Looking back #altc… behind the scenes

As part of the organising team my experience of ALT’s Annual Conference is different from most. I’ve been really enjoying reading others’ reflections of this year’s event and that’s inspired me to share my own. So this is looking back #altc… from my personal perspective.

FullSizeRender
Badges in the making… Photo credit : Maren Deepwell CC-BY

The week before the conference is always hectic and full of anticipation. One of the tasks we help complete all together is making badges. It’s much quicker if everyone pitches in and I find it interesting to see who is coming, reading the names and institutions on each badge as the lanyard clicks into place. This is my sixth year coming to the conference and I’ve come to know many of the participants but there are always plenty of new names to learn. This year is the third time I’m seeing the event in Manchester. It’s a great location and does have the added bonus of a strong technology connection with a blue Alan Turing plaque on the building close by.

 

IMG_0911
The day before the conference. Photo credit : Maren Deepwell CC-BY

When the actual day before the conference finally arrives and set up is underway, I get to spend some time in the main theatre. I like standing on the stage when the room is empty, learning its layout, checking the set up. It’s good to know what speakers will experience so that we can support them on the day. It’s also my habit to get comfortable well before welcoming hundreds of participants the following morning. Once the first wave of registration is underway the atmosphere changes and gradually the conference comes to life.

From keynote by Laura Czerniewicz
From keynote by Laura Czerniewicz

During the plenary sessions I get to sit at the very front and over the years our keynote speakers have created some of my favourite #altc moments. This year was no different. What connected them for me was their desire to share the spotlight. From a new generation of teachers  to a new community of connected learners to a global voice on equality – for me each of the speakers chose to turn our attention to some of the big questions we face. I come away with notes on what we might do better or what we could do more of in order to meet these challenges.

Picture by Chris Bull for Association for Learning Technology ALT conference 2015 at Manchester University. Wednesday 9/9/15
AGM voting in action. Photo credit : Chris Bull CC-BY-NC-SA ALT

Another key moment of my conference experience is the Association’s AGM. For me it’s a culmination of a year’s work, another milestone in the history of the community I serve. It’s also a symbol of our member-led governance structure and a powerful reminder of the hundreds of individuals who contribute day in day out. Every year after the AGM the Trustees meet briefly in a formal Convening Meeting. It’s usually in a small room somewhere away from the conference sessions and for a short period everyone turns serious and gets focused on the business at hand. This is when all Trustee appointments are confirmed. It’s an essential part of the Association’s governance and the moment when newly appointed Trustees take on their role.

Photo credit : Chris Bull CC-BY-NC-SA ALT
Learning Technologist of the Year Awards winners. Photo credit : Chris Bull CC-BY-NC-SA ALT

Once that is all safely out of the way and with the second day nearly finished, the mood turns celebratory as everything is made ready for the Awards. Together with the judging panel I am one of the few people who knows who the winners are in advance and seeing their excited faces, teams and individuals getting ready to be called up on stage, is one of my favourite conference moments. My job is to safely convey award certificates and running orders without giving away the results until the big moments for our finalists is finally here. Having managed the process from initial application to interview, it’s incredibly rewarding to see how much it means to each to be recognised, to be celebrated.

FullSizeRender (1)
Welcoming everyone on the first morning. Photo credit : Chris Bull CC-BY-NC-SA ALT

There’re many big moments over these three days, but fundamentally my experience consists of many more small encounters, a conversation over lunch with a first time participant, a chat with an exhibitor during a quiet break, a friendly hello to an acquaintance on the way to another session.

Or the moment when the whole auditorium suddenly goes quiet just before I get up on stage welcoming everyone (and reading out housekeeping announcements). That’s special to me.

Three days later, when we say thank you and goodbye I’m always a little sad that it’s over. Fortunately, planning for the next year is already underway, so there’s a lot to look forward to #altc.

You are #neverweird – thanks for a wonderful listen @feliciaday

imageHaving finished reading/listening to a new memoir by Felicia Day – You are never weird on the Internet (almost) – I wanted to note my thanks. So here goes:

I’ve never met you, Felicia Day, but I am grateful to you for adding your voice to the story of the Internet, of gaming, of women working in tech-focused industries and for sharing your story of incredible achievement against many odds.
It’s inspiring to read how hard making things happen can be and how the generosity and engagement of your community has made things possible. It’s important I think to tell stories about living, working and playing with technology both good and bad.

