Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Student Experience Conference: HERDA 2009

The HERDSA 2009 conference was held at Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Australia. Having arrived a day before, I had a wee bit of time to explore the township of Darwin. The 2 ½ hour time difference meant that I was awake at about 4am, so hopped up, had a leisurely breakfast and hatched a plan to run to the Charles Darwin University campus for a look around as it was about 12km away. It transpired that the route I took along the coast, past indigenous settlements, and the racecourse, turned out to be more like 15 km! However, it was a delightful experience to wander around the deserted campus, enjoy the grounds, and spot the student creativity tucked away in an area that was obviously for relaxing.

The welcome evening was impressive. Held at the Parliament building, we were greeted with glasses of bubbly, and could then retire to the lawn, watch the sun set over the sea, and listen to the string trio. Extremely civilised. We were treated to some interesting speeches, and some exciting indigenous dances.
The conference itself has been great…really well organised, and fun. For the techie geeks amongst us a wireless network has been set up especially for the conference, with IT support for anyone struggling with passwords and permissions. I, personally, found the first keynote very engaging. Ron Oliver was talking about the importance of outcomes focussed design and facilitation to engage learners and to enhance the acquisition and use of higher order thinking skills – especially those studying in blended and distance modes. In particular he suggested that the purpose of education is to encourage students to spend as much time as possible in a state where they are learning (as opposed to being busy). This state is fostered mostly where students engage a task that needs to be unpacked with a problem to be solved, and where there is no particular solution provided, thereby offering opportunities for creativity and originality. However, this mode can be uncomfortable at times, but learners do not learn very much until you take them to a point where they are uncomfortable. If learners are going to be pushed to a point beyond their comfort zone they need to be supported and scaffolded which act as a safety net and source of guidance.

A highlight of the conference was the activity where attendees were grouped and met on each of the days. Time was given to discuss learning experiences from the past, now, and what it may become in the future. It was great to be to participate a wee bit more, rather than listening to a presenter, and then asking questions in a large group format.
This morning I had a wonderfully chat with an academic practitioner who is dyslexic, and some of the design considerations that she builds into presentations, reading texts and online sites that make them accessible. So, for example, she pointed out that slides with dense text…or even with bullet points just meld into a mish-mash with ‘snakes’ of light running through the letters. As such, she tries to translate slides like this into a graphic or image…which has the knock on advantage of assisting students who find written literacy a challenge, English as an Alternative Language students, while also meeting a greater range of learning preferences. This once again, emphasised the value of the conversations and interactions around the presentations, as much as the presentations themselves!

All in all, I have thoroughly enjoyed the conference, have come away brimming with ideas, and also with a great appreciation of Darwin and the Northern Territories of Australia.

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