@Friedelitis on @Vconnecting at #OEB16

Christian Alec selfie

This post is re-published from two blogposts on Christian Friedrich‘s blog, one published before the #OEB16 conference, and one immediately after. Christian was a first-time onsite buddy at a #OEB16, a conference in Berlin, Germany, where the conference, the country, and most of the onsite guests had never been part of Virtually Connecting before. You can watch all the recorded sessions here.

I’ll be VirtuallyConnecting at #OEB16

(Written November 28, 2016)

tl;dr: I will be a VirtuallyConnecting onsite buddy at #OEB16and I couldn’t be happier about that. Also, I am trying to explain my take on VirtuallyConnecting as a concept.

This week, I will be visiting the 2016 Online Educa in Berlin. I will also host a session there. The theme of #OEB16 this year is ‘Owning Learning’, a theme that needs lots of unpacking, I think. This post is not about that though. I do, however strongly recommend to check out the posts by Audrey Watters and Maha Bali on the several shapes, meanings and nuances ownership of learning in ‘the digital’ can take. This post is about something different: I am not only presenting at the Online Educa for the first time, this is also the first time that I will be taking on the responsibility of being an onsite buddy for VirtuallyConnecting (VC). There are several interpretations of what VC aims for – personally, I like the explanation of it as a hallway conversation at a conference. VC is different in three ways, I think:

  1. It happens online.
  2. It is recorded and published.
  3. It integrates not only folks from the conference, but by design aims at integrating other voices.

Over the last weeks, many (mostly German) people have asked me what the fuss with VC is about. My answer has been a version of this argument: VC’s value proposition has nothing to do with the technology itself (only few, if any, edtech solutions’ core value lies in the tech, I think). For me, however, the perceived simplicity entails the core value. VC is not about dissemination conference keynotes or output, that’s what conference documentation and live-streams are for. VC is about opening conversations to those who cannot make it to an event, for whatever reason. VC is also about breaking down (perceived) barriers. Maha Bali recently noticed (and blogged about) that some people might be intimidated by authorities in their field. I know for a fact that this is true, being more or less new to all of this (open) education and technology thing. Not everyone simply walks up to a keynote speaker, a workshop facilitator or someone they know from their blog or twitter to chat about research, a project or last night’s football game for that matter. I think VC plays a role in making presenters and conference delegates more approachable for the very reason that these sessions do not seem carefully choreographed, which is not to say that organizing these sessions wouldn’t be much work. VC allows people to watch how others engage presenters and conference delegates in conversations around their topics. VC allows for questions to be raised from outside of the physical conference barriers. In doing so, I believe that VC gives room to many people who otherwise would not be heard and VC potentially gives people confidence to engage in conversations with others, including the ‘rock stars’ of the field. VC also amplifies the voices of those who cannot make it to a conference, thus providing a more diverse and more multi-dimensional perspective that many of the events and tech-driven solutions in edtech are in need of. Doing so can only work if the technologies used are not perceived to be cutting edge, if the spaces that those on the ‘outside looking in’ inhabit are familiar to them. Videoconferencing requires bandwidth that too many mistakenly just assume to be given but, apart from that, being in a video conference is something that most who work at the intersection of education and technology are pretty used to. To participate online, all you need to do is follow a link to a YouTube live session and there you are. Next time you might raise a question, you might participate in a session onsite. Along the way, you will get to know people, you will grow more confident. My first VC Session was in October 2015 (Jim Groom blogged about it here) and even though I loved to follow the conversation back then, I was a fly on the wall. About a year later, at #2016DML, I was part of a session onsite. This week, I will be onsite buddy of VC at #OEB16 and I didn’t think this would ever happen.

And for anyone who assumes that these sessions just happen by accident: I have been in the VConnecting Slack Channel for about 3 weeks now and I am impressed by the dedication, commitment and care that the people who make this happen devote to organizing sessions, approaching conference organizers, potential guests online and offline, etc. – don’t mistake an informal conversation with a lack of care or commitment devoted by the organizers (who, as far as I know, don’t receive a compensation for doing this). Anyways, this post turned out to be longer than intended and I’ll cut it short here: I will hopefully see you at #OEB16 in a couple of sessions, very much looking forward to it.

