Emergent Learning at ALTC2103

ALT-C is in its second day. I am no longer there and am trying to follow what’s going on via the Twitter stream, but it doesn’t work for me. It’s like being in a crowded room and catching snippets of conversation, which are difficult to follow up or follow through.

But I was there yesterday and Monday evening and thoroughly enjoyed it for the handful of people I met and conversations that I had. I don’t need a room full. Just one meaningful discussion would have been enough for me, and I got more than one. Not least I had a chance to talk face-to-face with my colleague Roy, who I have worked with online since 2008, but I think we have only met face-to-face five times!

Our session – Learning in the Open – went reasonably well, but on reflection I think we could have done a more ‘out of the box’ presentation. It’s ironic that we were talking about emergent learning and the factors that might need to be considered to promote it, but we still fell into a fairly conventional way (a trap?) of running a workshop, even though the ideas we are working on and were presenting are, I think, far from conventional. As we have discovered in running these workshops, the idea that learning is messy, is difficult to control and is unique to each individual learner is as counter-intuitive as it is obvious for many who work in education.

So what about the conference itself? The title is altc2013 Building new cultures of learning – but how much does the conference design promote this.

I was only there one day, and I rarely go to conferences, but it seemed to me to be in a format not dissimilar to conferences I was going to years ago – keynote speakers, breakout sessions, parallel paper presentations, workshops, exhibition hall etc. This is not intended as a criticism. It’s a reflection. As I said above I enjoyed my day and feel that the handful of connections I made were well worth the time and money I spent going to ALT-C, but if I think about it in terms of emergent learning – did I have a transformative, surprising, unpredictable experience, then ‘No’ I didn’t.

Perhaps this is not the purpose of a conference, even one that is considering building new cultures of learning. I am familiar with ‘Unconferences’ – and have even attended one some years back, but that didn’t have the numbers that ALT-C has. How could a conference like ALT-C, with more than 450 delegates in a physical space, do it differently? Should a conference like ALT-C even consider doing it differently?

Thinking off the top of my head – perhaps the place to start, and thinking about building new learning cultures, would be to think in terms of ‘open’ learning environments and the factors which influence that. Which brings me back to footprints of emergence (for examples of what I mean see this page on our open wiki). My colleague Roy is at the conference for the full three days. Perhaps he will draw a footprint of the conference when it is over, and that might provide some further insights into conference design. And we would certainly welcome footprints from conference participants.

Thanks to the conference organizers and to Rose Heaney, our session moderator, for their hard work and support.

10 thoughts on “Emergent Learning at ALTC2103

  1. Scott Johnson September 11, 2013 / 4:38 pm

    The beauty of working within a “conventional” (familiar) presentation format when introducing new ideas is the audience has room to process what you are saying without also struggling to explain your explanation to themselves. It is ironic that a simple approach to a potentially hard concept is the best tactic. but it does take a while to understand and work with a new concept and a familiar format allow people to work with the tools they have to understand what you are saying. People at a conference are struggling with mental overload anyway.

    This might be a problem with MOOCs? A person comes expecting a conference level cogitative experience and finds themselves continually off-balance as if they had wandered into a carnival full of scary rides:-) None of their practiced learning tactics can filter the flow of unfamiliar ideas–there just isn’t any reflection time.

    Semi off topic: the concept of “open” suggests that any means of understanding is fair game. We aren’t limited to viewing things from any particular standpoint. Our sensibilities grow and change, I think, in response to new challenges that are understood with the sensibilities we have at the time they are introduced. Does that make sense?

    Sharon Oviatt talks about pen interfaces in relation to affordance and activity theory as a way of calling up familiar skills already embedded in our brains. In a sense, these are old skills that in a world of newness should be discarded in favour os some modern digital sensibility. But there they are waiting to help us and it seems a slightly advanced version of pen and paper actually does recruit parts of the brain that already “knows” how to work in the medium and measurably improves people’s thinking.

    See you at SCoPE.

