Open Thinkering


A response to Donald Clark’s #altc2010 keynote

I’ve put this here just in case Donald doesn’t approve my comment over at his blog.

Donald, I was there in the audience at #altc2010 and, to be fair, was one of the ones giving you some stick. I was bitterly disappointed with both the content and condescending manner of the keynote. Having followed your work over the last few years I thought this was a real shame.

To respond to the points you make in your post:

1. You don’t create a ‘sense of urgency’ by criticising something and not pointing to any solutions. You were asked twice in the Q&A to do so yet merely said that it was ‘obvious’ there were a range of options. Well ‘obviously’ not!

2. Evidence to most people, including me, involves more than sticking up a few book covers and a graph. I felt, along with many people in the backchannel, that you were presenting opinion as fact. I’ll cite two examples: your criticism of the Socratic method and Maslow.

3. You don’t have to ‘cut out’ to tweet whilst listening to a keynote. I, along with everyone else there, was perfectly capable of forming an opinion in 140 characters whilst listening to you. It’s not rocket science.

4. People were annoyed by your swearing because it seemed a desperate attempt at some kind of credibility. As one tweeter put it: ‘serious dad tries to impress hipster audience’

5. You criticised *all* Physics lecturers based on your own, narrow, experiences. You did likewise with schoolteachers because you’re a school governor. Having worked in schools up until this year, I found your undifferentiated criticism and lack of nuance unjustifiable.

As you well know, the opening keynote sets the tone for the conference. I’m not sure it was the best tone to set.

15 thoughts on “A response to Donald Clark’s #altc2010 keynote

    1. I’m in agreement with Doug (Although I’m not sure its generational) on this Seb , I find the process of tweeting in itself quite reflective and sync’d with my ICAL a good record of my thoughts , notes and reflections on conference presentations

      1. I’m sceptical, frankly. I’m also sure it is not generational. Obviously people differ in the extent to which they can do more than one thing at a time, and these kinds of things are in part an acquired skill. But watching committed tweeters at work at ALT-C, they seemed to be spending a lot of time picking up things to retweet as well as writing in their own right. Making notes is one thing, but making notes while listening to/watching a speaker while reading time-lagged comments from others? That will take your mind off the speaker.

  1. Yep, pretty much agree with that. Donald’s reaction baffles me. ALTC is an academic conference, not a comedy club; there’s a massive difference in the audience expectation between the two.

    The money thing in his odd reaction-to-reaction post is a bit rich as well. I’m self-employed; sometimes I get paid to speak, sometimes just expenses, sometimes nothing. But at the end of the day it’s always *my* choice alone whether I speak or not; if I don’t want to, I just don’t. Down to me. You don’t use the amount of money that you get paid, or not, as a cover for doing a presentation that is full of heat but absent on light, or as a reason to not expect criticism. The presentation should be useful to the audience IRRELEVANT of whether the speaker gets paid ten grand or nothing.

    Look, money isn’t the only resource, though it’s an important one; many research projects have allocated a portion of their funds to send people to ALTC. There’s time as well. Several hundred people took the time out from their working and personal lives to travel to see this. If only he’d presented some solutions, something to take back to their university (“We’re doing it all wrong but I don’t know a better way” isn’t something worth taking back), then the reaction would surely have been more positive.

    It’s interesting to compare the reaction between Donald’s talk and those by David White and Sugata. They provided inspiration and concrete, persuasive, stuff that people could take back to their host university.

  2. Sigh. I was going to comment on Donald Clark’s blog, but the dustballs are rolling through over there, no comments approved yet and I wonder if any ever will? I think he completely misjudged his audience, which surely someone who is so concerned with the medium of the lecture should have taken as his first premise when thinking about what topic to give a keynote on. I personally prefer to use Richard Hake’s work when talking to scientists about changing their teaching methods, as it has lots of data to show how interaction improves understanding (not retention of knowledge). I know my audience 😉
    @seb I agree that tweeting adds to my active listening of the speaker

    1. Why on earth are you citing the usual academic ‘firewalled’ material? I hae academics – trying to get poucloshed in journals, simpering as they follow a journal’s bland, passive style guide to try and get their name in print. And then the work is hidden behind a cost – even though it’s funded by the PUBLIC!

      Bring on the cuts!

  3. I’m the person Donald refers to in his blog post who came up to him to outside the burning building and as I said to him I’m still taken aback by the reaction to Donald’s key note. If you read Donald’s blog you know he’s opinionated, sometimes you think for goodness sake, other times when he bangs on about things you think good on you, glad someone is. You know what you’re getting with him. I agree with the point about the swearing, I don’t think that was necessary, but there was a lot he said that I would agree with, other things made me think, other things I perhaps disagreed with. Is it really Donald’s job to come up with the answers, isn’t that for us academics, isn’t that the challenge he’s giving us to improve teaching that’s delivered face-to-face. Students are happy to embrace elearning but the clear message from our students is they still want face-to-face teaching and the big question for us is how do we improve that, how do we design 21st century learning spaces that are fit for purpose, and improve on the lectures etc. One question I would pose is how would we feel if we were delivering a lecture and our students were giving us a public pasting on twitter? Is this the sort of behaviour we want to be modeling to our students? Just a thought to add to the mix!

    1. Firstly. I think I’m right in saying that Donald explicitly referred to ‘shielding students from the real world’ when he was talking about his role as a school governor.

      It would be rather hypocritical, would it not, for us to do so and then not expect them to talk about us, warts and all?

      The same goes for Donald. It’s not as if the Twitter wall was on display in the auditorium during his speech.

      Secondly, I wasn’t expecting him to come up with a detailed alternative to the lecture. I do think it’s a reasonable expectation, however, for someone who is attacking the idea of a lecture (in lecture format) to have considered his response to the obvious question of other models to consider.

      Finally, regarding the swearing, I’ve heard worse almost every day of my life. That doesn’t excuse his use of it for emphasis and in place of reasoned debate and logical argument.

  4. Doug, I’m surprised that you and Jo both thought that Donald wouldn’t post your comments on his blog. One thing I’ve learned about Donald is that is always up for conversation and debate. Yes, he’s controversial, but he’s usually able to back up his arguments.

    I wasn’t at ALT-C and haven’t listened to the keynote yet, so can’t really comment on it. But if Donald’s Physics lecturers were anything like mine (20 years ago it must be said!) … well, suffice to say it was definitely a case of notes passing from the lecturer to the student without touching the mind of either. We had one lecturer who’s lectures were worth going to, and that’s because he stimulated and encouraged conversation and debate – and didn’t just lecture.

    I have had a number of online conversations recently with ALT members about the value of lectures. By and large, my feeling is that most of them are a waste of everyone’s time. There are exception, where the student is challenged or stimulated to check something out afterwards. We would be far better off with fewer lectures and more time with students working in small groups to discuss issues, contribute to shared resources etc. (for other ideas see Terry Anderson and Donna Cameron’s excellent resource: )

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