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ALT-C 2006: Moving from the institution to the individual

Christina Smart
Last modified 15 Sep, 2006
Published 15 Sep, 2006
Last week was the 13th International ALT conference held in Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. There was a lot of interest in personal learning environments and what effect their widespread use will have on institutions.

The title of this year’s conference was "The Next Generation" with themes on next generation learning, learners, technology and providers. It was the Association for Learning Technology’s biggest yet – with some 600 delegates, four themes and 10 parallel sessions.

For me personal learning environments and social software technologies dominated the meeting and this is a very brief, personal impression of proceedings.

Personal Learning Environments

In a symposium titled "Personal learning environments: challenges in next generation learning" [1] Graham Attwell, Dave Tosh, Josie Fraser and Terry Anderson gave their views of personal learning environments and the potential for learning of web 2.0 or social software technologies like blogs and wikis. They argued that people are already using social software to interact in a way that is outside of their universities systems and VLEs. Derek Morrison commented that during the HEA e-Learning Benchmarking Exercise [2] he had found that often teachers had to use ‘hidden learning environments’ – blogs and other tools that weren’t available within their own institutions systems.

In a research paper talk on the PLE reference model project [3] Mark Johnson said that it was not possible to describe a PLE because individuals differ so much in their needs and preferences. In this work the project team characterised the patterns of technologies that people might need in a PLE such as discussion tools, search tools etc. The project also took a philosophical approach reflecting on the technology needs of the individual. The question was raised as to whether we put an artificial boundary around the learning part of our activities when people are using these tools in their everyday lives? (like using Flickr to share holiday photos with friends).

The social software revolution

It seemed to me that there is an increasing recognition of the tension between the monolithic VLE that tends to see university business from an administrative view rather than from the perspective of the individual student, and an individual's personalised view of the environment they work, study and live within. This tension runs to the very heart of what universities and higher/further education is about. A point brought home in a great keynote by Stephen Heppell [4]. Drawing on examples from projects he is involved with around the globe, Stephen argued that successful technologies in the 21st century are all about “helping people”, exemplified by the success of Google in helping people find stuff on the internet. Stephen contrasted with the trend in the late 20th century of building big institutions, databases containing large amounts of content. So he argued that the current trend is towards small groups of students and workers able to learn anywhere with freely available content where the emphasis is on the social aspect of learning. This of course has huge implications for traditional universities, who will need to think creatively about learning, assessment and particularly learning spaces to attract tomorrow’s learners.

When asked about the impact of these developments on universities Stephen Heppell said that he had ‘stopped worrying’ about universities – because if they didn’t change they would be left behind.

In the opening keynote, Diana Oblinger from Educause argued that we should be “Listening to What We're Seeing” in today’s students [5]. Net generation students are iPoding, texting, googling and Instant messaging – all the time – often in class. In addition, there are mature students who are juggling work, childcare and eldercare. Diana asked whether we understand our learners and suggested how we must respond to their needs to fully engage them in learning.

Professor Tim O'Shea the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh gave his keynote titled “New Topologies for Learning” [6]. Given the current rapid developments in technology Tim considered the future for established institutions like the University of Edinburgh. With many examples of e-learning innovations at Edinburgh Tim illustrated how institutions can adapt to serve the needs of 21st Century learners. Tim is clearly more optimistic about the future for our universities than Stephen.

From here to there

These developments are very challenging to the current paradigm in e-learning where the VLE often determines the way in which institutional e-learning takes place. With PLEs and social software the possibilities for learning and teaching are almost endless, but PLEs don’t map easily onto an institutional view of the world which is why they are sometimes referred to as ‘disruptive’ technologies. The challenge for universities over the next few years will be to navigate through this change and enable courses to be delivered using web 2.0 and PLE technologies.

In summing up the next generation technologies theme Terry Anderson noted the absence of discussion of e-learning standards at this conference [7]. There was also much less discussion of the e-Framework for Education and Research than in previous years (with the exception of Booth and Clark’s paper on the WAFFLE Bus [8]). The e-Framework is already having a significant influence [9] on the e-learning landscape with the wide scale adoption of service oriented approaches and for this reason we would argue that learning technologists and teachers need to be closely involved in these developments in order to be able to influence and fully exploit these new technologies [10], [11].

All the abstracts and some presentations from the conference are now available [12]. I’d be interested to hear other people’s impressions of the conference.


[1] Personal Learning Environments: challenges in next generation learning. G. Attwell, S. Wilson, D. Tosh, T. Anderson and J. Fraser.

[2] Higher Education Academy e-Learning Benchmarking Exercise.

[3] Mapping the Future: The personal learning environment reference model and emerging technology. M. Johnson, O. Liber, S. Wilson, P. Sharples, C. Milligan, P. Beauvoir

[4] Helping learners to help each other: why learning in the 21st century is a very different place. Stephen Heppell

[5] Listening to What We're Seeing Opening keynote, Diana Oblinger

[6] New Topologies for Learning Keynote, Tim O’Shea

[7] Summary of the Next Generation Technology theme, Terry Anderson.

[8] The WAFFLE Bus: A model for a service-oriented learning architecture. A.G. Booth and B. P. Clark.

[9] The e-Learning Framework for Education and Research.

[10] Why teachers need to get to grips with some deeply technical concepts - it's time to get involved! S.Holyfield and C.Smart

[11] Connecting Teachers and Technologists event October 2005

[12] ALT-C 2006: The Next Generation, programme and abstracts.


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