If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy it. I certainly did. The only draw back is that it will probably be a decade or two until the sequel is published…

Balancing open practice and personal space

Personal openThis post a been prompted by my ongoing work to complete my CMALT portfolio. CMALT is a peer-assessed accreditation scheme for Learning Technology and requires a portfolio to be submitted. I’ve been working on my portfolio for months and I haven’t finished it. Given that I have everything I need to  complete it and that I am finding the process rewarding, I have been reflecting on why I am not getting closer.

The answer, I think, is that I enjoy having a personal project that I am not sharing – that is mine to play with as I choose. Somewhere I can reflect on my work and record it. But also a product of my efforts that is still in my personal domain, rather than published or shared as much I my output is.  That is simply the nature of my work – I rarely create anything that isn’t either for an internal or external audience.

My CMALT portfolio feels like a personal project for which I have created content from drawings to screenshots to descriptions of and reflections on my progress, and that is enjoyable. Like many others I hope to add it to the growing pool of portfolios being shared as examples of practice once it passes its assessment – but for now I like that it is a personal space.

Many of the other candidates I have spoken to over the years comment on how they find the process of reflection the most rewarding aspect of compiling their portfolio. In my role reflection is a key part of what I do and I am fortunate to have a number of ways to support it including a private blog, support from my mentor and discussion with colleagues. So while I agree with its central importance having a space to reflect is not something I feel I lack on a day to day basis.

For me, it’s the process of just creating something that feels most rewarding at the moment. Creating something in a personal work and head space gives me the chance to iterate, to change or add things over a period of months rather than having to have a finished product first time. I have written before on leadership as an open practice and how I have been looking or examples of open practice in those kinds of roles. While open practice may be rare, personal space to experiment, to work at your own pace, seems to me a rarity also.

I am curious about how the relationship between open practice and personal space to experiment, create and reflect will develop for me and how I can translate that into finally completing my portfolio.

Things I got #rhizo15 – thank you

#Rhizo15 Over the past few weeks I’ve been participating in an open course on rhizomatic learning #rhizo15. Now that it’s sadly come to an end this week, here’re some reflections on my experience – not really just of the course, but how participating has contributed to my practice:

Getting involved… well, I started a bit late and joined in at week 2, I think. I was curious mostly – that’s why I thought I’d get involved. I had a look around and decided not to use facebook, mainly because I don’t, and instead follow the conversation on Twitter and blog posts. I started doing some drawings and posts myself when I found I wanted to make my own voice heard, which I enjoyed. Being in the open… was a mixed experience for me. On the upside I made some great connections, found a lot of interesting things and got very generous feedback and comments. Confidence building and stimulating on the whole. However the kind of open conversation and thinking can be hard to get into when day to day your work isn’t like that and it took me some time to find the right space in my day and in my head to engage with what was going on. Being a learner on an equal footing… is probably what I found most difficult. In my day to day work I don’t often get to give feedback or collaborate with others as a peer on an equal footing and being a learner #rhizo15 made me more aware of my own mindset and how valuable it is for me to switch my perspective. That leads me to my last point, which is …not knowing things. Both the format and topic of this course were interesting in this respect and I enjoyed not knowing things, the freedom that this kind of approach brings with it.

Thank you… like many of the other participants that have reflected on their experience of this course I feel mine has been profound for me and my open practice. I am deeply grateful to have been part of it and I am also pleased to have made the effort to engage. It somehow brings to mind the game invented by Mary Poppins to tidy up the nursery, Well Begun is Half-Done. Having made a start, I’ve gotten further down the path than I had anticipated. It’s always good I think to end up somewhere you didn’t plan to go – and that has certainly been my #rhizo15 experience.

#rhizo15 in the cemetery: borrowing from Anthropology to reflect on different learning spaces

This week I want to use an example from Anthropology think about space, method and discovery in learning. For that, I’m going back to draw on a subject about which I actually know more about than most people: cemeteries. It’s #rhizo15 thinking using the spatial and conceptual metaphor of Victorian cemeteries in Britain.

So, the prompt this week was getting me to think about the role of a teacher/facilitator or similar (appropriately this seems to coincide with “Thank a Teacher” week, which I hadn’t come across before) in different learning contexts and in particular in rhizomatic learning.

West Norwood PlateSome of the most well-known Victorian cemeteries are located in large cities such as London or Glasgow. Highgate Cemetery in North London is a particular favourite with visitors as it’s the burial place of many well known people including Karl Marx. But regardless of ‘dark tourism’ – which is becoming an increasingly popular activity – the principles on which cemeteries were built in the 19th century shared elements with learning landscapes.

