The Paradox of Inclusion: Reflections prior to presenting at #OER17

The following post was originally published on Autumm Caines’ personal blog Is a Liminal Space and is being republished on the Virtually Connecting blog in anticipation of our research presentation at #OER17

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Some of us have been accepted to present at OER17 reflecting on Virtually Connecting (VConnecting or VC) as an approach to open and inclusive conferences. The name of our panel is Breaking the physical presence barrier: Virtually Connecting as an approach to open, inclusive conferences. I am absolutely thrilled to be able to present with Martin Weller, Maha Bali, Sue Beckingham, Mia Zamora, and Rebecca Hogue and to be able to travel to London to be there in the flesh (it will be my first time in the UK). The date of the conference will mark the second anniversary of Virtually Connecting and there are plenty of questions about how to sustain or even grow the movement.

I joined VC just as I was finishing my Master’s work in EdTech, and it has lent itself very nicely as a continuation of my studies. Through this work I have been able to attend conferences from around the world virtually and have conversations with those who are working and researching some of the latest aspects of our field. I see VConnecting as wonderfully inclusive but I know that is not everyone’s perspective. There have been plenty of criticisms and even all out attacks on the work that we do. I have come to find the aspect of inclusion stated in our manifesto to be a paradoxical and confusing one. I am excited and nervous about doing work in this area. I realize that this work needs to happen if we are to continue forward but I find it deeply uncomfortable. I’m thankful for the opportunity to dig deeper,face this uncomfortableness, and attempt to find some clarity on these matters.

Methodology

I’m hoping for this post to be a sort of hybrid of a research paper and a blog post. We obtained IRB approval from the American University of Cairo before conducting this research so the research is more formal than most of my blog posts. However, I will not be doing a comprehensive review of the data and much of my thinking in this area are still developing so there will some thinking out loud. Considering that this research was conducted for a panel for OER17, I could not think of a better way to put my initial thoughts out in the open and ask for feedback than to publicly blog about my initial thoughts.

Three focus groups were held via Google Hangout/YouTube Live over a seven day period with twelve different participants. Participants were chosen who had prior experience with VConnecting and care was given to choose those who had diverse perspectives in terms of the different roles that they have held with VC: virtually or onsite, guest or participant, and even those who have indicated that they participate by listening to the recorded conversations. Because inclusivity was central to the researchers’ interests and because past criticisms around inclusivity were known to the researchers, we were careful to include those who had pointed out problems or had various criticisms around inclusivity in Virtually Connecting. These attitudes and perceptions of VConnecting held by the participants were determined by referencing a 2016 survey, prior informal conversations, and public communications such as tweets and blog posts.

Conversations were scheduled for one hour though focus group three did go on for two hours. Prior to the meeting all participants were made aware and gave consent to the fact that that the conversations were being recorded as an unlisted YouTube video. After the meeting further consent was obtained by all participants to publicly link to the videos and to reference them in further reflections around this research.

Participants in Focus Group One

Laura Gogia

Jamison Miller

Joseph Murphy

 

Participants in Focus Group Two

Nadine Aboulmagd

Sheri Spelic

Bonnie Stewart

Harriet Watkins

 

Participants in Focus Group Three

Kate Bowles

Chris Gilliard

Carl Moore

George Station

Audrey Watters

A common set of questions were referenced for all focus groups, though in practice the question order and delivery varied slightly from group to group. Groups one and three were led by Maha Bali and I led group two. The researchers did not create a formal interview plan prior to the focus group sessions but each session proceeded with an intention from all researchers that we were there to listen more than talk. Not all researchers were present for all sessions though I was present for all sessions. I further reviewed the recordings in preparation of this post.

This research specifically focused on the first two items of Virtually Connecting’s manifesto:

  1. We are motivated by a desire to improve the virtual conference experience for those who cannot be present at conferences for financial, logistical, social or health reasons. This often includes unaffiliated scholars, graduate students, adjuncts, moms of young kids, and people from developing countries or countries far away from where most academic conferences are held.
  2. While our aim is to be inclusive, we recognize that inclusion is elusive. When others point out to us ways to be more inclusive we try them. We are trying to both support the development of social capital for people who cannot attend conferences, and to generously do so as widely as we are able. We try to welcome and create space for new people to participate. The way we have expanded means many who were participants are now part of the team and this creates more space for new participants as we widen our circle

Discussion

I am not going to discuss responses to the full list of questions here but rather focus on three main themes that I found of particular interest that emerged from the conversations.

In what ways is Virtually Connecting inclusive?

