Mar 172014

JISC Digital Festival – Birmingham ICC March 11th & 12th 2014

Two days of – interesting conversations, engaging presentations, freebies, networking overload, tea (sooo much tea), familiar faces, new faces, new connections, energized ideas.

The JISC Digital Festival was packed full of interesting stuff about Enhancing Learning through Technology. It had things that would appeal to IT technicians, librarians, learning technologists, teachers, researchers and academics – which meant some fascinating discussions were taking place that weaved in, out, through and around a multiverse of digital practices in education.

What follows is an overview of some of the highlights of the festival as I experienced it – with a focus on the sessions that I attended.

Opening Keynote

Featured a talk from Diana Oblinger – who explored what education might be like if we used the best that technology has to offer.

Points of note:
The notion that higher order learning comes from complex challenges – and these can be digitally delivered through activities such as gamification and scenario-based approaches

There is a growing need (and perhaps an expectation from students) for a more ‘personalised’ and ‘individualised’ learning experience – for example, developing individualized learning pathways, and using automated ‘early warning’ systems to alert students if they are ‘falling behind’, why they are falling behind, and how to rectify this.

An interesting idea was presented concerning competency-based models of learning – which has ramifications for the ‘employability’ agenda. Wherein students, alongside their degree/course/field specific learning could develop a competency portfolio that was a mechanism for demonstrating the ‘transferrable’ skills that they were gaining.

Day 1 – Session highlights

Designing strategically aligned digital credentialing systems with open badges to engage and meet the needs of digital learners

This session concerned the development and use of open badges. It offered some introductory information about the digital badging concept and then proceeded to workshop the production of a digital badge using a ‘new’ JISC Open Badge design sheet (released date – sometime in March 2014) that assists in the initial design process of developing a Badge-based digital credentialing system.

Flipped classroom, or just flippin' technology? Where are we now with technology, student experience and organisational change?

The content of this session was underpinned by the Changing the Learning Landscape project.

Key topics of interest were:

To be aware of ‘ red herrings’ and ‘bandwagons’ – the recent ‘excitement’ over MOOCS was given as an example of this. To be wary of reacting to flavor of the month technologies, or competitive forces such as "our competitors have just installed technology X, so we must have it in order to keep up with them". One way of avoiding such red herrings is to critically assess how the ‘tech’ can be effectively embedded in the curriculum – 'adding value' to the student learning experience.

There was also an interesting discussion around how VLE’s in many institutions appear to be used ‘for the most part’ as information repositories – rather than as resources for structuring learning materials in a ‘curriculum’ sensitive manner.

Promoting feedback dialogue using technology: why, how and lessons learned

This session, which was based on research looking at promoting feedback dialogue, discussed how in many cases feedback to students from their teachers was monologic – that is one-way from tutor to student, and that students may not be adequately 'engaging' with feedback in a manner which informs their acdemic practice. It was argued that a more effective feedback model is dialogic (where there is a two-way ‘dialogue’ between tutor and student). Part of this dialogue is also about encouraging the student to engage in deeper reflection on the feedback given to them.

Two dialogic feedback models were presented:

The university as a hackerspace: Can interventions in teaching and learning drive university strategy?

In this session Joss Winn gave an overview of the Student as Producer concept that has been adopted at Lincoln as a core component of the Undergraduate Teaching and Learning Strategy.

He then went on to introduce the concept of the university as a Hackerspace – and outlined this vision through his ‘experiment’ in creating a cross-university Masters by research based on Hackerspace principles. Joss discussed some interesting ideas around taking an anti-disciplinary approach, in which persons from all disciplines are welcome but the disciplines themselves are not ‘modularised’ or 'partitioned' – it is an open and democratic space. For me it was refreshing and exciting to see such experimental spirit being openly accommodated by a HE institution in the development of a new ‘course?’… And to see that there are still spaces within HE where ‘radical approaches’ are being allowed to ‘do their thing’…as it were.

Day 2 – Session highlights

Understanding students' expectations and experiences of the digital environment

This discussion/workshop session took its point of departure from Phase 1 of the Digital Student Project, which conducted a review into the student experience, and expectations of the digital environment at university.