They had indeed an educational mission of their own, constructed with practical as well as educational functions. While their primary function was to provide a place of disposal for the dead, cemeteries were also educational resources, usually constructed according to elaborate landscaping themes influenced heavily by theories around the picturesque and enlightenment.

For example, paths in a cemetery were often arranged in a pattern that drew visitors into the innermost part of the cemetery, leading them along a gently spiraling path usually to the highest, most central point of the site. Once you arrived at this elevated vantage point the view was intended to be significant, usually affording you a perspective that included a church or similar landmark. In London this was often Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

At any rate, the cemetery’s layout, expressed through paths, rows of graves and planting schemes, was designed to give visitors a sense of exploration and discovery, while at the same time guiding them, drawing them into, a narrative of moral and social dimension.

Walking along the main path you would see first and foremost the most spectacular monuments, usually with inscriptions that highlighted values such as a strong faith, worldly success, family, social status etc. You would also see the natural elements of the space closely kept in check by man. And at strategic points there would be a bend in the path creating a sense of surprise at the view suddenly encountered, intended to prompt visitors to wonder, to think of higher things than their daily existence.

Not unlike a learning experience we might design online or in a blended environment today, the act of visiting a cemetery for your usual Sunday afternoon walk, was an orchestrated experience in Victorian Britain. It didn’t involve a guide as such, but all the elements, the landscape, the paths, the monuments, the inscriptions and the view came together to produce a particular experience/learning process. Cemeteries weren’t just libraries carved in stone, repositories of memory. They were and are learning spaces that were designed to be experienced on foot, to give the visitor a clear sense of where they may fit in the social and moral order of things, to aspire to the example of their betters and to be proud of/curious about those who left the largest, most impressive marks of the existence behind.

I am pretty sure you could draw some interesting conclusions in regards to the pastiche of architectural styles used in Victorian monumental masonry, from ancient to futuristic, but we’ll skip that for now. In short, the traditional visit to the cemetery is a very rigid learning experience that doesn’t need a ‘teacher’ because the space itself fulfills that role.

On the other hand, many of the Victorian cemeteries that stood splendid a century ago are now in ruins. Their spaces turning from public exhibitions of the mastery of religion, art and gardening over nature and ultimately over death to romantic landscapes of decay and testaments of change. We have grown ignorant of the visual and spatial languages they used to communicate their message, the values of the society that created them. More of than not, they become visual curiosities or tourist attractions or most often inconvenient pockets of space that stand in regulatory opposition to progress and development through their sheer existence (you will always find it difficult to develop land that still has grave markers on it after all – even in a city like London where every square inch is at a premium).

Today the most common way to experience a popular Victorian cemetery is on a tour conducted by volunteers. Volunteers who are usually very knowledgeable about the history, the individual ‘inhabitants’ and the original architecture/planting scheme/sculptures. They try their best to translate the significance of the space for us, to re-create not the moral lessons, but the historic content of the cemetery. They act as a teacher, a guide to the past.

Friedhof 1In contrast to the volunteer led tours, one of the experiences I found most valuable was to explore one of the most famous Victorian cemeteries in London at the side of one of its employees, a grave digger and guide par excellence. You might think that sounds a little gruesome. Most people don’t like to think about what grave diggers do. But someone who works with the land, who knows every inch of it, who can show you the hidden paths, the secret spaces the guided tours don’t come across, is the perfect guide. In my case I learnt that when you leave the intended path, when you stop following the traditional patterns of experience, you can discover a whole new perspective. Following his shortcuts we discovered new elements of the space, wild flowers, rare butterflies, protected birds, that had started creating a new order of things in the cemetery. A new experience that communicated very different values to those originally intended. Instead of religious faith, nature had taken over. In place of a path of enlightenment the cemetery has provided a refuge from the industrial, urban reality of 21st century London. This new purpose of the space I wouldn’t have discovered without my guide. He taught me what to look for, where to step – how not to fall into a hole left by a collapsed burial chamber.

To get back to #rhizo15 and this week’s prompt, I’m interested in how we can create different ways of learning and teaching, some which can be more independent and some which are guided. The internet is an exciting space of ever evolving possibilities when it comes to learning and allows us to experiment with complicated simultaneous learning journeys all happening alongside each other in the same space. Thinking back to my post from last week, when I was thinking about curiosity and content, I think that discovery, whether it’s independent or guided, is still one of the things I am most interested in. In that spirit, I’m finishing this week with a picture of something I discovered in a cemetery this week in Stirling in Scotland.

