Digifest 2016: Taking Over the Pyramid Stage

My last day at Birmingham City University saw me troop on over to the ICC with a wonderful army of student engagement activists (or that’s what it felt like), marching out to share our story of partnership working, and our use of technology in the creation of shared learning experiences. Digifest 2016 represented a divergent catalogue of digital innovations which spanned the use of robotics, smart technologies and the collision of educational utilisation of all that is good in the world of digital technologies.

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Level Up Mentors Assemble: POD1 Digifest2016

As such Digifest 2016 represented a pretty cool investment of our time in exploring available new technologies and considering their potential for application within a learning and teaching context. Armed with a small group of research minions (namely our wonderful students!), myself (as then Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching for Birmingham City University) and Jamie Morris (an Associate Lecturer in Learning and Teaching) , we were fortunate enough to have shared a close working relationship with our students in the design and delivery of out Times Higher Education Award shortlisted Level Up Student Transition Mentoring programme. In fact back in 2012 Jamie was one of our original Level Up Venture mentors (or LUVMs as they came to be known).

We have become well-rehearsed at sharing our student progression and retention story, but this time around we were armed with new recruits and with fresh blood comes fresh ideas, with the aim of maintaining that closeness and proximity to the student experience. Each year we recruit new mentors for our Level Up programme from those who have experienced the transition process themselves as new students to BCU, as their experiences are the freshest and closest to the student experiences of a new student joining the institution. Our mission at Digifest 2016 was two-fold, i) to search out new ideas, technologies and approaches that could be adopted as a part of the Level Up experience and ii) to share our experiences of the partnership approach to learning with new audiences. Our mission was a success on both fronts.

With a mind on the induction and introduction of our international students, we were particularly impressed with the use of a lived translation application that made use of your phone camera to produce live and immediate translations on screen. In a similarly inclusive approach, the use of a pen e-reader offered the potential to make ease of reading accessible for all regardless of text size or quality. By hovering over text using the e-reader, written text or handwriting could be adapted and enlarged to ease the accessibility to read for the user. However my own personal favourites were the use of a camera, video and animatronic technologies to extend the space within which a lecturer can be present. With an iPad mounted on a robot, the lecturer could be aphysically present through the use of an animated robot and reverse Facetime technology, allowing you to view your audience and engage while presenting remotely. These are all ideas that allowed you to extend the opportunity of access for learning to all, but also enable an active extension of the learning experience outside of the usual parameters of the classroom. So, with our brans filled, it was time to share our own experiences and I have to say that this represented a particularly rewarding activity for us.

We were particularly excited by the prospect of presenting in the inflatable pop-up pod classrooms being demonstrated at Digifest 2016. Attending a session earlier in the day delivered by Dr Esmat Mirzamany (JISC), I was surprised firstly by how well (as roofless installations) they insulted against the sound from the busy market place arena of the Digifest demo space. Secondly, I was impressed by the intimate community-feel created once inside a pop-up space which was effectively supported by hot air. The pods were a real hit with both me and the student team where we envisioned a number of uses from pop-up teaching spaces, to open-day events and social activities. In fact we liked them so much that we have since pestered the Head of Student Engagement, Luke Millard, to invest in a set for institutional use at Birmingham City University.

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Imagine our joy when we arrived 15 minutes early at our own pod to find it full already with colleagues from across the sector keen to engage in dialogue with us about our partnership approach to sharing the design process with our students.

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A quick pitstop to collect a glass of water later and we returned to find our inflatable learning space full to capacity, fit to pop and with delegates eager to get into our session crammed at the doorway, so much so that we struggled to get into the room ourselves. How lovely that we should receive such a warm welcome in our institutional home town.

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With a bit of careful deliberation and industrial complex planning on behalf of JISC and the Digifest team, we were bumped up the bill to play the main stage, as our colleague, Dave Monk from Harlow College put it so nicely, “It’s just like Glastonbury, I’ve always wanted to play the Pyramid stage!” and as we took stock, it really did feel like our collective gathering of like-minded souls from across the education sector had temporarily stolen the show.

Mains stage

So we made the main stage, and hats off to the events team for crowd control and people management skills writ-large, but it was a little nerve wracking to be flying solo without our slide notes and with key control relinquished to the technical team. I guess that was a small price to pay in order to lay claim to a monster audience, and to gain an opportunity to share our experiences with what felt like the entire Digifest audience.

While the conference itself was primarily focused upon the potential offered by the use and development of new technologies to extend, enhance and shape the education landscape of the future, the primary driver and motivation for our work lay around how you engage students in that process of selection and development for the use of appropriate tools and technologies that the students themselves will take charge of and continue to engage with, this was an approach shared by our co-presenter, Dave Monk, in his own work which explored a similar process for using technology whilst working with his own students. Same tools, same conversations, working with our students to harness appropriate methods for encouraging an active and engaged audience of lifelong learners.

All hail future teachnologies!





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