ALTC14 – Two keynotes: the power of stories

Today has been the last day of the ALT Conference for 2014.

As an online participant, I was able to listen to two really great keynotes, given by two women who are always worth listening to.

  1. Keynote Speech from Catherine Cronin – Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education
 NB: Audio does not start on this video until 4.26.

Inspired by a Seamus Heaney poem, Catherine will explore “navigating the marvellous”, the challenge of being open in higher education. To be in higher education is to learn in two worlds: the open world of informal learning and the predominantly closed world of the institution. As higher education moves slowly, warily, and unevenly towards openness, students deal daily with the dissonance between these two worlds; developing different skills, practices and identities in different learning spaces. Both students and educators make choices about the extent to which they learn, teach, share and interact in bounded and open spaces. If, as Joi Ito has said, openness is a “survival trait” for the future, how do we facilitate this process of opening? The task is one not just of changing practices but also of changing culture; we can learn much from other movements for justice, equality and social change.

  1. Keynote Speech from Audrey Watters – Ed-Tech, Frankinstein’s Monster, and Teaching Machines (See also http://hackeducation.com/2014/09/03/monsters-altc2014/)

What does it mean to create intelligent machines? What does it mean to create intelligent teaching machines? What does this mean in turn when we talk about using these technologies to create intelligent humans? A romp through literature and the cultural history of ed-tech to talk about teaching machines and monsters.

Both talks were powerful and I wonder if that was because they both took a ‘story-telling’ approach.

Catherine talked about levels of openness, quoting Jim Groom as saying that ‘Openness is an ethos, not a license’. We cannot know who will benefit from the resources we share, but we have to take the risk. I don’t think we should underestimate this risk for our students and have discussed the pedagogy of risk elsewhere on this blog. I don’t think Catherine underestimates the risk.

The title of Catherine’s talk Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education was inspired by Seamus Heaney’s poem – Lightenings

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

She used this poem to explain that things that are so normal to us may be marvelous and strange to others – so strange that they cannot breathe – and that the dichotomy of formal and informal learning can make students feel ‘other’ and unable to breathe. She believes that as educators we need to try to understand the spaces that students occupy – physical, bounded online (e.g. VLEs) and open online spaces – and what is possible in these spaces to ensure that students can ‘breathe’ in them all. She then shared many stories with us of the ways in which she and her students are working to come to grips with the process of openness in education.

Audrey also took a storytelling approach. She described herself as a folklorist who is interested in hidden and lost stories – stories from history, literature and science, which she weaves together to illustrate her point – in this case that monsters have been created in the name of Ed-Tech. She drew on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Lord Byron, the history of the Luddites, the science of B.F. Skinner’s teaching machines, the work of Ayn Rand and Mary Shelley’s story Frankenstein, to make a compelling case for the dangers we face from technological monsters which she believes we have created through a lack of care and thought. Near the end of her talk Audrey left us with a quote from Hannah Arendt:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.

She noted that in an age when many jobs will be replaced by automation, we must love and care for our machines lest they become monsters.

Whilst listening to both speakers, I was struck by the power of a story and was reminded of the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who in this Ted talk  explains, from personal experience, the danger of the single story and says:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

 Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 16.33.13This is not a video, but an image. I have provided a link to the video above

Both Catherine and Audrey seemed to be aware of alternative perspectives; Catherine that her students have ‘other’ perspectives and different stories, and Audrey that stories are multi-faceted and that we can confuse the characters within stories.

As listeners to stories (and keynotes :-)), we have a responsibility to be aware of alternative perspectives and to engage critically with the stories, particularly since they can be so powerful in getting across a point.