  2. Fred Garnett September 11, 2013 / 8:26 pm

    Jenny I didn’t go this year for a number of reasons. Firstly two years ago Nigel and I wrote ‘toward a framework for co-creating open scholarship’ which we thought captured a decades worth of work with learning technologies and could be a game changer. We rewrote Boyer’s model of scholarship in light of what we had learnt (with an implied an open emergence as the basis of a shared scholarly approach) and offered that it should start a debate with people like Stephen Downes on where open learning could go in the “Academy”.
    Sadly Martin Weller published Digital Scholar, which e-enabled Boyer’s traditional scholarship rather than transforming it, and the basically conservative people in academia flocked to it and the transformation moment was missed. It helped pave the way for the acceptance of the xMOOC tsunami of 2012 – which Weller and the OU now name an “Innovating Pedagogy”
    Secondly when I went last year (it was in Manchester and we had done the emergent learning based ambient learning city project there so I felt obliged) I paid for myself for the full conference and was far from inspired. The ALT moment of being about change seems to have passed. People in academia are largely concerned with holding what they have and building an elitist citadel (not even an ivory tower). Compared to the excitement of working with the WikiSqolars and CROS (in Romania) I didn’t find any genuine interest in open learning, social justice (hah!) or empowering learners. I had also written an Open Learning proposal for the BBC (which any University could adopt) based on the UNESCO Paris 2012 OER declaration and no one institution had acted on that (although JISC had paid for people to attend its launch).
    Then this year David Kernohan makes a big statement that ‘Education is broke someone should fix it’ Well it is for us or anyone who cares about, well anything other than the greasy pole, to fix education if it is broken not point fingers.
    So I chose to go to Critical Pedagogies in Edinburgh instead which was a bunch of feminist academics (early years) who think their subject is broken and are setting out to fix it, which is what CROS a doing in Romania.
    So I don’t hold out much of a meaningful future for ALT now that they are there to support a failing and unjust Academy. I wish them bad luck in that endeavour despite having gone from to ALT-C from 5 to 19 and having written my best academic paper (with Nigel Ecclesgield) for ALT-J…

  3. jennymackness September 14, 2013 / 5:56 pm

    Hi Scott – thanks for your comment, which I have been thinking about. I am intrigued by this sentence –

    >The beauty of working within a “conventional” (familiar) presentation format when introducing new ideas is the audience has room to process what you are saying without also struggling to explain your explanation to themselves.

    – because one half of me knows that it makes sense, but the other half of me thinks that being in the ‘edgy’ ‘scary’ emergent zone, i.e. designing a conference that puts people in this zone, is not necessarily a problem. Challenge can be good and I would expect academics and technologists from FE and HE to be able to cope. On the other hand, there is evidence from plenty of MOOCs that even learners that you would expect to be able to cope, can’t, don’t or won’t!

    And yes – ‘openness’ is a challenge.

    I still have to look up Sharon Oviatt. She sounds very interesting.

    Thanks Scott.

  4. jennymackness September 14, 2013 / 6:12 pm

    Hi Fred – I have also been thinking about your comment. Many thanks for taking the time to make it. I think I understand where you are coming from, in that if you pay for yourself to go to conferences (which I have since 2005), then you really are looking for value for money and ROI, because conferences are hugely expensive. This time I decided that I would just go for one day – although I was very disappointed to miss Stephen Downes’ keynote, which I am pretty certain I would have found inspiring. I have yet to see a recording posted. How does he manage to do a keynote based on what he has learned in the conference!!

    So this time I went with fewer expectations than I have to past conferences and it was enough for me (a bonus!) to meet more than one other person who seemed to be on the same wavelength and interested in the same things.

    I think if every delegate paid for conferences out of their own pockets, then we probably would see more truly critical reflection on their value. Presumably all conferences evaluate the success of each event and make changes in succeeding years, but how much pressure is there to make big changes, i.e. change the whole format. I just know that I myself find it difficult to ‘think outside the box’, so it must be even harder for a committee!

    Critical Pedagogies in Edinburgh sounds like a good choice – but I haven’t yet seen lots of photos of you each with a different girl on your arm 😉

  5. fred6368 September 15, 2013 / 12:31 pm

    Hi Jenny, I have been paying for conferences for several years now but felt a debt of loyalty to ALT, but no longer. Critical Pedagogies was a feminist conference so I was, yet again, one of very few males in attendance. Interestingly they are a group of early-years scholars who don’t feel that they are treated well, as employees, nor that their subject pedagogies are fully appropriate to their intentions. Ironically it made me realise that in the learning technology world we are now streets ahead of most subject-based learning (degrees, courses, etc) because we have had to face pedagogical issues in making learning technology work for learning. It might be that we need to go out and work across the board with traditional subject areas, and developing ones, as well as interdisciplinary areas because we really have learnt a lot about making learning work as a process.
    In fact I think the xMOOC gold-rush, whilst obviously mostly about seizing the economic market for education, indicates that this is driven by people who have spotted the technology but have not addressed the pedagogy and think that xMOOCs represent a quick technology-fix.
    Keep on blogging 🙂

