The gem of a conference that was ICICTE 2016

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Image by Gorg Malia, cartoonist, instructional technologist, and one of the incredibly interesting ICICTE organizers and attendees.

A couple of weeks ago I had the great privilege of being the keynote speaker at #ICICTE 2016 in Rhodes, Greece.  I’ve got a couple of posts planned about the keynote and what I learned from the great presenters there, but first want to share some thoughts on what I thought made this conference a really fantastic 4 days.

I’ll admit to having had a fair bit of conference fatigue for the past few years.  In the past 15 years I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a lot of ed tech-related conferences and the topics, the format, the discussions are starting to make me feel like somebody who has lived long enough to see fashion cycles come around the second time.  Being at ICICTE allowed me to reflect on the good, bad and ugly of conferences and their relevance to our professional development as educators.

Good conferences are about the people: I tweeted that ICICTE was a lot like an international ETUG…friendly, small, and full of interesting people.  ICICTE is a small conference where people keep coming back year after year and as a first timer I felt like it did a great job of a couple of important things. First, it was very good at embracing new people and making them feel part of the community.  This is easier to do at small conferences, but it is also easier to do when there is a community ethos where egos and self-promotion (yes, edtech, we are guilty of that) are buried and every participant is treated as a really interesting contributor.  Second, ICICTE recognized that socializing together is as important as the actual conference presentations, and both activities seemed to be attended by almost everybody. This is especially extraordinary given that the conference was held at a beautiful resort on a beautiful Greek island where there were no shortage of interesting distractions.  There were almost as many socializing together opportunities as typical conference opportunities, and since they were so well attended it allowed new people to feel like they weren’t being left out of any of the alt-conf-socializing that is inevitable at larger conferences.

Good conferences create space for families: Location helps, and obviously Greece was a nice location for a family holiday.  But as somebody who has dragged one of my young children to a conference on at least 2 occasions (and considered it for at least 3 others), I can tell you that there is a difference between a conference that assumes that families will be there and conferences where that isn’t considered.  The conference organizer – the fabulous @npyrini, – has brought her 9 year old daughter to every single ICICTE and she is a familiar and well loved part  of the conference to the people who attend every year and have watched her grow up with the event.  It was suggested to me that I should bring my entire family of 5 to next year’s conference, which is the first time an event organizer has done that.  And of course there were families with kids there, attending the Greek night banquet in old Rhodes City, and milling about the pool and the breakfast buffets at the hotel.

Good conferences have long lunches and good food:  ICICTE provided two hour lunch breaks where we were able to sit together and learn from each other over lunch.  It meant less presentations could be crammed into the day but provided a different kind of space for creating community and connections. I also think it made us listen more – instead of focussing on tweeting every sound bite and showing up but not really paying attention, the non presentation time spaces were really about extending the conversation over lunch or drinks.

Good conferences don’t necessarily have busy Twitter streams: Related to the above point, I really appreciate a good conference hashtag when I’m NOT at the conference.  But I’ve really started to dislike the attention given to tweeting and sharing at the expense of conversing or listening.  ICICTE was one of the only conferences I’ve been at where there was consistently more questions than time after every presentation.  I interpreted this as a  good level of engagement and interest in everybody as a presenter.

ICICTE certainly stood out among other memorable conferences I’ve attended, including the recent  SKIP conference , many ETUG conferences, a few OpenEds and a very memorable CALICO conference.

 

 

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About those innovation jobs…7 Rules About Innovation

Today was the latest job posting with innovation in the title, and this one is at a VP level.  This seems to be an emerging trend in higher education, suggesting both a desire of institutions to show their commitment to innovation first by including it in their strategic plans, and in addition to that, making sure at least one person in the institution has innovation in their job title.

This isn’t a cranky, cynical post about this trend, but it does seem timely to share some observations about what some of institutional barriers to ed tech innovation are, and what can work in overcoming them.  For credibility sake, I should mention that ed tech innovation has been one of my key areas of responsibility since I was hired 5 years ago. I’ve also worked at 2 other higher ed institutions and paid careful attention to where innovation emerges and where it is stifled.  Because really, that’s what its all about. In the spirit of so many “expert” listicles, here are Tannis’s 7 Rules About Innovation.

 1. Even if the term has become trite, innovation is important in higher ed. I believe this, and obviously institutions do too, seeing has how it is part of so many institutional strategic plans (and now job postings).  I don’t think that institutions need more disrupting  (or MOOCs) for that matter, but I do think that there is a lot of room for some ed tech innovation.

