A reflection on CRADLE Conference 2020 and sociomateriality

To celebrate five years of amazing research, CRADLE organised its first CRADLE Conference, ‘University Assessment, Learning and Teaching: New Research Directions for a Postdigital World‘, originally planned to be held at the elegant Deakin Downtown right in the heart of Melbourne. Like most conferences, we were expecting to meet researchers from national and international universities during breaks, lunches and the traditional conference dinner. And, as a PhD student, I was craving the magnificent free coffee and catering at Downtown.

…but coronavirus came, and everything changed — and I don’t mean the beer. The current global pandemic forced governments to take strict measures to protect public health, some of which included movement and gathering restrictions. Covid-19 highlighted how human practices are not just a matter of individual will, but take place in sociomaterial contexts.

CRADLE Conference, like many others in 2020, took place online, mostly relying on the now popular Zoom, with all the affordances and restrictions that the videoconferencing service provides. According to some of the attendees, an advantage of this conference was that participation did not depend on ability to pay travel costs, allowing more people to attend from a wider range of countries. Disadvantages included the eyesight toll of watching screens continually for two long days, or the limitations for informal, serendipitous interactions.

I would add that, besides the restrictions the tools impose, the way humans creatively use the tools also makes a difference. In contrast to other online seminars I have attended this year, CRADLE decided to keep the chatbox open during presentations, allowing conversations among participants in ways that cannot occur during face-to-face conferences. Although I didn’t make many — or any — comments during the presentations, I felt that we were all part of a conversation, rather than merely being allowed to witness a conversation between some experts. Of course, this decision meant that each session needed to have someone moderating the chatbox and organising questions for the presenters, which I stealthily avoided — all my praise to the volunteers who managed such a challenging task.

CRADLE also decided to organise two BYO — of course — lunch sessions, which weren’t massively attended but allowed the people who showed up to have more casual chats. Similarly, during the first day, there were themed open discussions, led by rock stars from within and outside CRADLE around three topics — assessment and feedback; digital learning;  and becoming in, and through, practice — which allowed us to have less structured conversations than what typical Q&As allow.

In terms of the content of the conference itself, not many presentations took a sociomaterial approach, but many of their reflections on teaching and research in the postdigital world highlighted the importance of thinking about both the human and technological aspects of education. Prof. Liz Johnson, Deakin’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education, made a call to take the challenges of the pandemic as an opportunity to think differently about education and the role of technology. Here, more than succumbing to the pressure of imitating face-to-face education in an emergency online setting, it is about finding new forms of teaching and taking advantage of what technology enables and constrains.

Keynote speaker A/Prof Alyssa Wise (New York University) gave a very enlightening presentation about her experience in Learning Analytics, highlighting that it is an applied field in which human insights (teachers, researchers and learners), designs and actions are as important as the computing power that machines provide. Similarly, during the second-day symposium, CRADLE’s Prof. Margaret Bearman argued that, with the advances of Artificial Intelligence, education needs to focus on preparing graduates for activities that computers can’t do, instead of sticking to processes that can be easily automatised. Meanwhile, CRADLE’s A/Prof. Phillip Dawson advocated for a balance between academic integrity and assessment security, arguing that irreflective surveillance may create a culture of distrusts, turning students and their data into products and integrity into a game of submitting to/subverting the vigilance mechanisms.   

During the discussion panel, ‘What it means to be a university student in the postdigital age‘, CRADLE’s Prof. David Boud argued that Australia’s history of remote education has allowed universities to cope relatively well during the pandemic, in contrast to countries like the US, where many students move to live on campus. Margaret Bearman noted that Australia has a comparatively slower internet connection than other developed countries, highlighting that “the digital” is not the same everywhere. Moreover, Dave also affirmed that a challenge of online education is that students may miss the social aspects of the higher education experience, to which Prof. Simon Buckingham Shum (UTS) added that we should avoid seeing “the social” as everything outside learning — emphasising instead that the classroom is a social space, where spontaneous conversations and collaboration take place. 

My takeaway from these interventions is that we can’t try to just continue with conventional face-to-face education practices for their own sake — but mindlessly adopting fancy digital tools is not enough either. Personally, I have never liked the name “digital learning”, as it makes me think of learning as taking place within computers — ones and zeros — when I think of learning as something that humans do within the constraints and affordances of material objects, some of which are digital. Hence, to think about postdigital education — a label that I prefer — would require thinking about the local/global conditions in which people engage in education, the social implications of adopting certain tools and services for teaching and learning, and recognising that their impact goes beyond students learning given concepts or ensuring that nobody cheated on a particular task.

Postdigital education still involves physical bodies that inhabit a material world, although they can communicate across the distance and process high volumes of information with the support of digital technologies. Both face-to-face and online education have their benefits and trade-offs, and one is not inherently better than the other, but they provide different experiences depending on how they are enacted in specific contexts. I don’t think postdigital education will be the same for everyone around the world, just like two online conferences are not the same, and while online conferences have many advantages, as a PhD student I missed meeting other researchers… and the conference food.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

back to top