In what ways is Virtually Connecting exclusive?

What are some ideas for the future?

I will not be able to reference every participant in this post but for the ones that I do reference I will include a time stamped YouTube link to the moment in the video that I am referencing. To the best of my ability I will contextualize the reference so as to give the best depiction of my understanding of that quote.

Us and them

During focus group two Harriet Watkins speaks about how the recordings allow for a layer of inclusivity to those who cannot overcome the barrier of synchronicity. Harriet mentions that she has listened to tons of VC session recordings when she has not been able to participate in real time. She says “I appreciate that the inclusivity extends beyond the real time event when it is happening” and states that she is interacting with the dialog while she is watching.

However, in juxtaposition to the idea of the recordings being inclusive, in focus group one Laura Gogia reflects on how by being a community that has come to know one another Virtually Connecting often exudes an informal fellowship that sometimes uses specialized language to communicate. She points out that this familiarity can be intimidating for new people and that recording someone who is struggling to fit in could be uncomfortable. She imagines how someone who has never had experience with VC could feel like they are not part of things and points out that the joining can be perceived as “high stakes” for several reasons, one of which is the recording.

I found this contrast between Harriet and Laura to be of particular interest. A few months ago in a post that I authored for the Digital Pedagogy Lab Blog entitled The Praxis of Virtually Connecting I reflected on a similar contrast. How when I was first joining VConnecting the recordings contributed to anxiety (as a part of general social anxiety of meeting a bunch of new people) while I was in the session but also served as an opportunity to go back and listen where I might not have been able to do so because of that anxiety.

This is just a small example of how when I consider the prospect of inclusivity in this research I find myself in paradox. In one case the recording is bringing in people who could not make it at a specific time and in another it might be driving people away who would otherwise join at that specific time. I cannot find a way to reconcile this particular paradox. I try to be a strong proponent of those who like to listen and I can’t imagine cutting them out by not doing the recordings. I suppose we could offer some sessions as recorded and some as not but it feels like that is always going to be a problem.

The inclusivity paradox is deeper than just the choice of recording or not at its heart it often comes back to the very fact of our existence. We have often been criticized for being a community. For knowing and liking one another. Some say this camaraderie can be intimidating for some, hindering our ability to bring in new people, while at the same time it is something that holds us together.

Jamison Miller seemed to see both sides. In asking what ways VC is inclusive Jamison talked about VC “piercing the bubble” of those who are at the conference by bringing in outside perspectives. However, when asked about how we are not being inclusive he also saw how a casual and informal tone can seem intimidating for those who are not already on the inside of a community.

Yet, Joe Murphy says that what has been most useful to him has been the opportunity to make personal connections. How do we reconcile the fact that we are a community with the fact that some people will feel outside of the community because of the very things that make us a community? The only answer I have here is hospitality. To welcome people in, listen to their needs, and try to be accommodating. Do this research to better understand ourselves, try to reflect, and be mindful of these things.

Inclusivity vs Dismantling Privilege

`In focus group three we found the term inclusivity itself to be a troubled term and started to explore the term “dismantling privilege”. This opened up a discussion started by Kate Bowels about the prestige economy and if VC could challenge privilege while being a part of the conference. The question: “is it harder to be critical because you’ve been included” came up. Chris Gilliard, with Audrey Watters agreement, answered in a personal way which was outside of VC but which I think begs some interesting questions. Chris argued that there was a designated role for some (in this case himself) to be critical as presenter or keynote at the conference. Could VC also be perceived to have a designated critical role at the conference? Do we already? Could this critical perspective help us to better “dismantle privilege”?

Yet there is also an ongoing criticism around a perception of VC working within the privilege economy. I’ve talked with Chris Gilliard about this in the past and he brought it up during the focus group. Quick disclaimer – I have always felt that VC was an assault on the idea of stardom, because of the very reasons of “high stakes” joining discussed above. The idea of stardom evokes in me a concern for image and asking someone to join a conversation with strangers, in a hallway, that may not be sanctioned by the conference organizers, that will be broadcast over the Internet and recorded seems like a potential threat to image and face to me.

I do see the other side. I see that there is a privilege economy that VC takes advantage of when we ask those who are keynoting the conference to come and speak with us. When we put their pictures on our blog post header and promote the date and time that we will be speaking with them we are playing into that. Audrey Watters noted how this marketing makes her uncomfortable but notes that it is the same uncomfortableness that she she feels when she is marketed as a keynote. I have to wonder how many of these criticisms of VC could also just be applied to the general conference culture. I have to wonder if it is VC’s duty to overcome all of these?

