The agency of space and devices

This is perhaps one of what I hope to be many reflections on my experiences at the #dlrn15 conference – actually, this is more of a reflection on Virtually Connecting in general – in part on how it has evolved but also on a few things we have learned over the last seven months.

First and foremost, I want to say thank-you to everyone who has been involved in Virtually Connecting. We have over 30 volunteers that help us run Virtually Connecting, and at least that many more who have joined in with our conversations.

Above is a graphic map showing where most of the volunteers are from (thanks Alan Levine-@cogdog). Sorry to those whose pins got missed – we grew very quickly over the last month, and as such, some people got missed. It was not intentional!

I want to share one more image before I reflect more on agency of space and devices. This image illustrates a brief history of Virtually Connecting. It all began in April 2015 (hard to believe it was only seven months ago) at the Emerging Technologies for Online Learning Conference (#et4online). Afterwards, Maha and I wrote a couple of articles – one for Hybrid Pedagogy and another for Prof Hacker – that helped to promote the idea. After receiving requests from friends to “do it again” at different conferences, we began to grow the idea. It evolved into Virtually Connecting. After the Digital Pedagogy Lab (#digped) in August, momentum increased. We needed a slack group to help us organize ourselves. Even now, that doesn’t seem to be enough. I’ll be reflecting more and we will be doing some debriefing to help us find our way forward. Here the image that we presented at the OLC annual conference and at dLRN15:

The agency of space and devices

Ok, so now that you have a bit of the backstory – let me start my reflection on agency. I’ve been involved in a study that uses Actor Network Theory (ANT) as an underpinning to looking at phenomenon. One of the key premises behind ANT is that things other than people also have agency. That is, things (both physical objects and even conceptual ones) can exert influence. For this post, I want to look at two things that have agency for Virtually Connecting – the physical space of the hangouts, and the devices used onsite. In both cases, I think these help to set the stage and tone for the interaction. At this point in time, this is my hypothesis. It is something that I want to investigate further. We now have quite a few video clips, so we have data that can be looked at to determine if these hypothesis make any sense.

First is the physical space. After #et4online, we started to pay more attention to the onsite spaces for Virtually Connecting sessions. Ideally, we want conferences to provide us with a quiet space, but when that is not possible, we do our best to find a quiet corner. At the #dLRN conference, I had originally thought we could use a round table on the third floor. It was a prettier, more inviting space. Unfortunately, it became clear during the first five minutes that the space was going to be too loud. People onsite could not hear those on the hangout. We then opted to move into the room – which has been allocated as a backup space. The room was dedicated for us. This made it really easy to tell people where they need to go for a session. It also meant that we could have our conversations without interruption. However, it also meant that people couldn’t see us. If they were not explicitly invited into the conversation, they could not easily sit there and lurk.

Looking at other vconnecting sessions (e.g. HASTAC and ALTC) – we found couches that backed onto a wall. The spaces were shared spaces. There were times when the noise levels posed a challenge. However, the location provided a sense of informality. It felt more like people sitting on a couch, hanging out, having a conversation. It didn’t feel as formal.

The other aspect of agency that we need to consider is the devices used onsite. At #et4online, we used my iPhone and iPad almost exclusively. I still prefer to use a mobile device for session. I think there is something about passing around a device when having a conversation. However, that also made more sense when there are only a few virtual people. When it was just Maha and I, then my phone became the embodiment of Maha. It made sense. When the onsite location is a couch, a mobile device often makes more sense. It aligns with the informality. It fits.

In several other instances, the onsite device has been a laptop. When we are sitting a table, a laptop has some benefits. The biggest being that it doesn’t need to be held (so we don’t have people with sore arms!). There is also the option to show the Hangout chat text. It means that the onsite folks can see the backchannel that the virtual folks are participating in. What is interesting here, is that the onsite folks cannot really participate in that backchannel, but they can see it. There is a whole other layer of agency associated with seeing or not seeing that backchannel. It was quite funny the first time this happened – during a presentation at #digped – those of us who were virtual had no idea that the onsite folks could see our chat. It almost felt embarrassing (or worrisome) as we had thought it was a backchannel that was private to those who were virtual.

The biggest issue with agency of device is not so much which device but whose device. This has been a problem in a couple of instances, where the person who owned the device needed it. It resulted in the sense of an “abrupt stop” to the conversation. This happens when the onsite person who owns the device needs it – but the others onsite might be willing to (or wanting to) stick around and continue the conversation. There can be a sense that the onsite person is “trapped” in the session because their device is being held hostage. Of course this is not a problem when things are running smoothly, and the conversation is able to end naturally. The issue has happened at least twice. It is something that we need to be more aware of.

In summary, there are two aspects of agency with the objects in virtually connecting that I think we need to do more analysis on. The first is the space where we host our sessions. The second is the device that is used for the session itself.

What do you think? What other aspects of virtually connecting should we be considering for further reflection / analysis? For those that have been involved, what role do you think the onsite location plays? How about the onsite devices?

1 Comment

  1. I’m thoroughly intrigued by your comment about physical lurkers seeing a VC discussion in a conference space. There are such obvious benefits to visibility, if indeed we’re trying to expand conference participation – not just within the VC project in particular, but as a model for conversation which anyone really could run with in their own organizations and social circles. And yet that wrinkle had eluded me until just now. Thanks!

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