On Growth and Change: Virtually Connecting (VC) as an emerging movement

This post was collectively written by Autumm Caines, Maha Bali, and Rebecca Hogue 

A year ago, little did any of us know that this #et4buddy experiment between Maha Bali and Rebecca Hogue would blossom into a movement that would expand access and minds, challenge the idea of what it means to virtually attend a conference, and build a network of independent international scholars who want to connect with one another. But it happened. And the way it happened is not something that should be taken lightly. It happened in a very natural and unplanned way, emerging from the passions of those that engaged with the project as well as adapting in response to some criticisms.

As VC has grown over the past year, there has been much reflection among our team members around what we are and what we stand for, which culminated in a living manifesto that we have now posted to our website. The fact that we find ourselves in constant conversation about not only VC logistics but also constant critical reflection about why we are doing it and the impact we are having, is indicative of our deep desire to remain informal and emergent. But the question arises – how do you grow in this specific way without falling into some of the same old traps around scalability?

Over the past year VC has grown through the dedication of a loyal and burgeoning community including a number of individual volunteers and academic conference organizers. Organizers with an academic or scholarly focus, such as DigPed Lab Institute, DLRN, OpenEd, and ALT, have seen the value that we bring in enhancing the virtual conference experience and have partnered with us to help achieve this mission by offering dedicated spaces to hold our sessions, mentioning us on the main stage of the event, promoting us on their website, and even occasionally waiving registration fees for onsite attendees. Most recently we saw Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute create a fellowship for Virtually Connecting to support our presence at the Fredericksburg, VA Institute. We are deeply grateful to those organizers that have truly partnered with us in support of our mission. It has been more complicated, however, to have our mission recognized in tangible ways that really make a difference for our community by some conference organizers, typically those who have a large corporate focus.

Going back to our values, we realized that we are not accountable to conference organizers (except inasmuch as we do not want to disrupt the onsite experience – e.g. we would not livestream sessions that the conference and speaker do not wish to livestream). We are doing what we do to expand access to conversations for our community of virtuals, and we cannot do it without the dedicated volunteers who have sacrificed time, money, emotions, and skills for something larger than themselves. These efforts have enabled VC to grow beyond benefiting any one member, any one conference, any one technology, or any one process. While we will continue to partner with conferences that wish to support our efforts, we remain committed first and foremost to our community.

VC is finding ways to continue to grow and empower the community to challenge corporate influence over conference gatherings.

At this year’s OLC conference it was suggested to some of our onsite buddies that a specific speaker/microphone would be beneficial to our cause. The hardware was very expensive and in that moment those present chipped in to purchase the proposed hardware as a birthday gift for VC – thank you Kyle Johnson, Michael Berman, Chris Gilliard and Jill Leafstedt for this gift.

This helped us to realize that VC’s opportunity for growth lies in those that we are benefiting directly – our community. By crowdfunding from those that see our value we allow the community to support us directly. We also are not beholden to any corporate influence, we do not have to use resources that they provide, operate in the times or spaces that they dictate (within reasonable bounds), or partner with anyone that we don’t want to. To further this model for growth we are establishing a cycle of crowd funded support, to create a “general fund”. This “General Fund” will be used to support our work, which might include equipment costs, promotional materials, help with expenses for buddies, etc.

The introduction of funds has lead us also to create a panel of Advisory Buddies who are members of the VC community who also hold influence in various other spaces such as conference organizers and senior academic appointments.

Our first round of funding has begun. Thank you to Michael Berman for establishing and managing this GoFundMe campaign.

Advisory buddies will advise the principal members on various issues surrounding the growth of VC. Use of the General Fund will be determined by the principal members (Maha, Autumm, and Rebecca) as advised by the Advisory Buddies (see names below). Besides advising on funds, the Advisory Buddies will also advise on which conferences to approach, what other kinds of support to accept, external communication advice, etc.

We’re proud to announce the following community members have agreed to be our Advisory Buddies (alphabetical order):

  1. Michael Berman (convener)
  2. Laura Czerniewicz
  3. Kristen Eshleman
  4. Chris Gilliard
  5. Kyle Johnson
  6. Alan Levine
  7. Bonnie Stewart
  8. Martin Weller

Principal Members are (Alphabetical order) Maha Bali, Autumm Caines, Rebecca J. Hogue.

A conference should be a place for scholars to come together to challenge one another, share ideas, create opportunities for partnership, and refine thinking. This is not a mission to benefit institutions, scholars, or conferences, this is a mission to benefit society by holding those creating and disseminating knowledge accountable to each other for validity and diversity. Sadly, some conferences and other forms of academic gatherings have drifted from this mission. Some have become places for those affiliated with the silo associated with the conference itself; meaning those that have the money, power, influence, achieved degrees, and histories that fit that particular conference’s ideas. VC attempts to break this division down. It is one way of doing it, and we hope to keep improving. We are so proud and excited to enter year two of Virtually Connecting. We can’t wait to continue to meet new people, make new friends, and keep bringing the conversation to places that it otherwise would not be able to go. We continue to be open to your feedback and we will soon be publishing results from our most recent survey.

Image Credit: “Connected” CC BY-SA Heather

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