Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Just In Time

Just as I was starting to get a little bit fed up with the themes that seems to be emerging from this year's ALT Conference, Dylan William saved the day with a wonderfully refreshing, well-delivered keynote speech.

I'll blog more about this over-arching trends that have dominated this year once the conference has properly finished, but one of note has been this idea of putting the learning in charge or learning. This encapsulates the "we don't understand our students so should be more like them", "their attention span is only 5 nanoseconds therefore we can never expect them to be able to concentrate", "the students should decide what to learn even though they probably can't be bothered" and the "if we were more like Facebook and they'll want to learn more" concepts that we've touched on already and seen in other conference over the last year or so. (Indeed, as I write this while sciving the last session of the day, I can hear delegates performing the equivalent of penis envy with regard to Facebook!)

These ideas are not without merit, but I'm still not convinced that we should be tearing everything up to implement them. That's where Dylan's keynote was so interesting. One of his more memorable lines was forcing students to work using various learning styles, including those that they might not necessarily like. "School is where students go to watch teachers work." (I probably did not quite paraphrase this right!) This is at odds with current trends of aiming to get educators to accommodate students' individual learning styles.

Much of his talk was on using face to face contact time to improve "classroom aggregators". In a nutshell, this is data accumulated during classes in response to questions or other activities that all students are required to engage in. (Using clickers is an example of this.) He gave some useful examples of good questions to ask from the field of Mathematics and Physics, including traditional MCQ and MRQ questions through to more complicated examples that might elicit a relatively large but still finite set of responses. This gave instant feedback on the current state of the class' understanding, allowing a (good) educator to take the most appropriate next step. ("Just In Time" teaching!)

The refreshing thing about this, as we know from our previous low-tech "clickers" involving bits of coloured cardboard, is that you don't really need complex technology to try these ideas out as well. And, despite being "disruptive" technologies in many ways, educators do not have to completely redesign curricula in order to try them out, as we've seen with the gradual roll-out of clickers across the College of Science and Engineering. Of course, creating good diagnostic/feedback questions is not easy and requires skilled educators, and technology can't really help here so it's good to see pedagogy having to win over shiny new gadgets.

Where technology will really help here is in William's ideas for modeling student progress using data gathered from these aggregators and analysed alongside existing student data. Using clickers rather than coloured cards already makes student voting data ready for being mined so is a good start. But this is just the soft fluffy edge of a really complex (but interesting) problem which kind of falls outside the usual domain of learning technologists so it's maybe hard to see who'll be rising to the challange.

All in all, a good keynote delivered in an enjoyably dry style with a suitably loud tie!

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Lost at (Alt-)Sea

So, Alt-C has started and immediately the actual face-to-face conversation dips to nothingness as delegates bury their heads in the huge programme of abstracts and the all-important russian-roulette timetable - which, outdoing last year, has 10 strands - great - even LESS chance of finding a session that'll give me that "Ah - that's interesting" wake up call.

As David said, there's definitely still that feeling of trying to catch up: "Argh - the digital natives are restless!" and indeed the pace of change of technology and practice threatens to thwart researchers and their findings - how can one do a comparative study of students' experience and expectation of technology over time when the web landscape of today has moved on so much over just a period of 2 years - the tools used by digital natives (and some immigrants) are adopted and discarded in almost real time. Such is the length of prepration in writing and presenting at Alt-C that by the time a talk is presented its relevance to today is somewhat diminished. Its a shame but its the way it is - conferences are just too slow and clumsy these days - so 1.0 :(


The Smell of Fear

Well, here we are at another ALT conference! For fun, I'm going to count the number of times I hear a speaker say something along the lines of "I've got a 17-year old daughter/son/nephew/etc. and I just don't understand what they do when they're online". So far, after 3 talks and some introductory sessions, I've heard this three times.

I noticed this at our last conference back in June in Hertfordshire as well. There seems to be this sense of fear that we don't understand what young folks do when they're online these days, and I'm sometimes worried that this fear is being too much of a driver in e-Learning at the moment. "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" is a cliché that springs to mind!

Blog feed at ALT-C

I am at ALT-C, along with seemingly hordes of other people from Edinburgh. There is this blog feed where people can register their blog posts and have it aggregated for people to browse.

This is proving a source of high amusement as we sit outside (in the car park, on the kerbside, sunny, cup of coffee) and have a good ol' laugh at the inanity of some of the posts. People talking about the deficiencies of the sinks in the student digs, the M1 on the way down here, safe sex simulations in Second Life. Innovators in e-learning, the lot of 'em, I am sure.....

And even me talking about people talking about it.

I should go and figure out which one of the myraid of parallel sessions I will go to next.....