Fire and trothing at #ALTC2010

(these are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license)

I should admit, to my shame, that I had a blog post pre-prepared – I felt we know all there is to know about #altc by now. Someone waves some flashy technology around, everyone says “oooh shiny”, someone asks “what do the students think?” and then we nod sagely at this insight and move on to the next session. I was going to call it “Fear and Loathing at ALT-C” – travelling to Nottingham to find the great academic dream, systematically and self-destructively losing touch with reality, and reflecting on missed opportunities and the old high water-mark

But there were surprises in store. This was bat country.

If we started with Donald Clark trashing the cathedral, we followed it with Sugata Mitra connecting the bazaar. We’ve been critiquing the lecture for nearly 30 years (“What’s the use of lectures”), we know the arguments well, we’ve used them ourselves. It felt like cavoli riscaldati – reheating old cabbage – and the gas and the stench of negativity nearly choked us. But then out of nothing more than a hole in the wall, we saw learning (almost) unplugged and a restatement of the essentials of self-education (and really, what other kind is there) by exploring, of community and peer (and near-peer) support.

ALT-C used to be a gathering of technologists, but we seemed to be groping towards the unfashionable social sciences – anthropology, psychology, sociology, education and (most clearly) politics. We saw the birth of a star: Dave White with the golden ratio of research evidence, charisma and radicalisation managing to please the crowd whilst drawing the wool away from our eyes. And an award proved that, as our governmental ministers draw from their Oxford experiences and networks, we could now draw on TALL, and on similar departments of agitators, trouble makers and genuine post-doctorate-level awkward fuckers (see Donald, I can do it too!) elsewhere.

The technological is now political; rather than leaping at the possibilities as in the past we are sitting back to ask why? who for? and what is the real cost? There was a sense of a last gasp, we are running out of time, running out of money, and (as Richard Hall and Joss Winn made terrifyingly clear) running out of energy. Even by 2014, we could be living in a radically altered society in which we would either adapt or collapse. Kudos to the pair of them for making it sound challenging and exciting. We’re higher education, we used to love solving problems…

In my own meagre contribution, my colleagues and I tried to highlight the dangers of toying with transformative concepts without at least an aspiration of where we want to end up. We saw three delightful models of how OER could benefit the educational community, and then one neo-liberal corporate nightmare. The oncoming commercialisation of higher education is another figurative crossroads that we stand at, with a genuine and fundamental conundrum about the creative and connective capacity of humankind being used for the benefit of all, or sold back to us to benefit from the few.

But there are strange and magical powers within our creaking old dark-age institutional structures. The gaps, the synergies, the misfiring collegiate neurons and the freedoms within the way we work give us the chance to influence, to build and to organise against the oncoming storms.

Maybe Dave White won’t get to be prime minister after all, but as academics and tutors (even if we are not teaching PPE at Oxford) we can rule a nation with a microphone.

David Kernohan
twitter: dkernohan

OER futures and Universality, Inc. #altc2010

(these are my own views and not those of my employer, or of programmes and projects I am responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license)


In working with Sheila MacNeill, Li Yuan and Heather Price (nee Williamson) in preparing our workshop at ALTC2010 (slides) on trends and scenarios in OER, I was challenged to flesh out the following scenario:


“the radical change model in which a global university appears to serve the different needs of the learners through open access to course materials, learner support and assessment”


This was one of four, ranging from a status quo model in which OER was simply an adjunct to an institutionally focused model, on  to seeing OER as a means of facilitating institutional credit transfer, and (excitingly) to OER as a spur to widespread institutional collaboration. So clearly my scenario was on the neo-liberal nightmare edge of the spectrum.


Predicting the future is not the kind of thing I generally enjoy. I feel that I understand the present and the recent past so poorly that anything I could come up with is based more a hunch than the result of any proper analysis of trends and patterns. Unlike other future gazers, I admit this,


But I ended up with a business model that was both plausible and terrifying; contemplating “Universality Inc” where OERs are a primary means of learning alongside peer support and automatic formative assessment, with other “optional services” (like tutorials, practicals, examinations and qualification/graduation) available for a fee. Academics, in this nightmarish vision, were mainly paid to produce OERs to draw customers in to pay for other services, and employers had enough input into the curriculum to save on corporate training costs.


I frightened myself.  I stared in to the abyss and saw things that cannot be unseen.


The only thing to do seemed to be to make a pretend corporate video, featuring the range of fine acting talent you can find around the JISC offices on a Tuesday lunchtime.


Enjoy (and come along to the session in room ALTCT at 10:30 on Thursday 9th if you want to discuss).


(if anyone wants the raw materials from the video for reuse please leave a comment and I will send you anything you need. Oh, and please don’t build Universality for real. If you do, I waive the attribution part of the license. I want no part in this.)


Update: With thanks to Barbara Dieu, this video is now available with English and Brazillian Portugese subtitles