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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Dear LMS companies (and other ed tech sales people),

Thank you for getting in touch with me, and for not bothering our VP and President and CIO after I didn’t initially respond to you voice mail or email request to talk about the latest features that your LMS has to offer.  In the six years I’ve been in this job, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many of you, both in person and via other means.  I admire the enthusiasm and patience you have in a role where I personally would struggle, especially when trying to get people like me excited about your latest offerings.  I suspect it must be very deflating to talk to people like me, and I always feel bad if I feel like I’ve wasted your time. This is actually the inspiration for this letter…

The first thing you need to know about us (JIBC) is that we are not your typical university or even college for that matter.  We are a publicly funded institute focused on training and educating people in public safety fields.  As an institute this means we offer everything from short certificates to degrees and post grad certificates.  However this also means that a big part of our education is short courses – intensive 2 or 3 day courses where students are engaged in immersive, hands-on, applied learning.  We call a lot of what we do “simulations” even though this generally means different things to different people. We try and simulate real life events (train derailments, burning buildings, mass casualty events) with or without technology, and have students immersed in these events to apply their learning.  We have an entire campus dedicated to burning things and putting out fires, in addition to a car race track, and at our main campus we have a fake courtroom, fake apartment building, and a building dedicated to scenario-based learning.  Oh, and (unusually for Canadian post secondaries) a gun range in the basement.

Interestingly, about 30% of what we do is online (for a variety of different reasons that I won’t get into here).  Our students are highly dispersed geographically, largely considered adult learners, and generally have an ongoing, lifelong learning relationship with our institution.  They come from professions that aren’t the sit-at-your-desk variety, which I label as mobile.  You may see where I’m going with all this, but let me elaborate a bit further.

  • For the most part, we don’t operate and design for a 3 credit, online course paradigm. This is what LMS’s do quite well.
  • We need a variety of tools that are well suited for short, micro moments of learning.  We’ve found that WordPress is really good at this.
  • A growing percentage of our courses are open, which we’ve found works best in open tools like WordPress.
  • We are a small budget institution with a need for a variety of ed tech tools, but not the ones that come with LMS’s – your latest eportfolio tool is not a sell.  And blowing our entire ed tech budget on a do-everything LMS is not our chosen strategy.
  • As a small budget institution, we need creative solutions to creating a non-resource intensive ed tech infrastructure.  More on that over here courtesy of @clintlalonde.
  • Our mobile needs are not met by simply app-ifying the LMS.  Our context for and view of mobile learning is very different (more on that here).
  • There are no ed tech tools (LMS or other) that are designed for synchronous online scenario-based learning. We created our own, and it is a core learning technology that is in the process of being commercialized.

So what can an LMS company do?  Well, the last time we had a vendor here, we took them on a tour of our applied learning spaces.  They showed interest but didn’t take notes even though we tried to drop them some clues as to where the dev group might want to put their heads.  For starters, I would suggest a well informed brainstorming session on applied learning – what does it look like, what do people do in it, what is the use context? Then perhaps a session that seriously unpacks what a course is or needs to be in that context.  Then I would take a group around to community colleges and vocational institutes that are doing some form of distance learning because you will probably find that they are doing some interesting and creative things with technology and program design.  Then perhaps go back to the drawing board and collaborate with some institutions on solving their problems before you try and sell them an out of the box package.  Case in point…if you had showed up at our doors 5 years ago with a synchronous, scenario-based online learning took, we would have taken a serious look at it and not bothered developing our own.  Or, if you had partnered with us in developing it, we would have found a mutually beneficial relationship.

Thanks for listening…I look forward to seeing where you go in the future.

 

 

#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.

 

Innovation in Higher Education

I spent the better part of last week at CNIE 2014 in Kamloops where I got to enjoy some good sunshine, great TRU hospitality, great music, and good presentations and conversations with old and new colleagues.  It was probably the first time I’d been to a conference where I left with a feeling that there was a common angsty thread in many of the discussions around innovation, nicely kicked off by Audrey Watters and already captured on her blog Hack Education (how does she do that so fast??) and wrapped up by Brian Lamb (not yet posted but hopefully captured).

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 2.39.05 PMThe purpose of my presentation–slides here–was to talk about how an over-investment in the LMS occurs at the expense of innovative tools that we need in our sector to address our teaching and learning problems.  I don’t feel like vendors really provide us  with the tools we actually need, and perhaps they shouldn’t be providing them anyways.  I use JIBC as an example of an institution whose roots are genuinely in experiential, real-life, and applied learning, but as more and more of our contact hours go online, we are left with few, if any tools that allow us to do appropriately.

