Last month I was privileged to attend the 24th Annual Conference of the Association for Learning Technology (#ALTC) from the 5 – 7 September 2017 at the University of Liverpool. The conference title was “Beyond islands of innovation – how Learning Technology became the new norm(al)” and I was particularly keen to go when I realised there was a theme on:
“Empowerment in Learning Technology: supporting students through staff/student partnerships, students as influencers, developing skills and supporting staff at all levels.”
As I’m currently running a scheme at the University of Edinburgh to support staff through their Certified Membership of the Association for Learning Technology (CMALT) I was particularly excited about this theme and was keen to connect with others involved in professional development for staff involved with learning technology.
I’m a slow burner when it comes to reflection, it takes me a while to assimilate an experience and make connections with my existing practice – (I’ve not yet mastered pithy live tweeting) – instead producing an essay a month after the event! But in my defense, ALT C does takes some time to process, it is a very large conference, with 450 participants and multiple streams of activity and it takes place over three packed days. Last year I attended the conference virtually, and blogged about this afterwards. This year I feel lucky that I can compare this to the experience of attending in person.
Planning – a peak behind the scenes
In hindsight my ALT C 17 had actually begun back in Nov 16, as I volunteered to be part of the conference committee. I’d highly recommend volunteering for this role, it didn’t take up too much time and I really enjoyed watching the conference come together through the online planning meetings, promoting the conference, reviewing submissions and chairing a session at the conference. It’s a great way to meet people, and knowing a few more people (even virtually) before you arrive, does make 450 sound a little less daunting! Maren Deepwell wrote a great post recently about putting together the conference, which is the largest event that ALT run each year, and about how she and her team works with the ALT community to make it happen.
In March 2017, I submitted a proposal, with my co-presenter Sarah Sherman, for a talk entitled The CMALT “Zumba Class”: managing a cohort scheme for CMALT applicants to build institutional capacity for learning technology. Sarah had advised me when I was planning the University of Edinburgh CMALT scheme that I run, which is now in its second year. She kindly answered all my questions about how her scheme was set up and shared her planning documents with me. I asked if she had already presented about the scheme anywhere and when Sarah said she hadn’t, we decided to present together when a suitable opportunity came up. When we saw the themes for ALT 17, we both emailed each other saying this looked like the right place. We made good use of google tools to collaborate – meeting in hangouts using docs to write the proposal together (and were very pleased when this was accepted) and later putting a presentation together in Slides.
Presenting the CMALT “Zumba Class”
I was really excited to be presenting at ALT C for the first time, not least because my institution looks much more favourably on applications to attend conferences that you are presenting at, and I was really pleased that I was approved to attend. It altered my experience attending the conference as a presenter, I found it much less abstract watching other people present when you know you’ll be up there doing the same thing at some point during the conference! Regardless of my nerves, I really enjoyed giving the presentation and I think despite having not met until the day before, that Sarah & I did a great double act. It was valuable to devote time to really thinking about a piece of work that I was very close to, drawing out the key things I had learned and working with Sarah to distil them into an engaging 20 minute presentation. Sarah was also very organised and wrote this great blog about our presentation before we gave it. The audience was great, most of them were already involved in supporting CMALT or planning similar schemes and they asked excellent questions. Sarah and I started lots of interesting conversations which I am still following up. How often do you get the chance to tell a room full of people about a piece of work you are really excited about and that they are also really excited about too?
Beyond islands – meeting my people
Attending the conference in person was really valuable, I finally got to meet people whose work I had read and several people I’d worked with on the CMALT project, but never met in person, such as the wonderfully efficient Thomas Palmer of ALT who I have so many correspondences with over email. After so much online communication, it was a pleasure to finally meet my co-presenter Sarah Sherman and Julie Voce who runs a CMALT scheme at City University of London and who also advised me when I was getting started.
A surprising extra insight for me was the experience of staying in student halls, these were clean with good facilities and not unlike a hotel, though I found navigating round the various parts of the building (and the University Campus) somewhat disorienting. The conference took place the week before the start of semester so I found myself wondering what the next year would be like for the students soon to be resident in these rooms, many from the other side of the world as Liverpool like the University of Edinburgh has a high number of International students. As a member of professional services staff, I am somewhat removed from our students, and anything that gives me a little more insight into ‘the student experience’ can only be a good thing!
When attending a large conference, you need to be selective and decide in advance what areas of interest you are planning on following up. This was where being part of the conference committee was a good influence, because it encouraged me to read the programme in advance, so I could decide which session to volunteer to chair, and as the same time I also planned out my own days of activity. I had meant to be gentle with myself and plan in some down time, but found myself running from session to session as there were so many interesting and relevant sessions, and the three days suddenly felt too short. Across the conference I attended 18 sessions and one Special Interest Group (SIG) – ALT Scotland, co-presented one paper, chaired a session and attended the awards ceremony (always inspiring) and very enjoyable conference meal. I arrived back at work with a copious collection of notes, bundle of leaflets and fist full of business cards. A head buzzing with ideas for our CMALT cohort and a fresh burst of energy for my work.