ALT Conference 2021

This was my first time attending the ALT conference; I wasn’t sure what to expect but I’d heard good things about it. Due to COVID-19, the conference was virtual, so I wasn’t sure what the experience would be like. In this post, I reflect on my experience and think about what I have learned as well as the actionable takeaways.

I found the conference to be extremely valuable. I particularly enjoyed this conference as there was much more focus on the subject matter, rather than the selling of products and services from sponsors and recruiters (which I’ve found is often the case at other more corporate conferences). I didn’t choose to stick to one particular track, instead, I printed off the programme and highlighted the sessions that were relevant to me.

I’ve never attended a conference entirely online before, so this was a new experience for me. The conference was run as a YouTube live stream, with a discord chat running alongside. I found the discord chat useful, but a bit overwhelming at times, just because of the sheer amount of information and resources being shared throughout. Annoyingly, most sessions overran which mean you would miss a couple of minutes of the next session. It would have been good to plan 5 minutes between sessions to allow for this. I could rewind the stream though and had to do this a few times, but it then meant the chat was out of sync. It just made me feel like I was always trying to catch up. Anyway…!

Some of the sessions used apps to engage the audience, I noted some of these down for later investigation. Some of these I have used myself in the past, for example, padlet, others were completely new to me; wooclap and mural.

There is always so much to take in during these sessions, I’m going to bullet point some of my key takeaways from the session.

  • Digital competencies: COVID-19 has meant we’ve had to adapt to new ways of working and has accelerated the need for digital skills. Many graduates are leaving university and entering the workplace without the digital skills they need to be successful. As an example, a student reflected on their expericence at work stating that excel was something they needed to use more more frequently then they had thought. In summary, when it comes to digital competencies, it’s important to look at what graduates are using in the workplace and what employers want. This session looked at broad, non-discipline-specific digital skills. I think it is slightly unfair here to lump digital competencies as an issue that schools, FE and HE institutions should soley fix. I think that employers should also offer training opportunities to their staff if they are feeling they are lacking key skills.
  • Placemaking: This session looked at how to turn online spaces into places. This is something I was interested in as turning a VLE into a “Digital Campus” is something I am keen on championing. The key takeaway here for me was thinking about the quick and easy features or functionality that can be added to the online learning environment to create a positive impact or experience. I’d like to look into this a bit more to fully understand the concept.
  • Wellbeing: Wellbeing was an occuring theme throughout the conference. The pandemic has created a culture of being “always available” that many people have been struggling with. For example, when using chat, there is a feeling that people are availble via chat 24/7. The wellbeing of some teachers has therefore been the cost of some technology implementations.
  • Student experience: I found some of the student experiences really insightful. Students were asked to reflect on their experience of online learning since the pandemic hit. One student mentioned how being able to study flexibly, in their own time using different technologies made them feel free and empowered them to do their best. Using technologies such as blogs helped them to be more social, critical and creative. One quote that I felt really powerful was “We don’t want to go back to normal – we want a better normal” this was in regard to returning to inperson work and classes. I think that many people feel this way, myself included. I think it would be a shame to “rush back into the office” and destroy all the good things that have come out of using technology for work and learning. Most people agree that the pandemic has shown how technology can help and improve the lives of people and we really do need to make sure we don’t return to pre-pandemic practices. It was also interesting to hear that some basic elements are STILL causing many students issues/barriers for learning. For example, reliable wifi connectivity and access to online platforms and services.
  • Accessibility and inclusivity: Always a hot topic. I didn’t take many notes here, more like random scribbles. I noted that several universities have adopted or adapted UDL approaches. This is something I’ve been researching over the last fews months. A quote that i’ve heard a few times is “If you design for all you end up with a better product for all.” An interesting note I made from a speaker is “many teachers teach the way they were taught” which I had never thought about before, but perhaps does impact the hesitation of many teachers to adopt new tools, technologies and teaching methods.
  • Adoption of new technologies: There was a session on the 3rd day which I think was my favourite. It was by UCEM (University College of Estate Management) and they discussed their process of choosing technologies to support learning. All the sessions run by UCEM were actually really good and they seem to be doing some really innovative things (possibly because they are a fully online institutuion…? Not casting aspersion at all!). They shared some really useful resources which I think everyone in a TEL role should familiarise themselves with. The EDUCAUSE Rubric for eLearning Tool Evaluation being one.
  • Misc: It was good to gain an insight on what VLEs other institutions are using and upgrading to. Learn Ultra (Blackboard), Open LMS and Canvas were mentioned a couple of times. Assessment platforms mentioned included Inspira, Better Examinations, Uniwise and Questionmark. Pedagogies and practices I want to investigate further are the 4 pillars of learning by Stanislas Dehaene.

Closing thoughts

In one of the keynote sessions, we were asked “what value drives your work?” I think is something that everyone should ask themselves (a few came to my mind, but I want to take some more time to reflect on this a bit more). What really drives me to do what I do?

I would definitely like to attend the ALTC again in the future, I think it’s a really valuable and relevant conference for those working in TEL.

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