ascilite 2012 – Wellington, NZ

The 2012 ascilite conference was held in Wellington, NZ, from 25-28 November. I was able to attend and present a paper co-authored with Romina Jamieson-Proctor, Petrea Redmond, Andrew Maxwell (FoES) and Kevin Larkin (Griffith), in which we reported some results and analysis from the mobile learning project we had funded through DEHub.Attendance at ascilite is dominated by staff from elearning development and support groups at Australasian universities but also includes participants who teach in a variety of discipline areas and some from further afield. The topics are clustered around the use of computers and associated technologies to support learning and teaching. I was able to attend 26 presentations, view about as many posters, and speak with colleagues from across the region. Key areas included in those presentations and conversations included mobile learning, the use of data extracted from the LMS or elsewhere to guide learning and teaching, application of social media to learning for students and staff, and future directions for learning and teaching in universities. The comments that follow record some of my reflections. The proceedings are available online at http://www.ascilite2012.org/ but for a different view of some of the major presentations check the caricatures posted at http://www.monsta.co.nz/ascilite-conference.html

Mobile learning is a rapidly emerging area but it is presenting challenges for universities. In many or most cases the LMS and other systems are not designed to provide smooth interaction with mobile devices and existing learning materials are not formatted for convenient use on mobile devices. Differences among the mobile devices used by students mean that materials may need to be converted to multiple formats. Rapid changes in technology mean that conventional approaches requiring long lead times for planning and implementation across whole systems may be too slow to respond. More agile approaches with rapid cycles of small changes that can be progressively adapted and extended appear to be having more success where they are being tried.

Although the LMS and other university systems contain large amounts of data about student and staff interaction with the systems that can be used to examine relationships between user behaviours and learning outcomes, there are challenges in making effective use of the data to guide learning and teaching. Data are often held in systems operated by sections separate from those charged with learning and teaching quality so access may require special provisions. Patterns that appear in the data at a macro level may mask complexity that exists at the lower levels of courses and students. Interpretation of the data may be best done by those familiar with the circumstances in which it was collected.

Social media outside university provided systems such as the LMS are being used by students to support their learning. Often this appears to be a response to perceived inconveniences or inadequacies in the official systems. In some cases the use is entirely student-driven with no staff involvement but in others staff are using various services to engage students in learning activities that would not be possible otherwise. Some cautionary notes were raised around behaviour in social media spaces and the implications of requiring use for particular purposes. Some universities are establishing policies about social media use.

Sessions related to the future of universities included a debate about MOOCs, presentations about how to better support innovation at the edges, and keynotes about alternative approaches to education (Dale Stephens from Uncollege) and assessment through authentic activities with more obvious links to employability (Beverly Oliver from Deakin – a more wide ranging summary and response to conference themes titled “Changing hearts and minds in the cloud”).

The venue for the conference was Te Papa – http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/ – the national museum of New Zealand and we were treated to Maori cultural displays as well as the hospitality typical of an ascilite conference. The conference also coincided with the week of the world premiere of The Hobbit in Wellington, adding further excitement around the appearance of celebrities.