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ALT-C 2007 - Learners in control?

Christina Smart
Last modified 07 Sep, 2007
Published 07 Sep, 2007
Every year ALT-C provides a snap shot of learning technology developments in the UK HE and FE sectors. The focus of this year’s conference, “Beyond control, Learning technology for the social network generation” was clearly on the learner, as the use social software continues to rise.

Delegates spent three sunny days on the leafy University of Nottingham campus discussing the impact of Web 2.0 technologies and globalisation trends and how to go about designing physical and online environments in response.

The JISC e-Learning Programme was well represented. A new guide In Their Own Words was launched at the conference and highlights the work of a number of JISC funded studies exploring the student’s perspective of using technology. The guide concludes “we consider the changes the JISC Learner Experiences of e-Learning studies suggest are occurring in the relationship between institutions and learners.”

The complex relationship between institutions and learners was at the heart of many discussions. In the symposium Are we ready for learners in control? representatives from some of the Scottish Transformation projects discussed the impacts of their projects on student autonomy and the tutor/student relationship. One conclusion was that learners vary in their needs, becoming more autonomous as they progress and that tutors need to be able to respond to those changes by scaffolding the support they can give. Another, was that increasing student autonomy is also transforming the role of the tutor, some may be reluctant to give up being the “Sage on the stage”.

A team from the MINTED a JISC toolkit demonstrator project based at the University of Sussex presented their work on developing an enrolment web service plug-in for Moodle. The plug-in has enabled them to integrate their student records system with the Open Source VLE. The team reported that despite a steep learning curve in terms of developing web services, the approach had been very successful, and the next version of Moodle will include their enrolment plug-in.

The highlight of the conference for me was the keynote by Professor Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education, Assessment, learning and technology: prospects at the periphery of control. He reviewed the current research on pedagogies of engagement and argued that in schools, classroom aggregation technologies could provide the most cost effective improvements in learner achievement. Since studies have shown that you can’t predict what children will learn, teachers need to find ways of rapidly assessing what they actually have learnt in the classroom and adapting their teaching accordingly. This sort of diagnostic feedback would enable teachers to decide whether students had grasped key concepts and to tailor their teaching accordingly.

Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google gave the closing keynote Learning in an Open World. Like Dylan Wiliam he discussed the problems of mass education, how to get the best learning at a reasonable cost. He showed some of the projects that Google is involved with including one with Creative Commons, Open Education Search to provide an index of available open courseware. He suggested that the best way of engaging students was to take an apprentice approach, give them real life projects to solve and then back that up later with the theory. When asked about the value of web 2.0 technologies he commented that their power lay in connecting people, and may not be the best tools for working together.

ALT-C is always a good barometer for the creative and innovative developments in learning technology in UK HE and FE, and one of the things it does best is provide outstanding keynotes from innovators outside the sector, inspiring us to find new ways of solving old problems.

The keynote by Michelle Selinger and all the other presentations from ALT-C are available via the conference web site,

Lots of other reflections from ALT-C are available from the conference blog aggregation


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