Back home after spending the past 10 days on a fantastic work/life trip in England & France, spurred on by an opportunity to attend the annual ALT conference in Manchester last week.
ALT-C is a conference I have wanted to attend for many years, and I am happy that the stars aligned this year, giving me the opportunity to meet many of the UK-based people in my network who’s work I have followed and admired for many years. This will likely be the first of at least 2, maybe 3 posts as I recap & reflect on my observations & highlights of the conference.
This year is the 25th anniversary of ALT, which was a big reason I wanted to attend. One of the ongoing communities I support in my position at BCcampus is ETUG – the Education Technology User Group. As I have blogged before, I see many similarities between ETUG and ALT in terms of mandate and focus. We are even of a similar vintage with ETUG approaching our 25th anniversary in 2019.
Since becoming the ETUG community liaison for BCcampus, I have been thinking a lot about not only ETUG, but also reflecting on how this field of education technology has changed over the past 25 years, so it felt like the right time to attend an event that was also doing some retrospective thinking about 25 years of educational technology.
But far from being a nostalgic view of the past, there were also plenty of opportunities at ALT to look at present and future EdTech practices, acknowledging that perhaps the biggest shifts in the field of EdTech has been the development of a much more critical perspective with the focus of our working shifting from the potential of education technology (and all the associated hubris that often brings with it), to a more evidence based, pragmatic practice. It’s something that I touched upon in my own short Gasta presentation on day 2, which I’ll blog more about this week as part 2 of my ALTC reflections.
Right. Onto the keynotes.
Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sociology prof at Virginia Commonwealth University & author of Lower Ed, opened the conference. When I heard that Dr. Cottom was one of the keynotes, I was intrigued to see how her work as a U.S based sociologist examining the inequalities of the U.S. higher education system would would translate to a primarily U.K. based educational technology audience. As it turned out, Dr. Cottom knew her audience, spending much of her talk speaking about her own experiences working with a team of learning technologists at her home institution developing a Digital Sociologist program. She provided the perspective of a faculty member working with technologists within the constraints of an institution that had universal appeal for anyone who has ever worked with little budget on a major institutional digital transformation project.
Dr. Cottom also used the 25 year anniversary to set the tone of critical perspective for the conference, saying that now is the right time to “deeply examine education technology as a messy multi-dimensional whole” and for all of us to closely examine the underlying assumptions that go into the building of EdTech tools.
Amber Thomas from the University of Warwick keynoted day 2 and continued on the critical thread while providing a personal retrospective perspective on her own 20 year career in educational technology. Her talk strongly resonated with me for a couple of reasons. First, our timelines and background are very similar and I could see my own history reflected in hers.
Second, I was struck by Amber’s emphatic defense of the role of the public sector in supporting innovation in education technology. She kicked back against the perception that innovation in higher education comes primarily from the private sector. As someone who works for a government-funded higher education organization myself, I echo her observation that state-funded sector wide initiatives have fueled a lot of innovative, collaborative initiatives (our own BC Open Textbook Project here in British Columbia has received considerable contributions from our provincial government as well as the Hewlett Foundation).
Amber also pushed back against the perception that government is immobile and resistant to change when it comes to driving innovation in education technology, rightly pointing out the numerous publicly funded EdTech projects and initiatives that have helped to fuel both innovation and (more importantly) develop and nurture a strong EdTech community through collaboratively funded projects. I see this here in British Columbia where we have, for many years, had a government that has continually supported innovation in education technology through programs like the BC OPDF (Online Program Development Fund), ETUG, and the BC Open Textbook Project. I’ll admit that I have a bias here being that I work on these types of sector wide projects, but it was very refreshing and hugely validating to hear someone speak of the important role of government in fueling innovation in our sector.
ALT CEO Maren Deepwell was the closing keynote of the conference. As CEO of ALT, Maren has a unique system-wide perspective on our field. Framing her talk with a nod to Audrey Waters Zombie EdTech narrative, Maren proceeded to challenge the ever-forward, horizon viewing gaze of EdTech – the view that EdTech is always just on the cusp of reaching it’s inevitable, often over-hyped potential. The danger of always focusing on the future is that we often ignore the real challenges of today because we believe that there is always a technology just on the horizon that will someday arrive to fix all problems. By continually focusing on the future, ask Deepwell, are we abdicating our responsibility to fix today?
I also appreciated Maren’s work in the professionalization of the field, primarily with her work in developing the CMALT program. It was welcome to hear someone speak passionately about the increasing strategic importance of the educational technologist, influencing both policy and operations within our public institutions. It is not often I hear someone speak of the need for educational technologists to be placed in more senior and strategic levels of an organization, but with our field becoming increasingly more complex and ripe with hard questions like who does this technology serve, and who does it discriminate against, it was good to hear someone push for our field to have a higher profile.
One final note before I wrap up this first ALTC retrospective piece, a huge congratulations to the organizing committee for an all-female keynote lineup. All three were excellent and offered unique and compelling perspectives on our field.
In post #2, I had a blasta doing the gasta.