One of the core themes concerned how we (that is educators and learning technologists) in HE can/should/must help shape the students ‘transformational’ use of digital technology. In other words – students may have digital ‘know how’ but they don’t necessarily know how this applies to their academic practice.

It was noted that there can be an imbalance between student expectations of what the digital environment at university will encompass and their actual ‘digital needs’ with respect to supporting and enhancing their academic practice and their learning. The challenge of this scenario is in responding to what students want based on their experiences outside of University, balanced against what they need to succeed at university and in the digital world beyond.

The workshop section used an interesting scenario-based approach to gather data, having us imagine the university of 2020, and speculating in what ways an institution might fail to reach this balance between expectation and needs; and conversely might succeed in reaching this balance.

Whatever happened to the MOOC?

This session took the MOOC concept as the starting point for a much broader discussion about Open Education, retaining the ‘networked learning’ aspect of the MOOC space and applying this concept more broadly. With seven speakers the tempo was quick fire, but not frantic – indeed there was a refreshing ‘to the point’ succinctness in the presentations.

Key bits:

It’s not about the ‘content’; it’s about enabling learners to learn in a networked world

There is a paradigm shift in open learning from a ‘one to many’ model to a ‘many to many’ model

This many to many model lead to some interesting chat around how, in such community and networked open learning spaces the participants are at times teaching the teachers through what they contribute, or the mechanisms by which they contribute content, or how they organize content in a digitally facilitated manner.

Was great to see my one time colleague Viv Rolfe presenting at this session, still strenuously advocating Open Education.

Digital storytelling for public engagement

This presentation covered with the basic concepts of digital storytelling – comparing and contrasting two particular digital stories and the approaches used, and offering advice concerning best practice in the creation of digital stories.

What I found particularly interesting was how an economy of content (2 mins of spoken words accompanied by a series of still images) could be an effective communicator of ‘a message’. But also that in such economy of content and the basic technical knowledge required to create the digital story, the production of such a resource was not ‘onerous’.  I.e. the value of the output seemed to be significantly more than the effort required to create the output.

Final keynote – Preparing new generations for the digital future – how the world (and business) will change over the next 20 years

Futurologist – Ray Hammond ruminated on the six major trends that he believes will shape society and business life over the next two decades and how this relates to education – through the lens of digtial technology.

He made some intriguing suggestions concerning the difficulties in thinking about how we might proactively shape the future in relation to emerging and exponentially advancing technologies when we do not have an effective ‘language’ to describe, define and ruminate on the potentials of the new technologies – i.e. the pace of development/evolution of language is not keeping up with the pace of technological change. He used the example of the term ‘horseless carriage’ which used to be used to signify a 'car', and suggested that the terms ‘mobile phone’ or ‘smart phone’ were at the same historical point of linguistic development as the term ‘horseless carriage’. Such 'newly emerged' words/terms and what they signify are inadequate in articulating the potentials of what they are defining.

His ruminations also brought home some stark ‘possibilities’ about the significant and radical changes to the ‘way things are’, based on the rapid advance of technology in relation to key global trends, that may well be ‘just around the corner’. And the fundamental role that education and those involved in education will have to play in preparing our learners to effectively engage with a rapidly and radically changing future.

Overall, for me, the conference was a great success. I came away from it with a renewed vigour to continue to do my part in advancing the use of technology for enhancing teaching and learning.

Check out the Digital Dream Wall that gradually emerged from a blank white canvas over the 2 days.


(artwork thanks to the artists at

I think this is an apt visual representation of what the conference achieved. Facilitating not only a sharing of thoughts, ideas, concerns, experiences, abilities, and techniques. But providing the space in which new networks of ongoing communication and collaboration are established – through which, all of these things can begin to ‘synthesize’ into a strong and progressive lattice of shared understanding, knowledge and ability that will continue to have a positive impact on all learning sectors, as we continue our digital journey.

I look forward to what JISC DigiFest 2015 has to offer.

Posted by Rob Weale