#ET4Online Reflections: The Shifting Nature of Conferences in the Connected Age


Last week, I attended the 8th Annual OLC/MERLOT International Symposium of Emerging Technologies for Online Learning (#ET4Online) in Dallas, TX with over 600 other educators in person and roughly another 500 (going from memory on this figure) who attended virtually.  Over the past several days, I’ve been reading Tweets and blog reflections shared by attendees.  This conference will re-emerge in April 2016 with a new title, OLC Innovate: Innovations in Blended and Online Learning (to be held in New Orleans in April 2016). The transformation of the conference is significant, as there are many elements shifting in the conferencing landscape.

I had a moment during Mimi Ito‘s keynote that made me pause. Dr. Ito asked each member of the audience to hold up a thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate their perception of the impact technology has on young people today.  I was stunned to see how many thumbs down I observed — in an audience of online educators. Changing this attitude is important. If we, as educators, do not value the potential of the connected age, how can we design and facilitate learning experiences that empower students to harness the opportunities presented to us?

#ET4Online showed that use of Twitter in higher ed edtech circles has matured (and the conversation continues, as you can see in the search widget below) and, as such, is deeply reshaping what it means to “attend” a conference. Rebecca Hogue (on-site in Dallas) and Maha Bali (attending virtually, based in Egypt) piloted an ET4Buddies concept. Using mobile video technologies, Rebecca pulled Maha into face-to-face conversations and events at the conference. Maha also participated as a panelist on the Women in EdTech: a Conversation and Messy Learning panels.  

#ET4Online Tweets

On the Women in EdTech Panel, Maha noted her deep appreciation for Michael Berman (whom I have the pleasure of working with), an individual who supported Maha’s efforts to get to Dallas in person this past year. After the conference, Jill Leafstedt (another colleague of mine) noted that she was impacted upon hearing Maha, in Egypt, speak of Michael’s supportive efforts. Jill wrote on her blog, “working closely with Michael I already know he is a great mentor, but to hear this coming from someone halfway around the world was truly remarkable. I don’t know if Michael and Maha have spent much time together face-to-face, but it was clear, Maha knew the same Michael that I knew and that this connection was having a deep and lasting impact on her career.” What’s fascinating is that Maha and Michael, to this day, have never met face-to-face. 


In Dallas, I sought out meeting Adam Croom after Laura Gibbs, over Twitter, strongly encouraged me to connect with him at the conference.  I did so and found myself excited and speaking about the ideas that Laura and I regularly share. Interestingly, I’ve never “met” Laura either. Yet, she has played a formative role in how I think about teaching online.  I also connected in person for the first time with Sam Eneman and Dave Goodrich, after years of online interactions.

Several people have noted how more meaningful the conversations were at ET4Online this year and in comparison to other edtech conferences. Patrice Torcivia said it best, “There were less power points and more crayongs; less talking at us and more listening; less structure and more messiness; less learning objectives and more learning subjectives.”  I believe this is deeply interconnected with changes in the nature of relationships.  And, as such, I question what the phrase “attending a conference” means today.

Mimi Ito and Bonnie Stewart, two of the great general session speakers at the conference (Gardner Campbell is the third) mentioned “knowledge abundance” in their talks. As we continue to convene once a year in this context of knowledge abundance, we must be rethinking what “a conference” should be like — structurally and procedurally. Mimi also has audience members use their smarphones to Tweet out findings from small group conversations and Bonnie showcased her powerful findings from her dissertation study, which examined how participation on Twitter shapes the identities of educators. 

How we define value is shifting in the social era.  Community and openness are valued more and the relevance of sitting and collecting/absorbing information from an expert is diminished.  Hopefully, these insights help us to identify with the preferences of our learners. 

One outcome of this connected age is a new sort of preciousness or aura of face-to-face experiences. We still long to be there together, but for different reasons. So, a good question to consider is, “Why do we attend conferences today?” Virtual relationships are flourishing. Faculty, IDs, instructional technologists, CIOs, and more are learning from each other beyond the edges of our institutions and the close of a conference.   When we are together in person, there seems to be a desire to spend time relating to each other as humans and less time passively receiving information. Patrice Torcivia reflected on her experiences at ET4Online (specifically in reference to the Women in EdTech Panel), “The conversation was raw, emotional, and transparent. … We need as many conversations like this as it takes.” I agree, Patrice. And, as such, I’ve heard many requests for shorter “sessions” and longer “open time” between these formal sessions to allow ample time for spontaneous conversations/learning/connections to occur.

What do you want OLC Innovate 2016 to look like? Let us know here (shout out to this year’s amazing OLC Program Chair, Laura Pasquini, for developing this form!).





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