Yesterday I attended my first Association for Learning Technology conference (ALTC) which this year was held at the University of Manchester. As the object of my research is to develop a real and relevant approach to automatically measuring and visualising learning activity online, it is essential that as well as being grounded in pedagogic theory, the approach should make sense at a practical level to its users. So, it’s important that I get out from my research lab, share my findings and connect with users; that is: learners, teachers, administrators – and on this occasion, learning technologists. ALTC is arguably the biggest, most connected Learning Technology conference in Europe, if not the world, so having my proposal accepted and being invited to give an extended, 30 minute presentation with the possibility of being selected for publication in ALT’s journal (Research in Learning Technology) was a huge privilege.
One of the key features of ALT’s Extended Presentation format is that at least half of the time should taken up with debate and interaction with the audience (no ‘death by powerpoint’!), and as this years’ conference theme was ‘shaping the future together’ I set about producing a highly participative presentation. I shared my slides beforehand with the 20 or so delegates who had indicated they would be joining the presentation (using ALTC’s excellent web site), and I set up and tested (on my long-suffering colleagues) a set of questions using the Socrative audience response system. ALTC’s ‘Guidelines for Presenters’ also called for a visual approach that eschewed bullet points, so I spent a considerable amount of time scouring Flickr Commons for usable, Creative Commons licensed images to illustrate my talk. Sadly my research fund could only stretch to attending one day at the conference, but I was determined to make the most of the few hours I had.
As I mentioned, ALTC is a big conference, with what looked to me like over 2,000 delegates from UK educational institutions – but also with a global presence, both in person and online. This is a highly knowledgeable and engaged audience. Because they work at supporting teaching and learning through the use of technology day after day, they have a exceptional understanding of the practicalities of integrating advanced tools within the curriculum. They ask questions, challenge assumptions, and can back up their arguments with evidence. In short it’s the best audience any learning technology researcher could stand in front of.
As well as talking the talk – ALTC walks the walk. They actually use technology to enhance the conference experience. In addition to providing each presentation with a dedicated web presence, they live stream all their keynotes and invited speakers, they add value through a number of applications (including this Flickr reader) and encourage communication between delegates and the rest of the world with the #altc hashtag (which on day one was ‘trending on Twitter’). This Google spread sheet set up by Martin Hawksey itemises tens of thousands of tweets generated by the event.
Between sessions, I got to have a very pleasant one-to-one chat with keynote speaker, learning technology guru, and generally all round nice guy, Steve Wheeler – primarily about how intense live blogging can be (think I might give it a try one day).
I really wish I could have more than 22 minutes to give my presentation and answer questions. I think the organisers were pushing their luck a bit by programming two 30 minute extended presentations into a 60 minute slot. Once you factor in a crashed pc and further delays it proved to be impossible to give the presentation I had intended – which was a great shame. However, there was a keen interest from the 40-plus audience for what I had to say. The Socrative audience response system worked well, provided some interesting feedback, and highlighted a key point of my talk – that visualised feedback affects behaviour. Despite having to take ‘an early bath’ I had the opportunity to discuss my work afterwards, was asked some constructive and challenging questions, and made some good connections. My hope now is that I the go-ahead to publish in the RLT journal, but we’ll have to see.