Conference to practice: more takeaways from ALT-C

ALT-C was intense. It featured more than 100 sessions, many of which called for some deep thinking and reflectionSome time has now passed since the ALT-C conference, so we thought it would be good to reflect on what stood out for us. Here, Mark, Olivia and Shawndra share their highlights.

Collaborative learning

Mark says: The collaborative aspect of ALT-C was something I was really looking forward to. As learning designers at the Open University, we work with module teams and a range of support teams to create an enhanced learning experience. It’s through sharing ideas, bringing expertise to discussions, and finding and testing innovation through listening to the student voice that we create learning. Therefore, I’m always happy to see an event where educators can share knowledge of practice and support each other.

Hearing and acting on the student voice

For me, one of the areas that was important was the focus on student voice and how institutions can use this to enhance and design the learner journey. Are surveys enough to get the feedback we need, and can we find active ways for learners to help design learning?

The idea of students as partners is a good one and bringing them into the design process can create a sense of belonging and a personalised journey. But how de we do that? It was clear during the presentations from other institutions that students had been consulted when making changes to learning or to feedback on new ways of working.

Some presenters also alluded to the idea that students would be finding information and creating content to personalise their experience of a course. This would then be shared with others and influence future conversations.

Embedding inclusivity

Talks on inclusivity also pointed to working directly with students to create viable alternatives to activities that might cause anxiety, or to help students with a disability. Setting up a supportive and creative learning community can also enable students to pose questions, find their own answers and relate these to their own context. These are all good ways to enable learners to have a say in their learning experience and to help shape it. And this is so important because we know that bringing learners into their studies in this way can help them become engaged and succeed.

The way in which we can include learners to help shape what we do as educators is becoming more important and reflecting on this and sharing practice will continue to benefit the experiences our learners have.

Practical guidance

Olivia says: Lockdown has done terrible things to my memory so I was pleased that many of the sessions I’d chosen were collaborative. This greatly increases my chances of remembering information and – just as importantly for an event with so many experts on hand – applying it. Our research and our students tell us that collaboration enhances learning and, as a student myself, studying and working remotely in lockdown, I can add my voice to that of others. Collaboration helps. 

Even better, several of the sessions I attended provided resources to take away and use, further helping me recall and apply what I’d learnt. 

Tools to apply 

One of my ALTC highlights was Miranda Melcher’s pre-conference workshop on making teaching more inclusive for neurodiverse students. I’m neurodiverse myself but this was the first time I have encountered a dedicated session – and dedicated resources – on helping me feel included. 

The session outlined Miranda’s research into neurodiverse students’ needs and the toolkit she’s created based on this. The toolkit focuses on practical tips that people in a wide range of roles can apply. The tips are based on three simple principles: 

  • Be specific. 
  • Be transparent. 
  • Be mindful. 

 As you might imagine, the session embodied these principles. We explored examples of where these principles had been applied, we looked at the reasons behind them and we tried them out for ourselves.  

Learning in action 

Miranda gave us plenty to think about, and not just in terms of students. As a neurodiverse employee, I’d like to see the three principles applied to workplaces, not just in our learning but in our daily interactions. Who wouldn’t benefit from specificity, transparency and mindfulness? Certainly not the 15 per cent of the UK population who are neurodiverse, the many undiagnosed among us or our non-neurodiverse co-workers.  

Inspired by Miranda’s clear and practical guidance, I’ll be running a version of it for our learning design team shortly.  

Demonstrating best practice

Shawndra says: I’ve attended Open University specific conferences in the past, but ALT-C was my first external conference as a Learning Designer. Coming previously from a background based primarily in the production aspects of module creation, in relation to others in my team, I’m new(ish) to learning design and know that I still have lots to learn. That put me in the nice position of being able to find numerous talks and video posters of interest within the 3-day schedule.

There was a wide range of presentations on learning to adapt quickly to remote learning during lockdown and lessons from that. The conference being held remotely this year was actually a nice example of that exact concept. Unlike a physical conference, it was an opportunity to see not just what participants ‘would do’ but to see them demonstrating their best practice. While all were engaging, some clearly shone out more than others, which was a good way to compare and contrast.

This year’s other hot topic – EDI and Accessibility

I was really pleased to see that so many of the talks and video posters had a focus on EDI and accessibility. While the issues surrounding EDI/A have been growing in prominence for a few years, this past 18 months, perhaps because of the effects of the changes to tuition caused by COVID-19, saw this area gain real traction.

One of the standouts for me in this topic was University of the Arts London’s, Putting Inclusivity at the heart of learning design. Adding to the engagement factor for this one was a comprehensive pdf handout on Inclusive Blended Learning Design, which contains plenty of links to design examples, checklists and templates. These are all the sorts of things we use within our team (and share on our Twitter account @OU_LD_Team) so it’s always useful to see what others in the field do.

Another highlight in the EDI sphere was Mutale Nkonde’s Keynote talk, ‘Race and technology’ which addressed racial literacy and algorithmic bias in digital spaces. She spoke on a racial literacy framework that can be applied to areas of both education and industry.

Although there are clear challenges to be conquered, she left us with a feeling of hope that we can devise inputs that make the digital landscape less unwelcoming to marginalised groups. If we recognise that we’re using machine learning for these systems and adjust appropriately, even ignoring the AI when it doesn’t understand cultural or lived experiences, then the digital world can eventually self-regulate and reach balance.

Learning Design with Donkeys

And lastly, imagine the joy you feel when one of the colleagues you’re synchronously following the conference with online announces to your group that the Donkey Sanctuary is doing a presentation! It was unexpected, for sure, but who could resist turning up for that?

The sanctuary has a global outreach programme to promote the well-being of donkeys around the world (who are often used for labour) but due to COVID, these activities couldn’t be conducted face to face. They had lots of skills, expertise, research, and experience that they wanted to disseminate and preserve but no established processes for a remote learning environment. And so, a learning designer was brought in to improve and enhance the reach of their teaching.

It was delightfully refreshing look at how they’ve gone about setting up a learning design programme, organising a project team and creating an educational plan. They even shared videos of the donkeys at the sanctuary working out their own solutions to a farmyard problem with the feeding bucket. Donkeys FTW!

Learning design team video posters

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