Problems in education are rarely unique: my solution or experience might help you. That’s at the heart of ALT-C, the annual conference of the Association of Learning Technologists.
A key theme of this year’s conference was “moving from the practical to the ‘publishable’”: considering how small-scale projects might be implemented at an institutional level. It was a common question underlying many sessions: How do you turn an innovative idea into something that is embedded in practice, and what needs to change for that to happen?
Physical and virtual spaces
Reimagining learning spaces is one approach, with lecture theatres refurbished for collaborative learning at Leeds, or a mobile digital classroom installed for a month at USW. Layout and equipment are not the only considerations; it was interesting that in the new build at UWTSD, appropriate acoustics for group discussion were also taken into account.
Developing resources to support blended learning was another common thread, with contributors describing various ways they have designed online learning experiences for flexibility, accessibility and authenticity. Leeds Beckett University found that students used laptops and smartphones equally to support learning, so ensuring their online environment was mobile-friendly was essential.
The importance of user perspective was something that featured strongly. A project at the University of Lincoln used VR headsets to build empathy in clinical training, allowing students to experience a hospital ward from a patient’s perspective. Student input was central to many projects, with students setting and evaluating the minimum VLE standards at the University of Liverpool, and student partners embedding iPad use in curriculum design at the University of Winchester.
Similarly, one workshop on implementing VLE baseline standards explored the viewpoints of different stakeholders. It proved an inspiring session, illuminated by its use of a not particularly cutting-edge technology: flipchart paper and pens. Except the learning is not in the paper and pens, but in the interaction with other people involved. Learning often depends on engaging with other people, whether they’re there in person, through web conferencing, virtually there in an online case study, or sharing knowledge through a written text. Finding ways that technology can facilitate or re-create this, while focusing on the pedagogy and not the tool, was a frequent theme.
Equipping staff to use new tools and learning spaces was another element discussed, for instance, running drop-in sessions for staff to try out new teaching facilities. A pedagogic profiling tool developed at UWTSD allows staff to self-assess the balance of activities in lessons. Evidence that something works is important in encouraging buy-in at an institutional level, although many evaluations seemed to focus more on satisfaction than impact on learning; in fairness, the two are not wholly unconnected.
Issues of standardisation
Many contributors considered standardisation and the issues involved. There is a value in consistency: I can navigate and use things more easily when they are structured in the same way. Making resources discoverable from a central point can encourage re-use. But standardising something has to not kill what made it work in the first place; that’s the challenge.
It was interesting to hear how different institutions have found that balance. Some described putting integration (between systems, but also with teaching and learning) at the heart of a new VLE, or establishing templates or baseline standards. For others what mattered was simply making links, informally: for instance, individuals using IFTTT to make their own connections between systems.
Technologies make it ever easier to create and share online content, but to do so meaningfully can be difficult when there is so much. It can feel inefficient to be re-creating something that already exists in multiple other ways, but sometimes small-scale and short-lived is the efficient way to accomplish something. Sometimes a solution is just for that problem, at that point, in that place. In her fascinating keynote about the demise of Yik Yak Siân Bayne talked about not needing to capture everything, or turn communities into data: “In designing our next generation digital learning environments, let us leave space for un-nameability and ephemerality”.