A story of connection and disconnection around #ALTC

I was very aware of the ALT-C conference on 8-10 September even though I was not a registered delegate. For a start, it was in Manchester, just down the road from me. I used to be a regular attender at ALT-C and over the years have given workshops, organised symposia, reviewed abstracts and research papers and promoted the new format in the weeks leading up to the abstract submission date. I even made a short ‘Introduction to Manchester’ speech on crutches at ALT-C 2009 🙂

I thought about submitting for ALT-C 2015 but since I have retired and have to fund my rare conference attendances from my own pocket, I couldn’t justify the expense. I am saving up for Networked Learning 2016 and will hope to attend ALT-C at some time in the future.

Maha Bali whom I ‘met’ on Rhizo14 kindly invited me to meet for coffee on Tuesday 8 September, and I was lucky enough to meet Ash Shaw, Suzan Koseoglu and Rebecca Hogue (all of whom I had previously known online) in a hotel café. Whilst I was there Maha and Rebecca ran one of their ‘Virtually Connecting’ sessions. I didn’t join in (except to wave at the end). I was in the background playing with Maha’s lovely daughter and chatting with Susan and Ash when they weren’t in the session. Susan and I then travelled together to Manchester Piccadilly on the hopper bus (the long route) and had a lovely talk before we each got our trains home. Another Rhizo14er Sarah Honeychurch who was at ALT-C took exception to the Virtually Connecting sessions as they intruded on the ‘real connections’ of their group meeting at ALT-C in person.

John Rylands Reading Room by Gillie Rhodes CC BY-NC 2.0
John Rylands Reading Room by
Gillie Rhodes
CC BY-NC 2.0

Because I was already coming into Manchester for this meetup, I arranged to meet up earlier with Peter Shukie at the John Rylands Library. We sorted out various things over coffee and lunch, gossiped , and then Peter interviewed me as part of his PhD research. In between coffee and lunch we went into the magnificent reading room in John Rylands. We sat quietly opposite each other (no Internet) at this lovely table, Peter reading and writing, me with scissors and sticky tape, reconstructing an overlong article. So I missed Steve Wheeler’s keynote on Tuesday morning.

On Wednesday morning, I was working on the reconstructed paper and dropped into #altc on Twitter where I came across a rather odd conversation between Fred Garnett and Bob Harrison. I think that Bob was joking but his comments did leave rather a sour taste, as he seemed to imply that contribution to ALT was about attending ALT-C as a delegate.

Bob Harrison tweet
Bob Harrison tweet

I am not sure that ALT see it entirely like that though I realise that ALT-C must be a significant income stream, as well as an excellent networking event. Bob’s comments gave me pause for thought as I wondered what ALT and I do for each other. ALT give generously with webinars, seminars, SIGs and make the conference accessible at some level to hashtag attenders like me, with streamed and recorded keynotes and other talks. I loved Jonathan Worth’s keynote and having caught the tail end of Laura Czerniewycz’s, I now want to start at the beginning and watch it through.

I pay my annual subscription to ALT and review articles for Research in Learning Technology; I have served as journal co-editor and on committees so I do think that contribution to ALT is about more than attending the conference in person.

I have watched over the years as ALT have experimented with conference amplification and I am pretty impressed with the balance they have achieved of giving conference delegates a good experience whilst including the wider ALT diaspora as they can.

So I disagree with Bob – I think I can play a part in ‘shaping the future’ even if I don’t attend ALT-C every year.

As I was writing this story, I was thinking about my recent reading and writing on theorising ‘disconnective practice’:

we have to disconnect in some way in order to make the connections we want to emphasise at a particular point in time feasible Light(2014).

Disconnection and connection are implied in each other even though connection seems to get all the props.

Light, B., 2014. Disconnecting with social networking sites.

Are we there yet? the notyetness of emerging technologies practice and research in online learning

Looking rear view mirror
Looking backwards and forwards CC-BY-NC

Any parent will recognise the plaintive question “Are we there yet?” asked by children impatient for the journey to be over, the holiday to start. In using technology in learning and education, hopefully we will never really get there but experience fun in our experiments and learn from our experiences. We may find that there are better and worse journeys, decisions that opened up opportunities and others that closed them down.

Amy Collier and Jen Ross have come up with the intriguing concept of notyetness, based on George Veletsianos’ assertion that emerging technologies are ‘not yet fully researched” and “not yet fully understood” in online learning. Amy flags up the enabling characteristics of emergence that can flow from notyetness

creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.

She gives three examples of projects with notyetness that have touched me personally in the last year: Domain of One’s Own , Fedwiki Happening, and Rhizo14.  I am currently reinventing my web site with the wonderful help of Tim Owens at Reclaim Hosting, I have two fedwiki happenings under my belt and I was a participant and researched (with Jenny Mackness) Rhizo14. This morning, I watched the livestream of Sheila MacNeill’s keynote to #OER15, where one of the themes was the different shades of open that might be tried in the drive to mainstream Open Educational Practice. Sheila seemed to be recommending a pragmatic approach to mainstreaming of OEP, and this chimed with Lisa Chamberlain’s identification of Facebook Groups as a kind of not-yetness

The ideas of not-yetness at an MIT or Stanford are so far beyond the realm of my little community college that they would intimidate or even shut down emerging technology discussion for all but a few of the most technologically-edgy of faculty at my school.

But Facebook, good ol’ Facebook, almost the grandpa of social media now, is a kind of “not-yetness” on my campus. (Not to mention it has a nearly flat-line learning curve which is important for a 10 week quarter). The idea of opening a class to social media of any kind is not-yetness here. The use of Facebook groups is not-yetness here. The connectedness of letting outsiders participate with students in a class via Facebook is very not-yetness here.

I should declare that I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook: it’s great to keep in touch with my far-flung family but I have concerns about Facebook privacy aspects and its use of data. I taught a first year undergraduate module 2009-2013 where most of the students were Facebook users, making it possible for them to conduct small group investigations into privacy and data use (meaning Facebook membership was not compulsory and there was no Facebook interaction with tutors). So I feel sympathy with Lisa’s pragmatic approach but also a little uneasy.  There are quite a few reasons not to use Facebook in formal education: the creepy treehouse effect, Selwyn(2009)’s recommendation to leave Facebook as a backstage space for students, and the implications of mandating students of a space that is managed externally to the college or university. 

In thinking further, I also recognised an interesting link between the notyetness of both emerging technologies online learning practice and research into that practice. Ferguson(2012) identifies three different interest groups for learning analytics – governments, educational institutions and teachers/learners. When learners interact via Facebook, the major interest groups for the data are Facebook and the customers to whom they sell advertising.  Although, Facebook makes some anonymised interaction data available through apps like Netvizz, their track record for research is questionable. Selwyn’s 2009 study found that only 4% of student interactions related to their studies and so students who elected not to participate in an optional Facebook social space were not too disadvantaged but moving significant  elements of learner interaction to Facebook seems different somehow.

There is already a trend of outsourcing some educational services to private companies, and it’s easy to see that ‘free’ services can be attractive but Facebook isn’t Reclaim Hosting whose strapline is “Take Control of your Digital Identity”.  What will we see in the rearview mirror if there is a substantial move of study-related interaction to Facebook groups?

Ferguson, R. (2012). Learning analytics: drivers, developments and challenges. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 304–317. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/36374/1/IJTEL40501_Ferguson Jan 2013.pdf

Selwyn, N. (2009). Faceworking: exploring students’ education-related use of Facebook, 34(2), 157–174. doi:10.1080/17439880902923622 also currently available at http://blogs.ubc.ca/hoglund/files/2011/05/facebook.pdf