I was Virtually Connecting from #OEB16

(Written December 2, 2016)

tl;dr: I was Virtually Connecting from #OEB16 and I am trying to give two main reasons why this was an essentially important part of OEB – at least for me.

I wrote a short blog post about my first time as onsite buddy of Virtually Connecting (VC). In my previous post, I noted a couple of reasons and motivations to virtually connect and now, after participating in four sessions as onsite buddy of VC, two main motivations kept on creeping up on me during our sessions at #OEB16: 

Budgets & Access

Especially at a conference like OEB, access is highly limited. This is not because the conference organizers would not appreciate more participants. I didn’t ask, but I am sure they would find a way to host more people and I am sure the many vendors would applaud any initiative that brings more potential customers onsite. The limitations arise around budgets. A regular ticket to OEB amounts to almost 1000 Euros, a speaker still has to pay 570 Euros. Both are offered the OEB Plus Package (“the opportunity to gain even more from your OEB attendance”) for more than 220 Euros and all participants are asked to book a room at the Hotel Intercontinental – the special OEB early booking rate would have been 197 Euros for a single room (I booked a room at a hotel 5 minutes walking distance from the OEB site for 50 Euros per night and I am still alive and well). OEB lasts from Thursday-Friday, additional pre-conference workshops on Wednesday ranged from free participation to more than 300 Euros. Add flights to Berlin and the overall costs can amount to 2000 Euros per participant. Now, I am employed at two universities in a country that values education, personal development, exchange and academia as a whole and I know many colleagues in German Higher Ed. Only a handful have made it to OEB, even though their institutions are funded and they would be able to take the train to Berlin. Imagine what kind of barriers this holds to people from other countries, especially when local currency has been de-valued or when average incomes are not as high as in Germany. I don’t think it’s a surprise that OEB has a high participation rate among Scandinavian countries where wages are a lot higher than in most other places. The mentioned rates are among the highest EdTech conference rates in Europe and they can easily compete with the cost level of most conferences in the US. So, additionally to other reasons not to join OEB in person (border restrictions, travel time, family issues, etc.), the costs really are an issue.

I am not naive enough to think that VC is going to solve that problem. But VC acts as an entry point to these kinds of events for anyone with an Internet connection and an interest. Most of the virtual participants had never been to OEB and to have the possibility to include their views on conference themes and trends is an enrichment of the overall conference experience. Also, and maybe even more importantly, VC is pushing boundaries. For our sessions, we had to claim a space at the conference, we had to ask for help with organizing sessions. VC made the invisible online lurkers of a conference like this a bit more visible to the organizers.

Conversations

In pretty much every session at OEB, I missed the opportunity to ask questions and to challenge mislead beliefs about disruption of education, AI in education, the Blockchain, MOOCs or video-based learning. Most sessions went slightly longer than scheduled and they were not designed for me (or anyone else) to ask these questions. As you can probably tell when you go through the recorded sessions, this frustrates me a bit. But while going through them, you will notice that VC offered exactly that space. VC made it possible to engage with speakers and experts, both onsite and online. We took the chance and made sense of the nonsense, we enriched our impressions by adding interesting ideas from elsewhere and we had a chance to reflect on each others’ associations and ideas. OEB offered Yoga classes in the morning, but no such space. I am deeply convinced that my OEB experience would have been a very frustrating one, had I not had the chance to blow off some steam or exchange some ideas. All in all, VC provided some urgently needed grip on reality and I am not sure how and where other participants at OEB got that.

Being onsite buddy for the first time was a great experience and I can’t wait to join my next conference online. If you ever have the chance, please do take it and become onsite buddy – it will change your perspective on the conference and it will allow you to make new connections. A huge thank you to Maha Bali for inviting me to be part of VC, to Helen DeWaard, Maha Abdelmoneim, Nadine Aboulmagd and to all the guests and organizers of VC for joining me here in Berlin to what would have been a much lesser conference experience without you.

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