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The LMS is both everything and nothing at our institution–it allows us to go online with our content and provide greater access to the students we reach in 183 communities across BC, but it is hardly the ideal tool for experiential and applied learning.  It is also not ideal for open courses such as this one (for which we increasingly use WordPress), 1-3 day short courses (the bread and butter of our institution), or very specific learning environments such as simulations.

In my presentation I point to three examples of tools created at public post-secondary institutions in response to problems that needed to be solved that couldn’t be solved by an LMS.  The first was Praxis, a web-based synchronous tool created at JIBC for conducting live simulation “exercises”.  This tool is now an increasing part of our programming, because it allows us to do online what we were well-known for face-to-face.

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The second is Radicl, a BCIT- created tool for the Medical Radiography program which allows for logging and critiquing images between instructors, students, and preceptors.

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The third is one I was introduced to at the conference, a type of competency tracking tool called Power for logging medical student case logs, created at U of T Faculty of Medicine in conjunction with a vendor.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 2.46.29 PMAll of these tools demonstrate the degree to which public post-secondary education can be innovative and create innovative tools. Unfortunately, they are all currently closed innovations despite being tools that have relevance and use across the sector.  U of T shares IP with the vendor that developed it, and both Praxis and Radicl aren’t currently open for use in other institutions.  In an era of diminishing institutional resources these tools are viewed by administrators as potential revenue streams and there is really no incentive to offer them up as open source tools to be shared across the sector.  We would rather spend millions on low risk, yet low satisfaction (for the most part) vendor products than create tools that address our teaching and learning contexts and share them across the province.   We view open tools as risky and resource intensive, yet we have entire teams dedicated to enhancing the LMS experience for students.  We think that our institutions are too small or incapable of creating innovative things, yet we forget that  the sector collectively has the capacity to take back our agency that we so willingly give to vendors who don’t share our interests.

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There is no doubt that vendors have created a buzzword out of  innovation.  But in the same way that public education has been able to take back textbooks and scholarly publications by adopting an open approach, a parallel activity needs to happen around open and collaborative innovation of our teaching and learning tools.  To me, this is a much less risky, and more sustainable approach to our sector.

 

 

Why universities shouldn’t forget about institutes and colleges

There was a piece in the Globe and Mail this week that found its way into our inboxes at our little institution.  If you missed it, or have exceeded your free article count for the month, the President of Brock University made an important case that universities shouldn’t be held to an Ivory Tower stereotype and as the title of the piece suggests, universities play an important role in the community. 

Perspectives like this one are important and I found it to be an interesting summary of some of the things that are happening in the university sector in Ontario.  However, there is some irony in the ‘we are not an ivory tower’ pitch that the community college and institute sector is left unrecognized for what it has been doing all along. Seeing as how we are all part of the public post-secondary ecosystem, this unfortunately reinforces an elitist perspective.

I recognize that there may be some structural barriers but I continue to be surprised at what I perceive as a lack of understanding of how universities and the college/institute sector can work together and even leverage each other.

 

Here are what I see as a few underexploited opportunities from my own perch at a small institute specializing in public safety education.   These address some of the What if? questions asked in the article in support of a proposition for community-university collaborations.

1.  Funding opportunities:  Many of us (colleges and institutes) qualify for Tri-council and other funding pockets.  Research and project funding is increasingly asking us to look for other institutional partners.  Some of this funding has specifically targeted the college and institute sector.  You have PhD grad students that we don’t have.  We can provide you with funding opportunities that you wouldn’t normally be able to access.  Win-win.

2.  Strong community connections: Due to our histories of how we came to be (community college) we usually have strong connections with our geographic or disciplinary communities  and these relationships have evolved over a long period of time.  By partnering with us,  you gain access to those communities.

3.  Strong networks of expertise: In some cases, our highly specialized mandate allows us to be what I like to call small institutions with long tentacles.  For example, at JIBC, an institute that specializes in public safety, our network of professionals isn’t just local, but extends internationally on many levels.

Consider, for example, a 3.6 million dollar research project being conducted at JIBC with Royal Roads University.  The SIMTEC project brings together an international community of researchers and expert working group members , leverages JIBC’s expertise and connections to a broad Emergency Management and public safety network, and has already resulted in tangible open artefacts that benefit the community at large.

There’s less to gain in our higher education sector by subscribing to a view that forgets that while we might be teams playing different games, we are definitely all playing the same sport.