Rebecca brought in the Audre Lorde quote “you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools”. I challenged this by remembering during DigPed Tressie McMillan Cottom saying that the quote was over exaggerated and that you do need some tools. That we always have to use the master’s tools “to some extent”. Maha seemed to agree with this sentiment. (Disclaimer: my quoting of Tressie is completely from memory. I quickly reviewed the video of her keynote from DigPed looking for that particular statement but I could not find it. Apologies in advance if I have misspoke). After we broke it down a bit Rebecca also saw the other side from a patient perspective stating that the patient needs the doctor’s expertise but also needs the doctor to hear about their lived experience. I’ve always felt like the marketing was a sort of a necessary thing that we had to do to play the game but it has never been the foremost thing for me. Most of the “celebrities” that we’ve met I didn’t even know before VC. I’ve been very grateful to VC for introducing me to the work of some amazing people.

Another barrier of inclusivity is often drawn between those who are at the conference and those who are not at the conference. The first point of the manifesto is that we are there to enhance the virtual conference experience. In my mind this is our primary constituency. However, it is questioned that those Who are at the conference on ground have to take time out to meet with the virtual people. I can see how that possibility exists – especially for speakers and conference organizers who are already busy. The suggestion is that perhaps this is disruptive to their on ground/in the flesh experience of the conference. However, George Station mentioned in focus group three that he found the VC experience to actually enhance the onsite experience by having a window to people outside of the conference. Once again enter the paradox, it is also pointed out a few times in several of the groups that VC allows for a small group to go off and have some time with the keynote speakers. It is noted that this is not fair for others on site who would often not get that option.

Challenging or Promoting?

I find these particular overlapping messy point about access to academic stardom and celebrity alongside power structures of onsite vs virtual of interest and feel that I need to unpack it more. Here is where I go much less research paper and more thinking out loud blog post style.

I have often seen many attending conferences rush to the front of the room to get a few moments with the speaker be it a session speaker or keynote speaker. This is not as possible at really large conferences where the speaker prepares and retires to a backstage area with a green room of sorts. Those are usually the kind of conferences where the stage is lit up like a rock concert. However,I have only ever seen this at the largest of corporate sponsored conferences and find that this is often not the case.

Often, the stage is some risers in a hotel ballroom and yes there are a few hundred people present but when the speaker comes off stage they are just coming off the riser not escaping to backstage privacy. I will say that in seeing people approach speakers either before or after a talk often they just spend a few moments with them and then break away. I have never noticed anyone take a speaker aside and have more conversation with them for another twenty to thirty minutes the way that Virtually Connecting does but I have also never followed and studied a situation like this. I’m not sure that it is not happening. Perhaps this does happen but we just don’t see it because it is not broadcast live and recorded.

I want to challenge the idea that this is a problem for Virtually Connecting. First, I’m not sure that we have any proof that this does not happen face to face. Second, if it does happen face to face I think that it is a good thing. If the speaker wants to go off and have a conversation with some of the participants what is wrong with that? I would think that this could be insightful for the speaker and the participant to debrief and grow from each of their perceptions of the talk that was just given. I’m still unclear why this would be considered a problem if it were to happen in the flesh and so I have a hard time with criticisms of doing it virtually. If VC can facilitate conversations to these ends and contribute to the commons through broadcasting and recording that conversation while we are doing it I feel it is all the better.

Yet I see the paradox. I see how the community can be a barrier to itself. How the recordings can bring people in and yet still shut others out. How the celebrity can simultaneously be challenged and perpetuated. I’m struggling with how to resolve these paradoxes. I feel very strongly that the first step will be to identify them and articulate explicitly on which side our intentions exist.

Conclusion

There is a lot to unpack from these videos and these conversations. This post is just a first attempt at getting some first impressions down on the page for further feedback and reflection. I’m hopeful that the other researchers on this project, others in the VC community, and even those beyond will see this and have some further thoughts.

In terms of next steps Sherri Spelic’s idea of VC trying to bridge the gap between those in K-12 and higher ed is something that I am always struggling with and would welcome. Also Bonnie Stewart’s idea of growing to be more inclusive of those that are wanting to be more resident online is something that resonates with me.

I am hopeful that there will be more reflection and more feedback in the months that follow. Please join us by responding to this post in the comments or with your own post, writing about your own experiences with and impressions of Virtually Connecting, watching the focus groups (linked above), or attending our presentation at OER17 in London on April 5th.
Image Credit CC0 obtained from Pixabay

Image metaphor The Law of Included Fragments 

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