ACODE70 in Orange

By | March 20, 2016

Until ACODE70, I had never heard of Orange much less thought that I might visit it. Orange is around 3.5 hours from Sydney by car, over the Blue Mountains and part-way between Bathurst and Dubbo. By train or bus it takes longer to get there but you see more of the scenery which, especially around the Blue Mountains, is spectacular. Stepping off the Australia-wide coach after dark to a deserted railway station and empty streets it felt like I had arrived in Brainerd, Minnesota (only without the snow). Marge Gunderson would not have been out of place and young men were shedding rubber from their tires on Peisley Street (pronounced peas-lee) –  a surreal start to what turned out to be a thoroughly engaging visit to the Charles Sturt, Orange Campus.

Charles Sturt is a regional university with multiple campuses in regional centres and a focus on distance education. As such, you might imagine more than a passing institutional interest in the potential of educational technologies. And so it was – in spades. The VC, Professor Andrew Vann, alighted on our topic of analytics and adaptive learning and teaching with ease. His opening address set the tone and left us in no doubt about the rapidly changing context of higher education, the challenges facing the sector and the many challenges and opportunities for those of us working within the educational technology field. He then removed his tie and joined us for a day of rapid-fire presentations and extended discussions; an impressive example of leadership in action.

Michael Sankey (USQ) kicked off the presentations by describing how USQ is sharing data across their various systems. A key lesson, both from Michael’s presentation and from the discussions that followed was the importance of working out what questions academic staff want the data to answer. Assuming you have all the data in the world and manage to make it accessible, you still have to figure out what you want to do with it. Perhaps because funding decisions and system-building follow institutional imperatives, pedagogical considerations often seem to just get tacked on as an afterthought. Linda Corrin (Uni Melb) introduced the OLT-funded LOOP project. One of the project outputs is a web-based analytics tool for visualising learner data and ‘completing the loop’ for teachers on the impact of pedagogical design decisions. It was interesting, especially  following Michael’s talk, that findings from Linda’s work so far suggest that academics struggle to work out what questions they want answered and that requests to include specific information or data are still at a fairly basic level.

Three presentations along the theme of staff development for learning analytics followed morning tea. Sheila McCarthy talked about several iterations of Learning Analytics at Griffith and the ongoing challenge of supporting staff to make effective use of the data and systems that are available. Garry Allan outlined the experience at RMIT and emphasised the importance of informing and engaging staff with learning analytics initiatives to avoid generating a culture of fear; who is measuring what and for what purpose? Cathy Gunn from the University of Auckland introduced our Ako Aotearoa-funded project through which we are creating a series of scenarios to support staff development. The scenarios are built from a range of case-studies and are designed to be used as templates to help staff to find solutions to their own teaching and learning design questions.

A shift in focus to engaging stakeholders followed for the next round of presentations and discussion. Deb West (CDU) made the link between the Scholarship and Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and the potential of learning analytics to help us to get to know our students and inform teaching practice. Danny Liu gave a lively presentation on getting alongside teaching staff to create bespoke developments at Sydney Uni and Macquarie to support student engagement and provide accessible visualisations for staff.

After a well-deserved lunch, four presentations burrowed into adaptive learning and personalised learning. Barney Dalgarno (CSU) reminded us that adaptive learning systems have a long history and pointed to new potential. For example, using data which describe student solution paths to suggest hints (See Barnes and Stamper, 2008). Lucy Webster gave specific examples of improvements in teaching and learning in haematology and histopathology at CSU through using virtual microscopy, Smart Sparrow and learning analytics. Lucy also noted just how time-consuming creating adaptive resources can be. Simon Welsh followed with a higher-level view of Learning Analytics at Charles Sturt. Finally, I brought up the rear with a change of tack to text analytics and a practical example from the health sciences to illustrate how teachers can use student writing to gain a window on understanding and adapt their teaching on-the-fly.

What did I take away from the day? Many things: confirmation that all institutions are wrestling with how to leverage the quantities of data we collect to extract meaning and value for teaching and learning; that institutions that seem most advanced in terms of learning analytics have positions dedicated to the task (data wranglers, learning/educational designers and so on); that managing the many tensions between institutional drivers and on-the-ground imperatives for teachers/learners is far from a self-evident enterprise; that black-box commercial systems do not solve all the problems no matter what claims are made; that creating a supportive culture for ground-up initiatives is essential; that scaling-up initiatives that are shown to work is key; that none of this is easy.

I think the last word from Stanley Frielick during the closing plenary captured the tension evident in most, if not all, of the discussion during the day: grafting analytics, which come out of agile, contemporary commercial enterprise, onto archaic institutions like universities is far from straightforward, if not completely flawed. Only one place to go after that – the pub!

Hats-off to Philip Uys and helpers who did a fabulous job organising everything, looking after us and hosting a very pleasant evening at the Union Bank in Orange.

Overall, a long way from my film-noir first impressions. Charles Sturt Uni and Orange are well worth a second visit.


Orange Railway Station

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