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September 09, 2010

Making sense of the ALT-C change

What I learned as a remote attendee at this year's ALT-C conference, "Into something rich and strange" - making sense of the sea-change - a brief, partial and highly irrelevantirreverent view.

Firstly... on the technology front it was good to see that audio, slides and the occasional Twitpic from those delegates who made the effort to turn up was pretty much as good as a real [tm] video stream. Also that Java is alive and well on the desktop - Elluminate being one of the few remaining applications that still require me to have Java on my local machine. Still, it's good to remind ourselves every so often what we thought the future of distributed computing was going to be like about 10 years ago.

Secondly... I learned that lecturers are called lecturers because they lecture - a medieval practice of imparting knowledge by reading an old-fashioned auto-cue rather badly. Being called a lecturer is an indication of status apparently. They're not called teachers because they don't teach, despite the fact that we really need teachers in HE - so somewhere along the line we got our wires crossed and ended up in the bargain basement. Oddly, everyone knows that lectures are sub-optimal but if you stand up and say that in a room full of people, half of whom are lecturers, half of whom used to be lecturers and all of whom think they know better, you don't make many friends, especially if you don't say what you think needs to replace them. Even more oddly, lectures are so bad that the only way of making things better is to video them and put them on YouTube so that people can watch them over and over again. I think it's called aversion therapy. Of course, the ALT-C Programme Committee feel duty bound to appoint a 'the lecture is dead' keynote speaker every year and even go so far as to send them the same images to use in their slides - you know, the one of the monk asleep at the back and the other one with the kids dressed up as victorians and sitting in rows.

I also found out that a university education is a public good - as opposed to a private good or a public bad - and that market forces are OK in science and engineering but not in the "useless" subjects. Amazingly, most of the politicians around at the moment did those very same useless subjects - many of them reading something called PPE at Oxbridge, which I can only assume is Physical Education with an emphasis on the physical and which clearly had a very popular module called "101 How to fiddle your expenses". On that basis, the definition of "useless" being used here includes the notion of getting a fast-track to lots of political power and money.  Margaret Thatcher was the only one to buck the trend, reading Chemistry apparently, but the less said about that the better - I don't want to give all chemists a bad name.

One other thing... if you're a builder that doesn't mind using computers when you don't have enough bricks to fill all the holes in your walls, especially if you don't mind kids playing on your building site, you can probably do a very popular keynote slot at future ALT-Cs. Children apparently learn best when you take away all the teachers, give them a computer (best if it's firmly attached to a wall to stop them nicking it) and let them get on with it. Many of them turn into rocket scientists within 2 or 3 years. Nobody is quite sure if this also applies to teenagers and adults but it's worth a shot I reckon. I suggest using the University of Hull as an experiment - sacking all the teacherslecturers, moving the computers outside, and letting the students get on with it. We could call it the University of Hull in the Wall and see if we get away with it?

Unfortunately, I missed out on F-ALT, the alternative ALT-C, this year cos I forgot to set my Twitter radar to the correct hashtag, so I can't report on that particular cliqueexperience. It's been so long since I took part in F-ALT that they've probably withdrawn my membership.

Oh well... here's to next year's conference. I don't know what it'll be called yet but it'll probably be some 'clever' reference to the massive changes happening in the wider world whilst ignoring the complete lack of change inside the sector.

Change? What change?

In the words of the late, great Kenny Everett... all meant in the best possible taste!

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"Uni of Hull in the Wall" - very much made me laugh :) Great write up!

I agree on all fronts. Watching Alt-C from the sidelines was I suspect more fun and informative than being there. I believe that Lorcan coined the phrase "Event Amplifier" for the extended audience that technology gives to conferences. I think that we now have the "Event Enhancer" which is the gist of the presentation combined with the thoughts, ideas and comments of the audience delivered via twitter. Many of whom I consider better informed than the speakers. It was both thought provoking and enjoyable. Just what I think lectures are supposed to be.
If I can get permission, I will be running at-least one lecture this year on twitter. I will present the lecture stuff from the front and have a live twitter feed on my presenters screen at the same time, I may even have the twitter feed on a second projector next to the slides and have the audience twitter while I lecture if I am feeling brave.
It is often forgotten by both lecturers and students that the lecture is dialogue on the levels: content, concept and culture. Thats why universities have trouble changing because it undermines the culture and hence the self-image. This is really hard for the vast majority of individuals, particularly in Universities where the world moves past us rather than the other way around. For many, lecturers and their content remain largely unchanged by the process.

