Last week I (and my colleague Bobbi) attended the annual, national Association of Learning Technologists’ conference (ALT-C) in Edinburgh. The conference itself ran for 3 days and was attended by over 450 delegates, with others attending remotely via live streaming and an active Twitter hashtag #altc. The venue for the opening and closing remarks, and the 3 keynotes was the impressive and recently refurbished McEwan Hall. The conference Chairs welcomed the delegates and then invited us to look up to the roof of the hall. Written around the ceiling, beneath the stunning murals, is Proverb 4:7…

Wisdom is the principal thing therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding.

We were there to deliver a presentation and a workshop about projects we have been working on, and to network with our equivalent teams from other universities around the UK. So, after looking up, we then looked around at our fellow delegates gathered together with the aim of getting understanding and wisdom. Finally, our attention was directed to the floor of Bristo Square outside. “The Next Big Thing…is a Series of Little Things” is a art commission recently created and installed by Susan Collis.

Keynotes and Vevox backchannel

Three very different styles of Keynotes were provided by Sue Beckingham, Jesse Stommel, and Ollie Bray. I was also especially interested to see how Vevox would fare as a backchannel for questions and audience commentary as this is now our university-wide student response system.

I usually have Twitter open during large keynote talks, but I have mixed feelings about it. If I’m finding it hard to follow the speaker (or the content of the presentation) then the tweets of other audience members with additional context or their own perspective really helps me to understand. However, and this is not unique to ALT, there are a greater number of tweets that are fired off quickly; a rushed photo of a slide or hurried echo of a soundbite (without context) and this is very distracting. With the addition of the Vevox backchannel on my device I decided to close my Twitter feed for the Keynotes.

The first keynote was very detailed and a large number of slides – too many to cover within the timeframe. Although a great go-to resource post conference, this is exactly the kind of keynote where I rely on my Twitter feed and multiple perspectives of my peers to help make sense of the content. Unfortunately the Vevox backchannel was implemented without etiquette guidance or managing expectations – even a National Conference for Learning Technologists can make mistakes! I think managing expectations for participants are key in achieving a positive and engaging experience, whether at a conference or in a lecture theatre, so despite the hiccups it was a useful learning experience to bring back to Southampton.

I usually describe my work as a Learning Designer as ‘helping to tell stories’, and I really enjoyed the style of the second keynote. Jesse Stommel started by sitting on the edge of the stage and telling a personal story about his young daughter and how small children experience learning. His later points about privacy, and how the companies behind widely used education tools and platforms are using learner data were food for thought. It made me hurry off in the break to go through the Ts & Cs of a couple of tools we use, and made me consider a few platforms in a different light. Companies producing software and platforms are in the process of ‘Getting wisdom..and understanding’ but the wisdom is created by learners themselves, with no recompense.

Framing critical digital pedagogy as the question of how can we build platforms that support learning across age, race, gender, culture ability, geography and so on really helped me to understand this term. Jesse also cautioned against using tools with bad pedagogy ‘baked into them’, something that I hadn’t considered at such a fundamental level and which also made me reflect on what I currently use.

The final keynote was my favourite, with Ollie Bray tasking the entire audience to make ducks in 45 seconds with just 6 pieces of Lego each. A lot of fun and a simple but effective demonstration of rapid iterative development. Ollie also highlighted the distinction between creativity and imagination; it is important to be creative in context so outputs are useful.

Workshops and presentations

In total I attended 15 workshops and presentations over the 3 days. They ranged from ‘small things’ like the use of specific apps or interventions in a single programme of study up to ‘big things’ such as university-wide digital transformation projects or wholesale adoption of lecture capture. For brevity I’ve listed my top take home messages or tool recommendations from some of them:

  • BYOD for exams is possible – and most of the myths surrounding why it isn’t have already been busted.
  • 23 Things is fantastic resource on digital skills from the University of Edinburgh. Open it in a new tab now and read it next!
  • Lumen5 Make thumb-stopping videos in minutes“. Yes. Yes you can! Try dropping your module profile description in and see what happens…
  • The AR/VR market (in healthcare) will be worth >4 billion by 2025…and the University of Manchester is one to watch…
  • I really haven’t been using OneNote properly – it has huge potential for digital escape rooms, eFieldnotebooks and as a portfolio tool!
  • A perennial challenge – how do you reach the the last 20% in staff engagement in transformation projects?


ALT is a vibrant and enthusiastic community. The annual conference reflects this and is a busy 3 days with multitude of topics and perspectives. It’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed with information overload, but as the “small things” theme suggests, taking away just one or two ideas and connections can enable bigger changes.

A key point raised during the conference was how do we help decision makers in our institutions develop better understanding of use of technology? I think for a start we can encourage decision makers to attend next year’s ALT-C, with a focus on discussing those large-scale transformation projects with people charged with delivering them in practice. I’ll definitely be trying out a few new tools (but reading the small print) and considering how to reach as many colleagues as possible in Southampton.

ALT-C: The next big thing is…

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