2.  One innovative initiative does not make an innovative institution.    I see flagship initiatives a lot ( think MOOCs, OERs, a tablet program, videoconferencing, active learning) and not only is it an eggs in one basket approach, but it’s difficult to gain momentum if there is only one innovative initiative, since you’re essentially banking on the majority of the institution being a) interested in it and seeing value in it and; b) it succeeding.  This leads to the next point…

3.  Innovation requires an institutional tolerance for a certain amount of failure.  This is why a flagship innovation approach is a bad idea…if you put all your eggs in one basket and it’s not as successful as your marketing and communications department has pumped it up to be, you have few wins to celebrate (and difficulty maintaining momentum)…

4.  Innovation requires momentum.    When innovation is truly happening, it engages everybody and inspires spin offs.  I think of innovation is a snowball that becomes big and then spins off other snowballs.

5.  Innovation is not a project, a policy, or a committee.  Innovation is first and foremost an institutional attitude that needs to be embraced and supported.  Innovation is messy and sometimes isn’t successful.  This makes administrators uncomfortable, from which emerge project plans, policies and steering committees to control what is perceived as risky, chaotic activity.  These efforts lead to what could be called in academic terms “inhibiting boundary objects” or gatekeeping devices that will essentially void any strategic plan or job title change efforts.  But it also doesn’t mean that innovation is a rogue free-for-all that costs institutions buckets of money either. More on that below.

6.  Innovation is not retroactive catch up or large tech projects.  Sometimes institutions mistake their latest enterprise software implementation as innovation, when it’s usually status quo with a new twist.  Just because your latest implementation is costing buckets of money and resources, it doesn’t mean it qualifies as innovation.  In fact, if your efforts are sucking money away from your innovation initiatives, your institution should take a critical view of why that is happening, and for what benefit.  (Sometimes expensive implementations are about taking the path of least resistance, and this is where I think institutions should be looking at whether a more innovative approach could have saved money–think LMS’s, AV vendors, other enterprise software).

7.  Innovation doesn’t have to be expensive.    In fact, if you are fighting the bean counters on the value of innovation when you’ve said that it sometimes fails, and failure is Ok, you will want to minimize the financial risk.  So showing the institution how much you can do with a small pocket of change is a great way to get momentum and buy in.

Next post:  removing those inhibiting boundary objects and creating momentum…or 5 Rules of Creating an Culture of Innovation at your institution. Or whatever.

#ETUG and the 1994 flashback

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 11.44.18 AMI spent that last couple of days at the ETUG Spring workshop, which was a bit of a special one for the ETUG crowd given that it was the 20th anniversary edition.  The Langara location was itself a bit of a flashback for me, given that my first real post secondary job was at Langara only 13 short years ago.  For added fun, ETUG  invited us to think about the state of educational  technology 20 years ago in relation to our lives at that time.

The backstory

I found myself thinking about that a a fair bit during the 2 days, since there were so many subtle reminders of where we were and how we’ve evolved in higher education ed tech spaces.  In 1994 I was a first year grad student at Université Laval in Québec City in the department of Didactique des langues secondes (Bilingual Education).  My program, which had been mapped out by my thesis supervisor, was going to focus on self-directed language learning and ed tech.  But I had zero interest in ed tech.  I had selected my supervisor based on my interest in geo-political linguistics  and language ecology and William F. Mackey was an international heavyweight in that area (eg. in 1994 he was publishing in an edited volume called La Ecología de las Sociedades Plurlingües/The Ecology of Multilingual Societies–good stuff, even today). But according to Mackey, there were no jobs in this area, and he was refusing to take on students in that topic, directing them instead to the fantastic future of educational technology and applied linguistics.

The problem was that in 1994 educational technology was largely inaccessible, expensive, dull, and visually unappealing.  There was no internet at ULaval in 1994.  Instead, we were treated to discs on slow computers that allowed students to practice vocabulary (affordance: Immediate feedback!!), or highlight text on the screen while reading (affordance:  cognitive strategy!!).  The limousine of educational technology came in the form of the video disc , and MIT’s À la Rencontre de Philippe , a branching interactive fiction released on video disc, was admittedly a shining star in the sea of dull.

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My job was to create a computerized version of  English Through Pictures, which I never did, because I got bored, started taking weaving and textile arts classes at the CÉGEP de Limoilou in their fantastic Métiers d’Art program , and eventually dropped out completely of my Masters.  It took 5 years of doing other things and the appearance of the internet for me to pick it back up at UBC.

The ETUG connection

ETUG opened with a great keynote by @jenterysayers on maker culture, which had me reflecting on the tensions between maker and academic rigour, craft and art, applied education and “academic” education. But I also found it curious how so many ed tech/IT people are attracted to the idea of making or craft. In my case, craft has certainly been a necessary antidote to time spent in front of a screen.

There was also a strong thread of “open” at ETUG via numerous presentations, and this was also a good opportunity to reflect on both the 1994 state of journals, and ed tech software.  I spent a lot of time in the library photocopying journal articles from the approximately three journals on ed tech and language learning that existed at the time (CALICO, System, CALL).  If the open internet had been around in 1994, I likely would have been able to finish my masters project back then without  a lot of cost or effort.  Being an ed tech grad student in 1994 was pretty lonely, and I could have connected more widely with a great community of people like ETUG for support and advice, which highlighted for me how important that community has become.