  6. fred6368 September 15, 2013 / 9:06 pm

    Actually Jenny I taught for 15 years before I started using digital technologies, and I had developed a technique I called ‘brokering learning’ which was kind of Andragogy with system awareness. More here; http://alchemi.co.uk/archives/ele/fred_garnett_on.html
    So when I started e-enabling learning I already was steeped in pedagogic awareness, and was always concerned with effectivess of anything I built. For me learning technologies can amplify and extend good practice, but you have to have that first 🙂

  7. Scott Johnson September 16, 2013 / 5:55 am

    Hi Jenny, step one in the MOOC at our college has stalled do to budget cuts so I’ll switch to a foot-print of what might or what might not actually enable the institution to pull it. As Fred suggests there seems to be split as is happening at the college where people either adopt the language of change, print it and tape it to butt of their old mule with no further action, or those who are drifting into indifference. So, being stuck with the theory that if we backwards far enough it will appear as change in tension with a kind of active numbness by those who wait for someone else to move, nothing may be done.

    A foot-print may actually help name the risk factors which to me is the beginning of deciding which are actually an illusion. My sense is that worry of loss (position, income, prestige) has made people scamper back to old comforts. Is this resistance to change or attraction to the familiar?

    This sounds self-something but I think many of us have moved to the future out a kind of loss enthusiasm with pushing the same ideas around hoping something for new and we are impatient with those who don’t follow. We have moved and those who come along are likely first to have the least investment in the old system. If you put opportunity on a scale with the status-quo on the other side, it makes sense those lightest in the past will move forward first. Or at least see a future investing in the reinvention of their practice.

    Back to learning footprints.

  8. fred6368 September 16, 2013 / 7:07 am

    Scott, I’m not a fan of xMOOCs but. I am a fan of learning design and I think the Footprints of Emergence tool can help you with that. When I used it to review my WikiQuals project I found 4 potentially critical ‘holes’ which I could fix in taking it forward. I also discussed the toll with Traian Bruma, the Learning Archiect with CROS in Romania and he felt it could help with the learning design of new projects and help with the Quality Assurance. On which basis I recommend that you use it for your projects – hope this helps – fred

  9. jennymackness September 16, 2013 / 2:55 pm

    Hi Fred and Scott – thanks!

    Scott – Roy and I do intend to run a webinar on drawing footprints sometime soon, but don’t have a fixed date yet. In the meantime I have created a video (not brilliant and needs improving) which may help – see http://footprints-of-emergence.wikispaces.com/Drawing+Footprints

    Fred – I know I wrote a comment about early years teaching and thought I had posted it, but it seems to have vanished. I occasionally have these blips with WordPress! Thanks for the link 🙂


  10. Scott Johnson September 16, 2013 / 5:31 pm

    Thanks Jenny and Fred

    Fred my first attempt to foot print will be to examine whether the current state of the college is fertile enough to support any type of alternate learning. To begin with I’ve managed to get myself stuck in an analysis of the cultural oddities of the larger environment we are embedded in. There’s a factor of instability here and what I would call an agent of uncertainty at the top of the command chain. (The president makes frequent, impromptu and sweeping decisions that change the game, rules and players and collapse projects and I’m not how to handle them. That said they are regular, follow a pattern and might, in fact be known by their patterns as complex objects rather than just unpredictable disruptions). In short, is the institution as a system terminally prone to collapse or can that be overcome?

    Have a copy of “Teaching as a Design Science” by Diana Laurillard that I have yet to read. If either of you know it, is it recommended? I’m not trained in instructional design and a lot of it I’ve been exposed to is presented with certainty which I naturally reject.

    Jenny, reading your paper in bits as I help out at POTcert and get the house ready for winter. My focus is understanding the categories in order to work with them. Then on to the how-to site.

    Prior to this conversation my attitude was that nothing useful could emerge from such a broken system as our college is. As someone who advocates for learning from mistakes that’s like throwing opportunity overboard.


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