The Best of Intentions, the Brightest of Minds

This post is by Jack Norton (@historyjack) and was originally published on Jack Norton’s blog. Read it there.

Today I attempted to attend a conference being held at Stanford called the Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) 2015 – Making Sense of Higher Education 2015. I couldn’t attend because my youngest turned 2 today.

Part of the conference included virtual chats with presenters conducted through Google Hangouts. If I can’t attend a conference I often follow the conference hashtag, and have learned much from that practice. The promise of the virtual chats, which the conference organizers called Virtually Connecting, was to “enliven virtual participation in academic conferences, widening access to a fuller conference experience for those who cannot be physically present at conferences.

I participated in two and half sessions. The first proved the promise of this type of conference outreach. Adam Croon and Jim Groom offered a quick comparison between punk music and education technology (edTech for the uninitiated) and pondered the counter-narratives created in both music and edTech. A couple of remote folks asked questions, which Adam and Jim answered. It wasn’t long, half hour or so. Still the energetic engagement of the presenters gave such energy to the discussion I wish I could bottle it and sprinkle a little around every academic conference I attend.

The second session was to be an introduction to Virtually Connecting and that’s when the wheels started to come off the cart. First, we didn’t start on time. If you’re at a conference and it starts late, it doesn’t matter much. The nature of the conference is that you likely don’t have to get back to work or family. When remote, lateness means you’re not doing something else you need to. Then, a couple of brilliant folks (sincerely, the presenters were all smart, engaged education professionals I respect)  came on to explain Virtually Connecting with a Power Point that tried to make the case that Virtually Connecting sought to expand the participation beyond the local conference.

In my world, “Power Point” and “participation” should not be used in the same sentence. I couldn’t even tell who was talking as only the remote participants had their cameras on: the local presenters kept the Ppt slides in their window.

After 10 minutes of waiting for the presentation and then 10 minutes of people talking to me about participation, I switched to the Hangout I was most interested in: a discussion with Bonnie Stewart on the sociocultural implications of digital learning. I waited for the introduction to Virtually Connecting to finish. It did and Stewart began the chat. We introduced ourselves and Stewart tried to summarize the session that was held just prior, and then asked George Station to recap a little of what he had presented.

And then she apologized and said the session needed to end as the next session was starting. That was it.

I felt sad, and a bit angry, especially given the promise of the first session.

So what lessons did I take from my Virtually Connecting?

I’d define a focus for the Hangouts beyond just inclusion. Technology offers access, but the success of a virtual discussion requires an objective (or multiple ones). I’m reminded of this access vs. success conundrum as I pour over my college’s graduation and placement data. We’ve done a great job getting people to show up- and then. . . (Bali blogged on a similar subject on October 7th, which may be why this distinction is stuck in my head.)Introductions should be short. Discussants matter, but not as much as the discussion. Afterwards I realized I included three titles, my school name and the location of my college relative to the nearest large city. Yeah, I’m windy.Andragogy is not just for the classroom. I got to meet two of the teaching rock stars today (Groom who runs Reclaim Hosting and Maja Bali whose writings on teaching I’ve taken to heart for at least a year). These are folks I admire deeply for their creative approaches to digital learning. And yet, the intro to Virtually Connecting and the Hangouts demonstrated more technological prowess than teacherly planning. That’s a hard thing to write given my admiration for the folks running dLRN and Virtually Connecting, and I speak as an ally, not a critic.Setting expectations is important. I think I expected too much of these Hangouts. They couldn’t replicate or even offer a fraction of the value of the conversation that happened at the associated conference sessions. My let down was partly of my own making. Following the conference hashtag or reviewing video from the event could’ve given me what I wanted.Meeting people face-to-face, even virtually, is a thrill. That I got to say hi to Bali and ask Groom a question makes me feel like I’ve more digital humanities nerd cred and motivation than I had this morning. As educators fighting a rearguard action against fear, ignorance, and apathy, anything that motivates, matters. I even got to meet another digital humanities scholar in Minnesota- which really made me feel like I’m less alone in my work.The power to create quick, weak, networks that could expand into stronger relationships seems the great potential of the Hangouts (as the organizers hoped “It is our hope that through this experiment, people will not only make new connections, but they will also make weak connections stronger.”)

These are just some thoughts, and not terribly well-organized. Still, I want to offer something other than a quick Dickensian, best of times, worst of times, comment while my memory is firm.

Safe home.

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