Writing down my thoughts of ALTc 2019

The ALT Conference this year was held in Edinburgh. It was my first experience of ALTc and I was pretty excited about heading up to Scotland. Getting off the tram in the city centre on the Monday evening with Edinburgh Castle illuminated in lights was pretty amazing 

The conference was held in the University’s McEwan Hall. The building was incredible, as was the auditorium inside. Sat within the hall you couldn’t help but look up at the beautiful windows and artistry that covered the walls. Luckily not too distracting to keep me from listening in on the keynotes talks. 

McEwan Hall

McEwan Hall

The list of workshops and talks over the three days was huge, so I took some great advice from my colleague, and steered away from my usual subjects. I took away a huge amount from these three days in Edinburgh, but I’ll mention the three keys areas that stood out for me. 

Going back to basics


A large area for discussion throughout the conference was the idea of taking learning back to basics. Working within the learning technology field, there is often the assumption that we must always look for new and exciting technology that we can filter into our teaching. This can often mean the pedagogical side of the discussion or project can get lost within the technology.  

Jesse Stommel’s keynote also talked about how some tools are ‘problematic to the core’. There were times in the talk where he was quite critical of certain tools we use. However, being critical is not always a bad thing and it leads us on to really think about the tools we are using and decide whether they are beneficial to our students, staff and our own learning. 

It wasn’t however all doom and gloom, and I sat in on several talks that were using technology quite simply, but to great effect. 

Here be Dragons: Dispelling Myths around BYOD Digital Examinations: Claudia Cox 

This was a great short presentation on the use of digital exams at Brunel University. It was good to see a simple approach being taken to an area that could cause quite a lot of disturbance and resistance within a University. They broke down their projects into three areas; infrastructure, technical support, and training. Tackling these challenges in this way allowed the team to put more thought into their projects and focus on their objectives and outcomes. I liked how research even went into how different noises would affect students e.g. keyboard tapping.  Digital exams can seem quite a challenge to take on, and albeit a student who managed to guess a password hours before an exam started, Claudia relayed how smooth and simple the process was, and how the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Under the right circumstances and with the right support, BYOD can allow for students to feel happier and calmer when undertaking exams. 

Creativity through video in Heriot-Watt Online: James Igoe and Mari Cruz Garcia 

A great talk on how video can enhance and improve learning and teaching in an online course. This session looked how simple approaches can be of great value to an online course and allow the students to feel more engaged. The team here were using Lumen5 to create short and snappy videos that they could get out to users in record time. It took a step back from high level video production and focused on getting the information over to the student. 

Another part of this talk I found interesting was their use of lightboard technology. This maybe doesn’t fall quite under the ‘back to basics’ theme but I’ve been informed by a colleague there are certain DIY hacks to create this mirrored effect of presenting on a much simpler level – something I’m keen to try! 

Inside McEwan Hall

Inside McEwan Hall

Working with our students in higher education. 


“Trust students. Ask them how they learn and what challenges they face. Believe them” Jesse Stommel 

I’ve always been an advocate for understanding the importance of listening to student’s views, but this was a theme I felt cropped up a lot within the conference. In Jesse Stommel’s keynote he reminded us that we need to trust our students and learn from them. They are the epi-centre of our institutions and should be taken into the equation more when we think about course design and how we want to teach. 

Ollie Bray also talked about this on the final day of the conference; 

“We hear a lot about learning from our students, but less about learning with them. If we want young learners to be creative, we need children and adults working together in co-creative learning teams.   Despite the rhetoric that AI will “solve” education, solving complex problems comes down to people, pedagogy and leadership. 

A few talks I went to really related to this: 

Designing a new digital arts curriculum where technology inspires new stories, new experiences and new realities: Paul Proctor and Jacqueline Butler 

This was an interesting talk looking at co-creating courses across different disciplines for the new School of Digital Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University. As well as speaking about how they wanted to bring academics and practitioners together to collaborate in one bespoke place, they also talked about how they tackled and questioned the different roles that made up their team who were working on the project. Involvement from all areas of the institution was monumental to the success of the task in hand. 

The new curriculum was being created through a series of short developmental ‘curriculum design sprints’, involving students, alumni, staff, external industry partners, international colleagues and partners from the creative, tech and business worlds. Again, a great way to work with our students and a simple approach on keeping objectives compact and achievable. 

How user experience research is shaping the changes to our Virtual Learning Environment: Paul Smyth, Duncan Stephen, Karen Howie 

A quick mention of this talk which I thoroughly enjoyed. The team used feedback from several surveys to highlight the inconsistencies and frustrations that were coming out of the use of VLEs for students. They embarked on a project to make these courses more accessible and relevant. Again, they took a simple approach and focused on six work streams: templates, checklists, training and support, terminology and automation. 

