob Howe, Gunter Sanders, Andy Taggart and Helen Beetham

Representatives from JISC gave an update on the pilot of the Student digital experience tracker, a short survey instrument developed to garner information on students’ expectations and experiences of technology in learning and teaching. The tracker allows institutions to better understand their own students and students across the sector. Several representatives from participating universities and colleges spoke about implementing the survey and their findings (case studies are also available online: Tracker case studies).

The report from the pilot is now available, and interestingly echoed several conference topics including lecture capture, digital literacy and internet safety. JISC are currently recruiting institutions to take part in the next phase.

Day 3

Keynote: Copyright and e-learning: understanding our privileges and freedoms, Jane Secker

Dr Secker, the Copyright and Digital Literacy Adviser at LSE, provided a nuanced perspective on protected content in a digital environment. While likening some breaches of copyright to theft, she emphasised that it does not commoditise ideas themselves, but rather the unique ways in which they are expressed. She also addressed the issue of copyright as gatekeeper, applauding the move to open publishing in academia as an important step forward.

She suggested that educators think about copyright in terms of the following:

  1. Attribution and credit: think of attribution just as you would citations in a piece of academic writing
  2. Value and empathy: remember that every digital artefact originated with a real person
  3. Collaboration and communities of practice: engage with colleagues inside and outside your institution to ensure that you understand your own rights and how to protect your intellectual property whilst being as open as possible

‘Wildcard’ session

How best should a VLE be designed to enhance learners’ experience?, Emmanuel Isibor

This study looked at how an institution customised its virtual learning environment (VLE). Interviews with staff and students revealed that, while tailoring the VLE to the university’s needs was beneficial, customisation needed to occur at the departmental level and within individual subject areas as well.

Learning Spaces: Roles and Responsibilities of the Learning Technologist, Kristian Roger and Sarah Ney

Learning technologists at LSE discussed how they were involved in the design of new learning spaces at the university. Academics, other learning and teaching staff, estates and buildings, the audio-visual team and learning technologists worked together to create learning spaces that met a diversity of needs from the outset.

Those involved in the project found the following book to be helpful in framing their discussions: Learning Spaces in Higher Education: Positive Outcomes by Design, eds D Radcliffe, H. Wilson, D. Powell & B Tibbetts, University of Queensland and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, Brisbane.

Evaluating Webinars as a Tool for Delivering Lectures and Seminars at Distance in a Healthcare Setting, Daniel Metcalfe

This study compared webinars to traditional lectures, using a student survey. Students overwhelmingly agreed that webinars were as good as or better than face-to-face lectures. While students in the study were dispersed in a fairly large geographic area, which meant that webinars were more convenient, they identified several other advantages to webinars, including re-watching recordings, a more relaxed atmosphere and varied opportunities for interaction.

Designing for Flow, Leonard Houx

Tasked with tailoring a standard VLE for an online programme, instructional designers customised the out-of-the-box platform to improve and streamline the user experience. The following issues were addressed:

  • Clutter and redundancy: unnecessary and repeated information and navigation was removed
  • Your metadata is showing: information that only helped academics and developers was hidden
  • Too many choices: confusing and distracting navigation options were taken out

Strategies for supporting effective student engagement with lecture recordings, Matt Cornock

This study looked at how students at the University of York use recorded lectures, and identified several different types of workflows that they employ (e.g. self-checking, preparation for tasks and revision). It also raised difficult questions about: what lectures are for; what students are meant to be doing during lectures; how lecturers expect students to engage with recordings of lectures; and how lectures relate to other module components and assessment. To help students address these questions, staff at York produced resources to put recorded lectures in context. However, it soon became apparent that the answers were different for every discipline, and potentially for every individual lecturer.

It was concluded that each lecturer should explicitly communicate to students how they are expected to engage during a lecture and with the lecture recording, and how this relates to the rest of the module.

Collaborate session

Gone in a Flash: Adapting to New Technologies, Cherry Poussa, Mike Taylor, Aaron Fecowycz and James Henderson

Learning technologists from the Health e-Learning and Media (HELM) team explained their project of converting over 200 open digital resources from the increasingly irrelevant Adobe Flash. The team described the process of reproducing the materials using HTML5, CSS3 and javascript, testing, piloting and evaluating using feedback questionnaires and data analytics. This project also raised the question of whether, and to what extent, it is possible to future-proof online resources.

Into the Open – a critical overview of open education policy and practice in Scotland, Lorna Campbell

This presentation reviewed current Open Educational Resource (OER) provision in Scotland as part of the Open Scotland initiative. Any organisation that produces digital educational resources is encouraged to adopt policies to make their resources publicly available. Several Scottish universities have developed OER policies, and the University of Edinburgh currently provides the platform for Open Scotland. Other institutions choose to host their materials on their own sites, still fully open to the public.

Secrets of Scale and Adoption: The Value and Impact of Open, Common Data Definitions in Student Success Research, Evaluation and Implementation, Ellen Wagner

The PAR Framework allows the aggregation of data from multiple institutions to attempt to identify variables that are likely to negatively affect student attainment. The goal is for institutions to be better able to support at-risk students as early as possible.

Developing literacies of ‘open’ across an institution, and beyond… Stuart Nicol

This presentation highlighted the work that the University of Edinburgh has done around OERs. The platform itself (Open.Ed) was discussed, but also the work undertaken to educate the university community. This included workshops, integration into the institutional Learning Design framework, and provision of a media management platform to make sharing and licensing simple for staff and students.

Love, hate and online collaboration, Gerald Evans and Rebecca Galley

Based around investigations into student collaboration in online modules, this presentation shared findings from research and case studies that informed a guide for Open University staff. The presenters noted that, while students often complained about group work, modules with collaborative activities tended to have higher retention rates.

Some of the key recommendations are:

  • If introducing a new tool or platform, embed it into the module throughout so that students are confident in using it when it comes to group work.
  • Lead students through simple online engagement, working up to the collaborative task.
  • Ensure that the group activity is linked to module assessment, and has some degree of authenticity (e.g. the type of task that a group of researchers in this field would really do).
  • Support students before, during and after the task, clearly communicating your expectations throughout.
  • Consider how the work will be assessed. Will you mark the product/result, the process, how well the group worked together and/or individual contributions?
  • Evaluate the project while it’s running and when it is finished (data analytics, student surveys, etc.).

Keynote: Being human is your problem, Donna Lanclos and David White

In this slightly subversive double-act, the presenters argued that the role of technology in education has tended to be administrative rather than transformative. That is, the same types of technologies that deal with data and transactions (fee payment, enrolment, marks) are used for teaching and learning. They suggested that this leads to low-risk, input-output scenarios rather than ‘messy’, interpersonal, complex learning.

The presenters challenged the audience to engage with technologies that enhance the nuanced, complicated aspects of transformational learning, and not simply the tools that might make teaching seem ‘easy’.