Viva la revolution.


Very funny :)

I have enjoyed following altc2010 from the comfort of my own large comfy bed, and not having to endure the ahem accommodation provided there (at quite an expensive rate; chain hotels are cheaper).

I don't miss events that much; sure, it's great to get the vibe, meet some people, get some free nosh (except it's not free). But traveling by public transport in the UK is some kind of weird punishment that I can do without.

And also the underlying (amusing) snarkiness of your post clarified why I was more glad to lie in bed, like now, and follow it online. A conference opening with a sweary (oooo! how radical!) man saying everything in education is wrong, but coming up with no solutions. What's the point of travelling to watch that? If it's all been so bad for so long, then how come, looking at it dispassionately, the country is relatively highly skilled and educated compared to any previous point in its history?

There are some really good presentations and papers at altc2010 which I wish I had seen live; that I do miss. Quite a few of them. But there's also two elements of sameness.

1. Some presentations, like the keynote, declare that technology is here, we can use it to change, change, change, but fall short of saying how in any meaningful way. But that's the same as what you see in a lot of events over the last 15 years. "This doesn't work well, the technology is here to fix it, so let's change! Erm sorry not sure how" doesn't inspire.

2. I've yet to go to an altc, but have followed the last few closely. A few other folk describe it as "too cliquey". I can sort of see what they mean (though the phrase is perhaps harsh as it seems a universally friendly event, and clique to me means exclusion) as the same cohort of bright perhaps-not-quite-so-young-anymore things do pop up at altc every year, as at other events on what is now an established annual doing-teccie-stuff-in-HE circuit in the UK.

While there is always fresh new blood at these events, and the regulars are lovely flirty people who sometimes even buy the first round, I'm put off a bit (and it's not their fault) by the same people being there annually.

It's a bit like living on a remote island, where after a few years you realise you're seeing the same small number of people wherever you go, to the degree that you know X has too much ear hair or Y breathes heavily, because you've sat next to them innumerable times at meetings, events, on the bus, in church. And you know, by experience, what they will say at meetings. And you crave something a little different, someone who says different things and has less ear hair. I don't want to get sucked into the teccie-event circuit and start noticing that e.g. X's ear hair has gotten a little longer since we last met in Sunderland, Glasgow, Hull, wherever.

It's not their fault, but familiarity breeds ... predictability? And the best events are the ones where everything, and perhaps everyone, is new, unpredictable and useful. The Ticer digital library summer school is good in that respect, because if you go one year you can't go the next; it's fresh every year. Anyway, maybe it's just me.

End of ramble.

Re: "snarkiness"...

That wasn't my intent. I was originally going to try and write something serious about a couple of the things I heard whilst dropping in and out of the ALT-C stream but in the end it just felt better (easier?) to write something humorous.

More specifically, I didn't intend to be overly negative (in a serious way) about ALT-C. I certainly hope that no-one was offended - I didn't explicitly add smilies because I thought that the intent was obvious.

As a conference I think ALT-C does some things very well (a lot of the less formal face-to-face stuff for instance). But as with everything, there is room for improvement.

I think that we (as a community) have a general problem with achieving (or not) progress and change, particularly in the context of the wider changes (political, social and technical) in the world around us. That is not a problem with ALT-C per se - but ALT-C does run the risk of becoming the focal point for that lack of progress. Re-visiting themes year on year might be an example of that. As I say, that is not a criticism of the conference, rather a comment on the wider community (of which I am a part).

Oh... one other thing... the conflation of Hull with Hole was entirely intentional :-)

Andy: sorry, that is my fault. I meant 'snarkiness' in the way it's often used in the US library twitter community, which is generally lighter than elsewhere.

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