What stood out for me was the involvement of staff as well as students in their project, and how much research and testing went into the development process. They described some of their results as ‘surprising and enlightening’ and went on to discuss how considering different users allowed them to make significant changes to all areas of the VLE, not just the front end. Everyone’s experience was important. 

Edinburgh in the sun

Edinburgh in the sun



This was one of my favourite talks, and the FemEdTech team had a positive and enlightening presence throughout the conference. Helen Beetham was a captivating and engaging speaker, and opened my eyes to a subject that I have often thought about, but never knew was so widely talked about. We focused and reflected on four main areas: 

  • Learning technology as a gendered work, looking at how different roles are valued and rewarded. 
  • Learning technology and education opportunity. This looked at the use of digital systems in education in relation to the participation rates and outcomes of women learners. 
  • Feminist pedagogies. 
  • Feminist epistemologies. 

An interesting talk that focused on inclusivity and bringing people together to discuss why or if feminism should hold a perspective with the area of learning technology. This is their twitter account @femedtech if you wanted to find out more. 

ALTc was a great opportunity for me to meet people working in the same area as me and made me aware that there are so many different directions and opportunities to take when thinking about working within learning technology. I still think being a learning technologist at Edinburgh Zoo may be one of the best jobs going. It was a great couple of days and sparked my motivation for putting in a proposal in the future and making more time for research. 

Thanks also to Lorna Campbell for her great write up of the Keynote talks. Reading this made a lot more sense than the notes I took! 

Edinburgh in the rain

Rainy Edinburgh

A few notes from our TurningPoint Lunch and Learn event

Matthew Moss from Turning Technologies was in Bristol on Tuesday to talk to us and a number of academics about TurningPoint. This is a polling software, or student response system (SRS), that we use and manage at the University of Bristol.

As well as taking us through the basics of creating and running a TurningPoint session, and informing us that this is the software used on ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’, Matt also spoke to us about some of the uses which are not as widely adopted at the University. These included: 

  • Private messaging between student and teacher
  • The ability to make polled questions anonymous as you run a session
  • Anywhere Polling – this allows you to run a poll while on any website (or other app) 
  • The ability to reserve 10 session IDs to have as your own
  • Conditional branching in polling
  • The use of word clouds
  • Using the TurningPoint app
  • The use of reporting
  • TurningPoint Web
  • Using Hot Spots in TurningPoint Web
  • Question banks
  • Self-paced polling. 

We hope to run another of these ‘lunch and learn’ sessions in the new year, and would be keen to hear from members of staff who would be happy to talk about the work they are doing with student response systems.

If you would like to find out more, or are interested in getting a licence to use TurningPoint, please contact digital-education@bristol.ac.uk. You can also find out more by going to our website. 

We also have a SRS Yammer Group which you are welcome to join. 

Tiddlywinks of teaching – materials from Playful Learning 19

Chrysanthi and I ran a session at the Playful Learning conference, play testing a game we have developed to help consider issues around accessibility and inclusivity. The title of our session was The Tiddlywinks of Teaching.

A first draft of the materials, all Creative Commons licenced, is now available for anyone who is interested: Tiddlywinks of Teaching materials (zip, 3MB).

We will post more about the game when time allows!

Tool for creating ‘Deep Links’ to a Blackboard Course/Organisation

Blackboard Deep Link Generator

A frequent question we’re asked at this time of year is ‘How can I link directly to a Blackboard Course?’

It’s something that can be done, but simply sending out a courses URL will only work if the recipient is logged in/authenticated. Often the use case for sending out direct links means that it’s really unlikely the user will be logged in, so they need to be prompted. Sending out an email that says ‘log into Blackboard and then come back and click this link’ is obviously a nonsense.

This is where ‘deep linking’ comes into play. By amending the URL and adding a bit of extra text at the beginning you can create a link that forces the user to sign in/authenticate and then redirect them to the desired course, bypassing the Blackboard Home page. Unfortunately processing a Bb URL in this way can feel like you’re dabbling in the dark arts.

We were asked about this yesterday, so I’ve re-purposed one of the tools I used to use to do it all for you. Click the link above to launch.

Note: This will only work for University of Bristol URLs, so external visitors will need to view source and amend themselves – you should only need to change the ‘prefix’ variable to your own institutions login pages. 

Digital Literacy – An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief

A new Horizon Project Report from NMC focuses on how classroom instruction/education can create digitally literate students (and by default staff).

NMC Releases Horizon Project Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy

“While institutions have become more adept at integrating emerging technologies, our survey data revealed that there is still a lot of work to be done around improving digital literacy for students and faculty,”

TEL Rubric for Online Course Spaces

Icons for TEL Rubric categories.