On the flip side, I attended a great session by Esther Thiessen on the LMS, which really showed how little the LMS has changed in the past decade and a half and provoked us to think about why there are some things in ed tech that have not really changed at all.  This is where I think there is room to do more making at our institutions–the LMS hasn’t changed because we don’t feel like we have the means or authority to change it, and it’s become a sort of ball and chain that we drag around. I hope that in 20 years we can look back on this problem and reflect on how far we’ve come thanks to openness and good community.

 

Looking backward to look forward

I hadn’t really intended on a post that summarized the past 365 days or made predictions for the future, since others have done it so well already.  These posts have caused me to nonetheless reflect a bit on my own ed-tech moments of 2009  and the inevitable ups and downs that come with the field.

In 2009 I felt like I became a bit of a student of Distance Education and Ed-tech history, since many of the current conversations seemed to me to be echoes of the past. These are few that stood out for me.

Open Educational Resources–ideology, movement, or simple sharing?

As excited as I am about everything related to Open Educational Resources, and how much I’d like to see my own institution think about them strategically, I was disappointed by how much of the OER conversation (in North America, at least) seemed to forget that Open Universities from their inception had a goal of increasing access to education to disadvantaged groups, a radical (dare I say edupunk) idea at the time, and shared many of the ideological concerns of current OER proponents. OpenLearn is a logical extension of this vision, facilitated by the distribution and sharing opportunities of the internet.  Yet the jazzy tools and technologies that enable OER content sharing to those that have access to the internet seemed to me to dominate the discussions that I heard at the Open Education conference in Vancouver, and in the blogosphere in general.  And while I’m convinced of the value of WordPress, RSS, Twitter, and social networking and their value to the OER movement and a particular interpretation of “openness”, apart from some interesting presentations at the ICDE 2009 conference in Maastricht (notably the COL’s Asha Kanwar COL talking about the VUSCC)  and some journal articles, I would have liked to have learned more about broader contexts of OER use and interpretation, linguistic challenges and developments, OER sharing practices (Siyavula), and cost-benefits.

Yet, I’m increasingly aware that I have a responsibility to step outside of the ed-tech echo chamber that I participate  in, and spend more time looking for a different type of conversation.  This requires looking backward and beyond. By looking backward, I continue to find relevance in some of Mackey’s geolinguistic observations of the 80s and 90s; commonalities between the self-directed learning movements of the 70s and later and the desire for substantial change in teaching and learning in higher education. By looking beyond, I intend to read beyond my English language comfort zone and read more in French and Spanish. I also intend to explore other echo chambers in the twittersphere and blogosphere–this includes an interesting group of ed-tech enthusiasts in Quebec (Mario Asselin, Patrick Giroux)–and many more yet to be discovered.

Connectivism or Activity Theory?

This year I continued to be bewildered by the contribution of Connectivism to understanding learning in a networked environment.  I haven’t adequately articulated this anywhere on this blog, but I can’t get past looking for differences between Connectivism and Engestrom’s notion of “knotworking” in third-generation activity theory.  I’ve made this point in the past (posted on George’s blog back in 2006 under ‘tanbob’) but as noted by Bill Kerr’s critique back in ’07the point was never really addressed. I’m obviously not alone here but clearly have some homework to do in fairly and adequately discussing my view of the intersections of these two prominent ideas. The Networked Learning Conference, featuring not only Engestrom and Siemens, but Wenger as well, would have been a nice opportunity to gain some clarity, since current discussions of activity theory (in 2 recent books, one of them nicely reviewed here by Spinuzzi), in particular Engestrom’s notion of a ‘runaway object’ seem to bring connectivism and activity theory even closer.

21st Century Skills–a (sort-of) flashback to multiliteracies?

Another topic that I have yet to adequately articulate here, but I found myself going back to the work of the New London Group and looking for reasons why 21st Century skills felt like a more diluted version of Multiliteracies. How did we go from a broad, socioculturally-driven notion of literacies (framed in 1996, no less), to a more limited behavior-cognitive focussed notion of skills? I worry that 21st century skills will the be the buzzword of 2010 that will take us down the wrong path.

Digital Natives-an ed tech myth that will hopefully become history

On the topic of buzzwords Net Gen Skeptic has done a good job of demonstrating how an ed tech buzzword can become accepted and subsequently adopted as a rationale for systemic change without a whole lot of critical thought or demand for evidence. Being involved in a Skeptic project has made me aware of my own role in supporting myths-in-the-making, eg. what am I retweeting and why; who am I reading and who am I not reading. I suspect that myths find their legs in echo chambers, and I resolve to step outside of the spheres of my discipline and into those that are relevant but not totally familiar.