Two conferences in two days

I’ve just got back from a flying visit to the UK. The first thing I saw on arriving at the new and not at all unpleasant Heathrow Terminal 2 was Stephen Downes. Small world. We were getting luggage from different areas and lost each other in the rush to get to different places, but it was nice to see him, however briefly.

The main reasons I was in the UK were two conferences, The First European Conference on Social Media and the umpteenth Learning & Teaching Conference at the University of Brighton.  Sadly, they overlapped, which meant I only got to attend a day of each, but I managed to give two quite different sessions at both conferences. The first, at ECSM, was a traditional slide-based presentation about the Landing, why and how we built it, and what we might do differently if we started again. As an experiment, rather than my usual handful of images that sit behind most of my presentations, I threw nearly 50 slides (some with multiple build stages) at the stunned audience in 20 minutes. Quite fun. The second, at the L&T conference, was a much more discursive hour-long session  that questioned the fundamental notion of courses, which involved a few thought experiments and a lot of conversation among a very engaged crowd. 

ECSM was a very well-organized affair (disclaimer – the chairs were my friends Sue Greener and Asher Rospigliosi) which provided what I have hoped to see in a social media for some years but have previously been disappointed: diversity. When I put together my first social computing course a few years ago I tried to offer much the same kind of range as this conference provided, but have since been a bit worried that I was defining a discipline too early in its lifecycle. This is because most social media/social computing conferences I have been involved with over the past few years have fallen heavily into computer algorithm territory, which my course touches on but doesn’t make a central focus. I have sometimes thought that they would be better named as social network analysis conferences, as variations on that theme have totally dominated the proceedings. I have come across some social media conferences that drift entirely the other way, looking at social and sociological consequences, and a few that focus on a single subject area or context (education and/or learning being the ones that usually interest me most). In contrast, ECSM was delightfully broad, with offerings across the spectrum, with coverage that I feel vindicates my choice of subject matter and approach for a social computing course. It included a lot of papers related to business, politics, media, education and other general areas, and a wide range of research attitudes and methods from the highly algorithmic to the softest and fuzziest of media analyses and critical inquiries. There were plenty of case studies from lots of contexts and demonstrations or reports on plentiful interesting systems. I think this is a sign of a maturing area of study. Though they were not keynoting, I was impressed that the conference attracted the marvellous guru couple of Jenny Preece and Ben Schneiderman. My favourite discovery of the day was that Dutch police have a room in Habbohotel. At the conference dinner I sat next to John Traxler, who was doing the next day’s keynote (that I would miss). He continues to impress me as a creative and incisive thinker. We spoke more about beer, Brighton and music than mobile and social media, but it was fun.

I was not expecting as much out of the parochial Learning & Teaching conference the next day, but I was wrong. The first keynote by Sue Clegg on the arguable failure of widening participation was thought provoking and went down well. Though provocative, it was a bit dry for my taste – I’m not a fan of presentations read from sheets of notes. I’d rather read the notes and have a conversation. Its focus was also very UK-centric, which should have been interesting but I did not have sufficient background knowledge of the events and acronyms to which she referred. She also seemed unusually approving of higher education access rates in the US, ranking it highest in the world, which was more than a bit of a surprise to me: I guess it depends how you measure such things, but the OECD ranks the US well below Korea, Japan, Canada (we’re third!) and several European countries, including the UK, when it comes to higher education participation. None-the-less, her talk was mostly tightly argued and backed up by plentiful research. I had planned to leave and return to ECSM after my session, which followed Sue Clegg’s talk, but I was enjoying meeting old friends and sufficiently intrigued by later sessions to stay on. I am glad that I did, not just because it gave me a chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues.

The first presentation I saw was about use of the e-portfolio system Mahara for professional and personal development. The University of Brighton has a mature and well-implemented Mahara instance that is used for a great many things, from personal publication to coursework to CV writing. I was a bit sad to see that, in combination with a WordPress instance and a SharePoint system used by staff, it had pretty much replaced the innovative Elgg system, community@brighton, that was part of the inspiration for the Landing and that largely surpassed all three put together in functionality. After 8 or 9 years, the last few of those in a state of slow and painful decline, community@brighton is about to be decommissioned. Community@brighton was a little ahead of its time; it suffered greatly in an upgrade process after its first successful couple of years that resulted in the loss of a great deal of the network and communities that had thrived beforehand, and it never fully recovered the trust of its users; it was insufficiently diverse in its primary uses, being quite focused on teaching and, in its latter years, finding shared local accommodation; and it was not helped that its introduction coincided with the massive rise of Facebook (before most people realised how evil that site was). But it was a great system that was (and even as it nears exinction, possibly still is) the world’s largest social media site in an HE institution and a lot of innovative work was done on and through it.