TELED have published a Rubric for online course spaces. This tool provides clear guidance for creating new online courses or reviewing existing courses.  The rubric is suitable for use with any units and programmes which have online spaces, including for blended learning which includes face-to-face components.

It gives clear criteria covering best practice and effective course design. It also covers how to enhance and engage, with simple and achievable advice. We will continue to develop it, adding links to examples and further information.


Tips and examples for large online courses

Lessons learnt at Bristol and elsewhere. Also available as a printable handout: tips and examples for large online courses (pdf).

Developing an idea

Start with the learners. Who are they? What is their motivation (intrinsic and/or extrinsic)? How does the course fit into their lives? What is their journey through the course?

Make sure your team has a shared understanding of what you and others involved are trying to achieve by providing the course. What would success look like? Would it look different to different people?

Look at what other people have done. It can be tempting to fall into familiar patterns of course design. Enrol on some MOOCs to look around. Engage if you can. We’ve selected some examples to get you started (see second page, “Ideas for large online courses” in the pdf).

Planning your course

Keep thinking from the learner’s’ point-of­-view. What is their journey through the course? What are they doing at each stage?

Learners often feel a personal connection with the lead educators. Who will be the face of your course? Will it be one member of staff or a team? Do you need to plan for people leaving the university?

Don’t assume you have to use video for everything. Use video where it really does add something. Learners might well prefer text over a very straight-forward lecture ­style presentation (even a short one).

Video doesn’t necessarily need high production values. Low-­cost DIY approaches to creating video, such as filming on a phone, can be very effective, so long as you have good audio quality.

Learners need support and encouragement to engage. How will students who are less confident (socially, academically, technologically) be supported? Prompt the kinds of activity you want to see, rather than assuming they will happen. Provide clear aims and instructions. Incorporate orienting activities naturalistically within the course. So you might make sure they are encouraged to post, reply, and follow during the first week.

Set clear expectations from the start. As a student, how will I know if my engagement with the course has been a success? What should I hope to achieve? Don’t over-promise ­ it’s ok if the course isn’t life-changing for everyone.

Ideas for large online courses

Pedagogies that scale, alternative approaches, opportunities


Large courses can provide a fantastic opportunity to hear from a wide range of learners, not just the course team. Allow students to contribute their ideas, and make mistakes safely. You could create videos where the course team reflect on this week’s comments, and augment your course materials based on learner feedback.

Finishing with presentations or a competition

An event, such as presenting projects to fellow students or even competing for a prize can be very motivating. Law Without Walls gets students to propose solutions to real-world problems, which are then presented to a panel of judges including venture capitalists.

Assess for learning

Assessment can be a good way to encourage active engaged learning. You might: ask students to reflect at the start of an activity, provide comparison statistics so students can see how their understanding fits within the wider cohort, allow peer review and feedback, or set quizzes for self-assessment.

Face-to-face study groups

Meeting with fellow students can be a great motivator. Learning Circles helps people set up regular public meetings to work through MOOCs with a small group of peers. Other people have used sites like Meetup.

Fast-track vs group working

Some students prefer to fast-track through the material, working as individuals. Others appreciate a longer more collaborative route. And some may want to “lurk”, reading but not engaging in more collaborative activities.

Contributing to something real

Students might contribute to a citizen science project or to a collaborative online space such as Wikipedia. If you plan to do this, make sure you look for advice for educators for the site first, such as Wikipedia for Educators

Digital and physical artefacts

Capturing data and making complex things on a small scale is becoming cheaper and easier. From image/video/audio capture on mobile phones to cheap sensors like PocketLab to Arduino and Raspberry Pi to clubs like Bristol Hackspace and events like Bristol Mini Maker Faire.

Short intense courses

Making a course very short is one way to manage commitment and keep momentum. How to change the world is a two-week challenge for UCL engineers. 700 students from different engineering disciplines are given global challenges to work on.

Students as teachers

Teaching online and coordinating distributed teams are useful skills. Harvard Law School’s CopyrightX hires current students as teaching fellows, each working with a group of 25 students.

Bring in outside expertise

Students can gain a lot from connections with professionals outside of academia. #phonar is an internationally successful photography class (initially made available free online without the knowledge of its host university). One of its strengths is the active involvement of professional photographers.

Try before you buy

Some courses allow students to engage on a lighter level before committing. Innovating in Healthcare from Harvard ran as a MOOC but a couple of weeks in, students had the opportunity to form project teams and apply to be on a more intensive track.

Eyes on the prize

Could you offer something for exceptional contributions to the course? Students from Harvard’s Innovating in Healthcare created video pitches for their business ideas. These were voted on by fellow students, with the winners receiving video consultations on their ideas with the lead academic.