Monday, September 12, 2011

ALT-C 2011

ALT-C 2011

For me, ALT-C 2011 was a hectic and stressful, but also informative and enjoyable conference. The conference started well with the keynote from Miguel Brechner, the president of the Uruguayan Centre for Technological and Social Inclusion. He described how Uruguay his taken on-board the one laptop per child concept, and provided every child in primary and the early stages of secondary school with a basic Linux laptop, and every school with wireless Internet access. This program has been phenomenally successful, with far greater engagement in education by both the children and their families and a huge reduction in absenteeism. The talk convinced many sceptics about the use of computers in early education to change their minds.

The next session was the first of my three turns as a presenter rather than a listener. Prior to the start of the session, I had thought I was turning up to answer any questions about Sarah's e-poster which describes her use of the Jigsaw technique and wikis to support Philosophy tutorials. In fact it turned out that the e-poster was no where to be seen, however I was expected to make a presentation along with Sarah's PowerPoint slides which accompanied the poster. The presentation was made more difficult by the fact that the slides were timed to appear for 45 seconds each. I now know that this is a form of presentation called Pecha Kucha, which was invented by designers in Japan as a way of showing off their work in an way that ensures presentations are fast moving and concise. As it turned out, three out of the five presentations should have occurred were cancelled, and both me and the other presenter were equally surprised at having to stand up and talk.

In the afternoon I attended a couple of short paper sessions, which included some interesting innovations and ideas. The University of Oxford has been introducing a mobile phone portal to their Sakai VLE, which makes use of OpenAuth, the same standard that is the basis of IMS BasicLTI and our new Moodle single sign-on. Oxford are using OpenAuth in a more conventional way, allowing students to give an online application based on Molly ( that provides the mobile phone interface with permission to grab their data from the VLE. It works with a wide variety of phones, and provides a limited view of the the VLE data that is appropriate to the small screen. It also provides an interface that allows the mobile phone to be used as a an interactive voting tool, but in practice Oxford have found that only around 30% of the students will use this interface for voting during teaching.

Peter Ruthven-Stuart's paper on his use of Moodle to deliver a course in English to Japanese students was interesting for many reasons. Perhaps the most surprising thing was to learn how little engagement with technology the Japanese students had prior to university. Japanese universities also lack the technical infrastructure and support that could be found at a European University, and are generally very small. Once again this was a case of technology being able to stimulate greater engagement from reluctant students, as well as helping with group work.

On the second day of the conference Sue Milne, Graham Smith and I presented our work from the QTI-IPS project. The session went well, and I think we have a few more converts to the concept of standards-based assessment.

The highlight paper of the day for me was from Lachlan MacKinnon of the University of Greenwich School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences. He described an idea so simple and so obvious (in hindsight) that it almost seems inexplicable that it is not used at every University in the world. One of the most common complaints from potential employers about university graduates in computing is that the graduates don't know enough about current tools and practice. Universities, of course, concentrate on teaching their computing students the fundamentals which do not change every couple of years, and tend to ignore trendy but ephemeral technologies. To narrow the gap between university and industry, and also to provide some very useful benefits to their community, the University of Greenwich has started offering student projects as an opportunity for local businesses to get IT consultancy that they could not otherwise afford. Both the businesses and the students benefit greatly from this collaboration. An interesting point from this paper was that a key aspect of 'Digital Literacy' that the student's were missing was the ability to organise and find files.

On the final day of the conference presented my own short paper on CCPlayer in one of the few actual technology sessions of the conference. The bulk of my paper was about the IMS Common Cartridge specification, and the benefits of standards like this to both commercial and open educational content providers. The other paper in the session was about the use of SCORM packages on mobile phones, so during the session two quite different but widely used variations of IMS Content Packaging were presented, and this led to some very good discussion about support for standards. Our conclusion, both SCORM and Common Cartridge are almost good, and as they address different needs there is no reason to see them as rival technologies. However, both to need some development to make them fully fit the requirements of the evolving educational contexts.