I was interested to learn that the University of Brighton has outsourced its Mahara, Blackboard and some other systems to the cloud. Mahara runs on Amazon’s Cloud service and is managed by Catalyst IT, ( www.catalyst-eu.net) the company behind Mahara, all for around £12,000 (roughly $CAD20,000) per year, plus fairly minimal cloud charges. This seems pretty good value to me – very hard for an internal IS team to compete with that. Similarly, though Blackboard is the work of the devil and the costs are astronomical, moving away from Blackboard would be very difficult for the University of Brighton. This is thanks to the massive investment in materials and training already sunk into it, combined with Blackboard’s strenuous efforts to encourage that dependency and notoriously bad tools for getting data out. Bearing that in mind, it makes sense for the University to move to a hosted solution, especially given the terrible performance, countless bugs, regular and irregular downtime, and the large amount of effort needed to keep it running and to answer technical problems. At least it should now perform reasonably, get timely updates, rarely go down and just work, most of the time. On a cautionary note I was, however, intrigued to learn that the university’s outsourcing of student email (to Microsoft’s Irish branch – Google was rejected due to lack of adherence to European data protection laws) had met with an unfortunate disaster, inasmuch as Microsoft changed the terms and conditions that had formerly meant students would have an email address for life, to a much more limited term. Outsourcing is fine when it works, but it always depends on another company with very different goals than one’s own. I normally prefer to keep things in-house, despite the cost. It means that you retain control of the data no matter what and, just as importantly, the knowledge to use it.

After a very fine lunch, I attended a double-length session reporting on the University of Brighton’s findings and work resulting from the very large Higher Education Academy ‘What Works’ research initiative. ‘What Works’ was focused on improving retention rates, seeking reasons for students giving up on courses and programs, and seeking ways to help them succeed. Brighton was one of the 22 institutions involved in the £1M study. A large team from Brighton gave a very lively and highly informative sequence of presentations on the background, the research and the various interventions that had been attempted following the study, not all with equal success, but all of them interesting. The huge take-home for me was the crucial importance of a culture of belonging. This was singled out in the HEA research that fed into this as the most significant factor in determining whether or not a student continues. Other factors are closely related to this – supportive peers, meaningful interactions, developing knowledge and confidence, and relevance to future goals, and all contribute to belongingness. There are also other factors like perseverence, engagement and internalization that play a role. It is intriguing to me that the research into this started with something of a blank slate, and did not draw significantly on the extensive literature on motivation outside of an educational setting. If it had done, they would probably have identified control as a major factor too although, given the context (traditional educational systems are not great for giving students control, especially to those in their early months of study), it is not surprising that it was missed. In recent years I have typically followed self-determination theory‘s vocabulary of ‘relatedness’ for this aspect of motivation, but ‘belonging’ is a far better word that captures a lot of what is distinctive about the nature and value of traditional academic communities and practices. Significantly for me, that is something which we at Athabasca University tend not to do so well. With self-paced courses, a large number of visiting students and relatively limited communication tools (apart from the Landing, of course!) it is very hard for us to build that sense of belonging. When tutoring works well, it goes quite a long way to achieving it and occasionally a bit of community develops via Moodle discussions but, apart from the Landing, we do nothing much to support a wider sense of belonging. At least, not in undergraduate programs. I think we tend to do it fairly well in graduate programs, where it is easier to build more personal relationships, peer support and cohorts into the system. I intend to follow this up and explore more of the background research that led to the HEA team’s conclusions. 

The afternoon ended with Pimms, but not before a closing keynote by Norman Jackson on life-wide (as distinct from life-long) learning. I found the notion of lifewide learning pleasing, concentrating on a person’s whole learning life, of which intentional academic behaviour is just a small part. The idea is related to the notion of learning trajectories as posited by Michael Eraut, with whom Jackson has worked. There was lots to like in his talk, and it drew attention away from the very course-centric view that underpins much university thinking, and that I had criticized in my own session. He had lots of nice examples based on studies and interviews with students, none of whom simply followed a ‘course’, though perhaps the examples were a little too glibly chosen – this was appreciative enquiry. He also placed a great onus on his version of ‘learning ecologies’ to describe the lifewide process. His definition of a learning ecology differs considerably from mine, and others who have used the term. As far as I could tell, the focus was very much on an individual, and his definition of a ‘learning ecology’ related to the various things that individuals do to support their learning. This is not a very rich ecology! I think that simply means that we tend to do a lot of things when learning that affect our learning in other things, all in a richly connected self-nourishing fashion. While he did, when questioned, agree that there was much richness to be gained from ‘overlapping’ ecologies and learning with and from others, I don’t think he sees the overlap as anything more than that. For me and, I think, most others who have used the term, a learning ecology has emergent patterns and behaviours that are quite different from its parts, full of rich self-organization, and it is crucial to negotiating meaning and creating knowledge in a social context. In a learning ecology, everyone’s learning affects everyone else’s, with positive and negative feedback loops creating knowledge that goes far beyond what any individual could develop alone. 

I am back in Canada now and trying to catch up with the load of things that two conferences inevitably delayed. I usually reckon that a conference takes up at least three times the time taken by the conference travel itself – preparation and recovery time are always a significant factor. In fact, it should take longer to recover because it would be great to reflect further to help consolidate and connect the learning that inevitably happens during the intensive sessions and conversations that characterize conferences: too many learning opportunities are lost when we rush back into a pile of over-delayed work after such things. At the very least, posts like this are a necessity to help make sense of it all, not an optional extra, but there is a lot more that I would like to follow up on if I had the time. It is also a pity because the weather in Vancouver is stunning (maybe too hot and dry) and I have a newly purchased but very old boat floating outside that keeps calling me. 

 

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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