Ceme

#rhizo15 week 2: Situationist learning maps?

Contributing something #rhizo15 is part of my ongoing effort to become an open practitioner. This week’s topic, learning is a non-counting noun, made me reflect on how my own ideas of how we can count, measure or track aspects of learning developed.

Unlike most people who spent a lot of time in Higher Education my experience of studying and later infrequently teaching at university didn’t involve many written exams or a set curriculum. First Fine Art and then Anthropology were disciplines that afforded me enormous freedom. In the first case progress was charted by the sketchbooks filled, pictures taken, materials Drawings_Sketchpurchased and objects made. These units of measurement translated the ongoing process of thinking and making into external, visible signs of activity. There was no set path or goal instead we had open, critical discussions and at times the results of months of work was deemed to ‘work’, to be successful, to have meaning.

Anthropology meanwhile, while requiring more specific reading and skills, is such a conceptually broad discipline that it was impossible to find something interesting that wouldn’t be relevant. Here milestones came in the form of distances travelled, time spent ‘in the field’, interviews transcribed, maps made and diaries kept. Yet the ultimate aim of all the work was a particular quality of understanding, of knowing what it’s like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, of interiority.

‘True success’ as an Artist or Anthropologist depended on ongoing practice using tools that could be supplied, techniques that could be taught, but ultimately defied clear definition or indeed measurement. Instead of content, there was practice. Instead of grades awarded or exams passed, there was an ever growing debris of objects and information that together served as a physical record of the process of learning. The reason for why one artwork ‘worked’ while another one did not or how one of us achieved a real sense of their particular subjects in the field could never be more than guessed at, let alone measured.

Naked CItyNot unlike the way in which members of the Situationist International movement used what they termed ‘drifting’ as a new way to explore and chart a city (Simon Sadler’s The Situationist City is always an interesting read), making maps of spaces according to a different set of priorities and experiences than geographic maps for example, learning (journeys) can be charted in different ways. One of the challenges we face is being flexible, creative and curious enough to be able to value aspects or ways of learning that don’t fit into an existing pattern we already know about. To map or count learning not only in ways we can already understand, but leave space for the things we don’t.

I originally wrote this post and then lost it – then I found it again. So here is the original version:

Situationists, Sherlock and secrets. Thoughts for #rhizo15, on learning as a non-counting noun.

For me, contributing #rhizo15 is part of an ongoing effort to become an open practitioner. This week’s topic has made me think about a lot of different things, including how my ideas about learning have developed and how some of the technologies I now work with could be applied to things which at first glance might not be easy to track or measure.

At university I became curious about Situationism. The Situationists I was interested in were a small group of people gathered around Andre Gide who in the 1920s tried to experience the world, in particular the city of Paris, in a new way – by what they termed drifting. Simply put instead of following a map or grid to navigate the city, they would walk on foot following no pre-determined pattern, instead allowing the currents of their own minds and experiences to determine their path and speed – drifting on the currents of their city. Some of the results of this kind of practice were maps, depicting a city from a different perspective. In short they produced data that allowed us a glimpse of their city, their experience of it. I imagine that Situationists today could use things like Google Glass to help record their experiences (even if it would presumably result in a lot of circular maps and very blurry video footage, alcohol being a key part of drifting).

With the tools we have today to collect data we could probably come up with ways to track, measure or count a lot about different kinds of learning, including making, seeing and experiencing things. But the concepts that we’d use to analyise the data we collect would need to be appropriately flexible and complex. Giving a machine criteria to evaluate data of a (learning) journey without an end or aim is an interesting challenge. What I enjoy most about learning is when I don’t know where it’ll lead me.

How this came about
My concept of learning is shaped by my time at university, first on a Fine Art, then Anthropology degree. In stark contrast to those studying sciences or languages, my art degree involved no exams, a very limited curriculum of required reading and two hours of being in a particular room at a particular time each week. Studying Anthropology did involve more lectures, seminars and reading, but by its very nature trying to study our own species has enormous scope with practically nothing I could find being off-topic.

In place of content, there was practice. Instead of written exams, there was discussion. What I learnt to value most is being self-motivated, curious and reflective. Skills that still shape what I do and how I learn.

