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Catherine Dhanjal

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ALT-C 2009: Education embraces learning technologies


The hottest trends in learning technology and fusing Facebook with further education; Catherine Dhanjal reports from this year's ALT Conference.

Over 700 delegates attended the Association for Learning Technology's annual conference held in September while in the true spirit of the event, many more joined keynote and invited speaker sessions remotely online.

“If you don’t understand the effects of the media, then the media is using you”

Michael Wesch, social anthropologist and expert on the impact of digital tools on culture opened the proceedings with a powerful speech on the impact of technology and how we’re moving from being consumers of media to creators of media.
The Assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, Wesch’s research builds on media discourse expert Marshall McLuhan’s work of the 1960s – 1970s and shows that we must understand how media mediates our relationships with each other. For example, why is breaking up with a partner easier by text than face-to-face?  Wesch gave the example of the lecture theatre as a medium we can see how our environment for receiving messages affects the way we behave; in this situation the walls and surroundings give us the messages: To learn is to acquire information; trust authority for good information; information is scarce and hard to find...
At Kansas State University students today typically have three technology devices each, such as a mobile phone, iPod and laptop. Gilly Salmon’s informal ‘ATM survey’ at the UK’s University of Leicester shows a similar pattern in the UK. But these findings aren’t just pertinent to higher education: Students are the workers of tomorrow. Students’ expectations for use of technology in working life are shaped by their ‘fun and friendship’ use of such devices and they expect to be able to use the same technology when they enter the working world. A brilliantly entertaining and engaging speaker, Wesch’s enthusiasm for his work was evident. Particular insights from his presentation were that:
  • We know ourselves through our relationships with others and their perspectives on us
  • New media create new ways of relating to each other
  • New media create new ways of knowing ourselves
ALT-C 2009 looked at the challenges faced by learning technologists and at technology's role at the heart of modern learning; next year's conference will focus on the structural and pervasive shift in the nature of the internet and its impact on education.

The education issue

Invited speaker Aaron Porter, vice president (higher education) of the National Union of Students (NUS), demonstrated that world class higher education is no longer limited to the UK but is now emerging across the world. The UK should seize the opportunity to take the lead by utilising technology and transforming the world of students through sharing good practice. This could be through initiatives such as stimulating a sense of academia through Facebook and other social networks that students are already using in a social context.  Martin Bean, new Vice Chancellor of the Open University, pointed out that students won’t want academic staff stalking them in their ‘own’ space such as Facebook but that more needs to be done to meet students where they live in the virtual world.

The subject of digital identity and students and educators profiles in the virtual world was tackled in a workshop where we learnt that our identity is always subject to change and that we’re defined by our relations in a social community. What can feel like a semi-private context may in fact be exposed to the public view. Participants were introduced to and supported in using a range of online tools and services to establish an online identity, including blogging, social bookmarking, video and photo sharing sites. Associated issues of privacy, professionalism and search engine optimization were also explored and knowledge of such areas will be increasingly essential for anyone using the internet.
The huge and ever-growing amount of information that is now available on the web or on company intranets threatens to engulf many of us. David Price introduced Debategraph, a tool which uses the internet to gather and filter thoughts – this can be used in a government context to analyse information and opinions from the wide variety of experts that cannot be brought together by traditional means such as forums and committees.
Debategraph works with The Whitehouse, MIT, OU, Downing Street etc, helping policy makers to see different ways to see and understand the challenges they face in policy making as none of us has sufficient perspective to be able to see the whole picture of complex problems in social policy: the type of problems we confront are too big. It could equally well apply in a work context where company intranets are increasingly repositories for a mine of information but analysing threads of research or opinions can prove problematic. 
David’s final comments were thought-provoking: The way we teach at universities often produces students who create isolated work which isn’t contributing cumulatively to social understanding and social good… although universities are starting to use wikis for assignments which are graded and available publicly. If we could just take a small percentage of the energy that flows into students’ work and direct it outwards to public structures we could help to address our gaps in knowledge.
Next year’s ALT-C conference promises to be equally interesting. The theme will focus on the structural and pervasive shift in the nature of the Internet. Educators and learners are always connected; the technology devices we all use are growing in capability and diversity; the information environment and the tools and services that we use to navigate and to interact with it and with each other are in great flux.
The challenge posed for education is great. It is to increase effectiveness, productivity, and quality, whilst institutional and agency budgets are reducing, rather than just to promise improvements. At the same time we need to ensure the spread of innovations that are scalable and of long-term value, both educationally and financially, whilst keeping learners and learning at the heart of our thinking.

For more information visit or contact ALT on 01865 484125. To view videos of the keynote and invited speakers visit:


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