Last week I gave the opening keynote at the 34th International Conference on Innovation, Practice and Research in the Use of Educational Technologies in Tertiary Education (or ASCILITE) which was hosted by The University of Southern Queensland.

The conference was amazing – and I felt truly lucky to be able to indulge myself in the full three days of the conference listening to both other keynotes as well as attend some of the parallel sessions.  The passion, generosity, excitement and insights offered both inspired me and convinced me that this is a conference that more academics should attend – bridging the gap between those that stand in front of students and those that establish the environment (both online and face to face) for this delivery.

There were a number of highlights but the key was the keynote by Amber Case who focussed on the insights of her book Calm Technology. The focus of Amber’s work here is to ask and answer the question: How can you design technology that becomes a part of a user’s life and not a distraction from it?

Based on the book, the keynote explored the concept of calm technology: a method (and methodology) whereby the focus remains on us as humans while the tech calmly remains in the background until we need it. Contrast this with our smartphones that can be so distracting as to see some of us, according to Case, tap the screen more than 1,000 times per day (if you sleep for about 8 hours a day, that means you are distracted by your phone more than once per minute).

As I said, this was only one highlight so here are the seven things I learnt at ASCILITE 2017:


  • (1) Pedagogy should lead technology

Too often it is tempting to shape our lesson around the technology available to us – or a new technology being introduced. It is easy to be seduced by promises of what that technology offers: be it a new App or what is offered by the new version of a Learning Management System.

What we need to remember, however, is that good pedagogy should lead the structure and design of our education not the other way round. This does not mean that the technology does not shape or enhance the pedagogy. Rather, it means that regardless of the technology, the principles of good education should be adhered to.

My pedagogy is framed around the Citizen Scholar – co-developed with Dr David Hornsby, amongst others – you can read more here.


  • (2) Technology offers us infinite possibilities 

The point above does not mean that we should not take full advantage of the potential of technology for it offers us infinite possibilities. The keynote from Day 2, Marita Cheng, discussed her journey with robotics, engineering and mathematics. Marita’s educational initiative, Robogals, is a student-run organisation that focuses on increasing female participation in engineering, science and technology through fun and educational initiatives aimed at girls in primary and secondary school. The workshops are focussed on robotics using LEGO Mindstorms robots. While Robogals was founded in Melbourne (2008), it has 31 chapters across Australia, the UK, the USA, Canada Japan, China and the Philippines.

The technology has allowed Marita to confront traditionally gendered-biased subjects such as engineering. This highlights the infinite possibilities at our fingertips – we just need to ensure we have the imagination to apply it!


  • (3) Technology should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity

This one is sourced from Amber Case who argues that “Machines shouldn’t act like humans and humans shouldn’t act like machines.” This means we need human-centred design principles that strive to see the whole system and meeting the needs of users should be a priority.

In many ways. this reflects the first point: students first, technology is there to support what we do.


  • (4) People-centred design: student centred design

Extending point (3), we should all get familiar with ‘design thinking principles’. Design thinking is following a specific process to ensure that whatever you design meets the needs of the end users – in our case, the students. This includes consulting with these students on their needs from the first step, rapid prototyping and testing, having diverse and empowered teams and looking outside your industry for ideas.

There are many organisations to look at that do this successfully including IBM and the industry leaders, IDEO.

There are many examples of design thinking confronting intractable problems (check out the way it was employed to deal with the civil conflict in Colombia or the pirate ship MRI).


  • (5) Data, Trust, Ethics

Today we have the ability to collect data on almost everything – it is one of the most powerful tools that exist. Data can be harvested, manipulated and used to do everything from selling us things to change our political views (check out my ABC interview). We are collecting an unprecedented amount of data on our students and this can be used to assist them in their journey such as making interventions when we feel it is appropriate.

But collecting data should be totally transparent and the students should know exactly what we are doing. This is the type if ‘data ethics’ we should be promoting – and it leads to both engaging the students and building trust. If we are opaque here, this trust will quickly disappear.


  • (6) The best work we do are in teams

Working across teams, particularly cross-discipline teams, is one of the best skills that we can ensure our students learn – but we tend to be very bad at it. The most regular mechanism is through group assignments but these are most frequently badly designed and the students hate them!

There is a specific pedagogy strategy to build these skills – and if done properly can ensure students develop this important attribute. One example is from the Mellon Carnegie Institute – but there are many others.


  • (7) Mistakability

Mistakability is a concept David Horsnby and I developed as part of the Citizen Scholar and refers to ‘learning from your mistakes’: here is a talk I gave at a Vivid Festival a couple of years ago. We expect our students to get it right everytime and they have no opportunity to learn from failure! We read that success is based on 100 failures but there is little we do to promote this.

In my own teaching, I build this kind of mistakability into my curriculum – and I have found that not only do the students learn a great deal, they embrace it!


I actually presented a summary of these ideas at a keynote to launch the Learning and Teaching Celebration at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) which is available here…

To end I would like to thank the wonderful folk at both ASCILITE and USQ – especially Prof Shelley Kinash and Prof Helen Partridge – I am looking forward to furthering collaborations.