Ascilite 2015

With a moving Welcome to Country, Jonghwi Park's call to action in her keynote and some good solid sessions on the first day, Ascilite 2015 was off to a great start.

I loved Jonghwi's talk, ICT-enabled Quality Lifelong Learning for All, which not only issued a call to action but also lit the path to making a contribution to the UNESCO education agenda. She illustrated the global higher education context with tangible, practical examples and demonstrated a sharp appreciation for balancing priorities: do we want toilets or do we want educational technologies? The disconnect between research into learning and educational practice and policy-making was also highlighted as were the dangers of making assumptions about educational outcomes based on unidimensional statistics. A striking example was the inverse relationship between student performance in standardised tests versus student happiness across different countries.

Dirk Ifenthaler's, Are We prepared for Learning Analytics? was packed with detail and covered a great deal of territory but may have been a little dense for some tastes. Dirk highlighted staff capability as a particular challenge along with the fragmentation of systems, issues around interaction between systems and the perennial contextual problems, as potential barriers to readiness.

I enjoyed two parallel sessions in particular. The first was a report on an OLT funded project which explored Higher Education Teachers’ Experiences with Learning Analytics in Relation to Student Retention from Deborah West, David Heath and colleagues. The second was from Simon Welsh and Philip Uys, Dreaming of Electric Sheep: CSU’s Vision for Analytics-Driven Adaptive Learning and Teaching. The findings from Deborah and David's project, which surveyed 276 Australian and NZ academics, indicated a high level of interest in learning analytics but as yet unmatched by substantial involvement or capability development. The CSU project was interesting in that it clearly identified the problems associated with analytics for retention and progression and focused instead on analytics as part of the CSU adaptive teaching and learning programme. An interesting approach and one which I think is going to find far greater appeal among higher education researchers and practitioners than black-box algorithms for flagging at-risk students.

Cathy Gunn and I joined the discussion session later in the afternoon and spoke about our paper, A practitioner’s guide to learning analytics, which describes the early stages of our Ako Aotearoa funded project. Hazel Jones was tackling similar issues to us with her paper, The “I”s have it: Development of a framework for implementing Learning Analytics. Together, we had a relaxed and fruitful discussion at our table about using analytics at the teaching and learning coalface. Sadly, a scheduling snafu meant that we missed out on hearing about Early career researchers in educational technology from Sue Bennett and Linda Corrin.

While on the subject of learning analytics, Danny Liu, Tim Rogers and Abelardo Pardo prepared a great position paper, Learning Analytics - Are we at risk of missing the point? Danny and Tim (via Skype) led an informal discussion around this theme on the last morning of the conference. Their paper is thoughtful and well worth a read whether you are skating around the edges or deeply involved in learning analytics.

I pottered over to have a nosey round the posters during the poster session but few of the presenters were there and most delegates were already outside enjoying drinks, nibbles and the late afternoon sun. I often think that poster sessions are done poorly at Educational Technology and Education conferences. The best ones I've been to have been at Computer Science conferences where delegates do review the posters during a scheduled period and poster presenters do stand at their posters to talk people through them. It is quite an effort to put together a good poster and it seems a shame that the effort made often gets lost when combined with drinks and socialising.

On the second day of the conference, many people enjoyed Jeff Gomez's talk and I was struck by his personal story but the concept of transmedia passed me by and I was left wanting much more concrete detail. As it stood, I found the idea was little more than the concept of branding and merchandising. I was left thinking about the plastic toys we used to get in cereal packets when I was a kid...

Marion Kickett's talk about the Aboriginal concept of resilience and straddling two worlds was interesting but also, on some levels, depressing. Thriving in the Western world view certainly involves a focus on individual success but in an academic environment it is this in spades. There is much to be gained by learning from the Aboriginal perspective encompassing land, family and culture. Yet, how can we possibly teach this and reduce the requirement to straddle if the very institutions we are part of rigidly persist with rankings and rampant individualism under the guise of so-called excellence? The only glimmer of hope I've come across in this regard is Margaret Heffernan's delightful TED talk

Paul Resta's keynote, Digital Technology to Empower Indigenous Culture and Education on the last day was, for me, a curate's egg. It felt a bit dated, laboured too many points and missed completely some of the extraordinary contemporary work relating to indigenous language and ICT. I'm thinking in particular of Steven Bird's work on endangered languages.

A particular highlight, also on the last day, was a visit to the Curtin University Hub for Immersive Visualisation and eResearch (HIVE). Forewarned about the potential for nausea with some of the demonstrations, we bravely donned 3D glasses and stepped through a treasure hunt, reflected on the dangers of working around shipping containers and explored the HMAS Sydney (I think) lost off the coast of West Australia in 1941. 3D immersive technology has come a long way in a short time and Curtin's facility is impressive.

In all, a useful and worthwhile three days but the best thing for me about ascilite this year was that I wasn't involved in organising it! Well done to Torsten and the Curtin team.

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