So I have spent a week in Nottingham at ALT-C that is in many ways a traditional academic style conference. We had keynotes and invited speakers, papers short and long, symposia with panels and workshops.
The focus of ALT-C as I see it is very much about bringing together a community to share practice, network and move one’s own learning forward. I do enjoy the conference and learn a lot from it. It’s great to network, discuss, debate and share with other learning technologists from around the country (and the rest of the world).
I have never seen ALT-C as the type of innovating conference that will “call for change” or move the whole learning technology agenda forward. The format as it stands just doesn’t allow for that. For example ALT-C 2011 is just under a year away, however we already know the theme, who the keynote speakers are and who the chairs of the conference will be. The process of speaking at ALT-C 2011 will be finalised in about five months time on the 14th of February when the deadline for proposals for inclusion is closed.
In the past or for other areas this is probably fine and dandy, but for ALT-C it does mean that newer technologies are not even mentioned.
For example nowhere at the conference was a huge deal made of Apple’s new iPad or any of the forthcoming Android tablets. Then again you could say why should there be, they haven’t been used for any length of time and therefore there are no results or research done yet.
Once you understand that ALT-C is not about innovation or new shiny things, but is about practice, research and outcomes the less disappointed you will be about what you see at the conference.
Though this is no excuse for poor presentation skills. I know that the ALT team try really hard to get presenters to be more effective, they produce excellent guides, tips and advice; but still now and again with people’s lack of confidence in themselves we see slides and slides of bullet points. I do think presenters sometimes forget that the idea of a short paper presentation is to either inspire people to read the short paper in more detail or to undertake further reading, or as an opportunity to allow questions to be asked of the short paper. The presentation is not there to provide your audience with lots of bullet points, explanatory notes on methodology or the inside leg measurement of the lead researcher.
If you want innovation, ideas, cutting edge, then to be honest you are not going to find them at ALT-C. So where do you go?
Well ULCC’s FOTE 10 one day conference this year does allow for this kind of radical thought, innovative ideas and inspiring new practices.
So does ALT-C need to change?
Paul Lowe in his recent blog post says
But the overriding feeling for me at my first ALT-C was a sense of nagging disappointment that despite being populated with over 400 of the best practitioners of learning technology around today, what did we actually achieve in concrete terms, what artefact, statement, decision, conclusion or prediction did we build?
Though I agree with Paul in the essence of what he says, we need to remember that the focus of ALT-C in my opinion is not (despite even what it says on the advertising literature) that. It is about Learning Technologists reporting on what they are doing in their institutions, probably based on work they started planning two or even three years ago! ALT-C is not about the future it’s about the past.
Also with the date of ALT-C the same time as one of the busiest weeks of the year for FE we saw FE under-represented at the conference and much of the energy and innovation we do see in FE wasn’t going to be discovered at this year’s ALT-C. The other aspect of that is the proposal submission process does not allow or reflect the actual work and stuff that happens in FE.
I had expected something much more creative and collaborative, along the lines of the unconference idea or barcamp for example.
I would like to see an unconference stream at ALT-C, the challenge is to get people to attend that stream. At one of the Handheld Learning conferences, they did try that, but it was surprising how few people wanted to be involved in those sessions. It’s not to say there isn’t the demand for ad hoc stuff, at this year’s ALT-C I discussed with various people the merits of Elgato’s EyeTV and Apple’s iPad as well as cultural change in expanding the use of learning technologies in institutions. All interesting subjects that would fit into a barcamp type stream.
However one of the problems with running a non-traditional conference is that it is then challenging for people to get the funding to attend.
ALT-C works in one sense that people will get the funding to go if they present a paper at the conference, if they can’t present a paper then they can’t get the funding. ALT-C isn’t viable unless it has lots of delegates attending. So the format of the conference is dictated by the fact that in order for it to run, it needs lots of delegates to attend, they will only attend if they are presenting and as a result the conference has to consist of lots of papers and presentations. This is why you get lots of short papers and workshops that are only 60 minutes long.
An unconference stream would be really interesting and useful if run well, however I can’t see people getting the funding to attend to facilitate sessions in that stream as it would not be related to particular projects, research or institutional objectives.
I have run various unconferences in my time and I have had lots of correspondence from people who wanted to attend, but couldn’t because staff development funds weren’t available for travel (the events were free) as there was no concrete objectives or outcomes for the event. Well there were, it was just that in order to secure funding it is easier if they can show a programme of keynotes and presentations!
At the end of the day I do think we let ALT-C be ALT-C and try not to change it. To change it to something that is that different probably would result in it not working at all.
The only way to change things, is to instigate that process of change yourself. If we want to see different kinds of innovative events then we need to create these events that produce the results we want to see. We can of course involve ALT, or ALT could even lead that process. I would like ALT to add two more events to their calendar in addition to ALT-C.
Firstly would like to see a conference with an FE focus, one that was less about research on FE practice, but more a showcase of existing FE practice. With the demise of Becta there is now a real vacuum for FE in sharing what they do.
The second conference would be on that focuses on the issues Paul talks about in his blog, on innovation, predictions, new stuff, future stuff. This could be a TED type conference but could instead have an unstructured unconference format. We could have a series of bar camp events that lead into the conference. One of the issues however with the unconference format was mentioned by me on an article I wrote for ALT on the Second ILT Champions informal conference in which I said
I did consider that such an informal approach this may have a possible downside, since what we want to see and discuss might not always correlate with what we need to see and discuss. This is not so much about dictating what should happen, but ensuring that delegates are informed about issues and subjects which they may have not have previously considered fully or dismissed as irrelevant.
So it is important that we not only have an open format, but we consider all the issues. Though who decides on these issues is an important question.
I do expect that ALT-C 2011 will take place in Leeds next September. I am hoping to attend, though with the budget cuts expected this year that is no certainty. Will there be an ALT-C 2012? I hope so.