Units of measurement
During the first few years at university my progress could be measured in units of sketchbooks filled, pictures taken, new methods of making stuff tried out and by the level of mess that my studio space contained. Thinking and making as reflective, critical practice involved leaving a path of debri, discarded leftovers and treasured glimpses of inspiration. What ended up in a clean, white space three times a year for critical evaluation by peers and tutors was only a small part of the whole.

Anthropology had its own ways of charting progress or success, most notably distances travelled, days, weeks or months spent ‘in the field’, interviews taped, maps made and diaries kept. As my focus was on material culture, it also included a lot of objects examined, made and catalogued.

Secrets of mysterious enlightenment
Both of the subjects I studied at university placed an emphasis on creating a mind-set, a practice, of becoming an Artist or an Anthropologist as a specific way of being in the world. Both were supported by classes, reading, tutors and other mechanisms designed to give you the best possible chance of achieving that aim. And yet, in my experience, both relied on something that couldn’t be counted or measured, but a quality that was priced more highly than anything else. Doing all the right things, reading all the right books, did not compare to achieving it. In Fine Art this was a sense of something working – or failing to work. In Anthropology it was an understanding of what it meant to be in someone else’s shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, of interiority.

These mysterious qualities, these moments of everything falling into place, was what all the process, the thinking, reading, reflecting, discussing or doing, led to. Most of the time, you couldn’t explain why it had or hadn’t happened or replicate it. What you took away, if you were lucky, was a method, the tools to help you achieve the same kind of process or understanding again in a different way.

Deduction and data
When I think about learning and curiosity, two people I keep coming back to are Sherlock Holmes, the detective of the original stories, and Commander Data, the android officer from Star Trek. As childhood heros of mine their stories have coloured my understanding of learning and asking questions. Both rely on observation and deduction and have superior sources of information. Holmes has his own reference works and London’s institutions while Data has the computer on the Enterprise as well as his own database. Both encounter much they cannot initially explain or understand. Both are students of human nature. Each is the ‘hero’ of their own story, their character defined by exceptional abilities and knowledge in contrast with a need for a friend, their struggle with being different.

To me, they serve as a useful mental metaphor. Their stories prompt me to ask questions, to be curious. They also remind me to value what I can’t explain and don’t understand or indeed what I cannot count.

#edtech leadership: an experiment in open practice

Leadership as open practice: an experiment (@marendeepwell)

Earlier this week I spent two days in Cardiff at the #oer15 conference on Mainstreaming Open Education. I was able to ask one of the keynote speakers, Sheila MacNeill, a question and I asked about what she would like to see happen next to help further openness. Her response was ‘getting senior decision makers engaged’ – and that got me thinking.  What would I like to see happen, what would I want, not in my capacity as CEO of the Association for Learning Technology, but as a senior decision maker and as someone who works with others who hold roles of responsibility. Something Sheila had mentioned earlier in her keynote was my answer: I’d like to try and adopt open practice in my role and connect with others who do the same. Like teachers, researchers or developers who share their practice and resources openly, I’ll try to follow their example. To make my work, which is mostly about leadership, governance and management in Learning Technology, an open practice. This is the experiment that I’m starting with this blog post.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcd6PxNvulk]

Let me unpack what I am thinking about: this is not about transparency or democracy. Indeed, the organisation I serve has openness as one of its core values from governance to publishing to the services we provide. I am not thinking about what my organisation does, but what and how I do my job. Like a teacher who may share what they do, I’ll use what I do as a basis for sharing, reflecting and practicing in the open.  To try and conduct myself, in my role, as an open practitioner, an open leader. That’s the challenge.

A quick search shows me that there is already a lot of advice out there about how to become a better leader by using open software, by using social media, to transform an organisation through open licencing… and so forth. But I don’t intend for this, most likely a series of blog posts to begin with, to be about getting ahead by making ‘open’ work for me.  No, my main motivation is twofold: to join a community of open practitioners using my day to day work as a basis and to see if this process can make being in a position of power and responsibility less like an island.

My experience over the past three years of working with others who hold roles like mine is that most, like me, don’t have a lot of space for reflecting on their practice. I am fortunate to have excellent support from colleagues and my mentor and so I’ve always been able to create space for me to focus on what I do as well as whom I serve or represent. This experiment is about making this space open – transitioning from the safety of an audience of one, me, to the relative uncertainty of open practice. I am curious to see if in a few months or years I, too, become an open practitioner. As a first step, I am going seek others who have done the same and see what I can learn from their example.