#et4online–First Thoughts on an Edtech Conference

IMG_20150428_190416064-1Last week I participated in the Emerging Technologies for Online Learning Symposium in Dallas, an international gathering of several hundred faculty, academic technologists, instructional designers, and other professionals in the field of digital pedagogy and learning. Like most academic conferences, there were plenary and breakout sessions and opportunities for networking and informal gathering and conversation. Here are a few first impressions…I’m hoping to do several follow-up posts on more specific topics.

The conference was energizing and inspiring….and overwhelming. When you meet interesting new people and ideas, you don’t just encounter them as individuals…you meet up with all the other interesting people and ideas connected to them, and so on. Very quickly, you’re immersed in an expanding network, the boundaries of which keep spiraling outward. And then the challenge is to find your place in an ever-shifting web of conversation, dialogue, and exchange.

So that’s the first theme I come away with…the importance of networksconnectivity, and open access in learning. I suppose we are all aware of that to one degree or another, but to experience it in an intense way brings it home with particular force. All three of the plenary presentations engaged this theme from distinct perspectives. Mimi Ito (@mizuko) spoke on “Learning in an Era of Abundant Connectivity,” Bonnie Stewart (@bonstewart) on “Beyond Alt-Metrics: Identities and Influence Online,” and Gardner Campbell (@Gardner Campbell) on “Thought Vectors in Concept Space.” Collectively, these talks introduced us to several innovative examples of what learning looks like when we really begin to “think like the web,” in Jon Udell’s (@judell) phrase. The presentations were recorded and are available online, but…ironically, given the emphasis on “openness,” and “sharing” at so many sessions…they are only available to those who paid the conference registration fee. Obviously, there are economics to take into account here, but still…a jarring cognitive dissonance from my point of view. But, if any of you are interested in watching them, just let me know and we’ll work out a way to make that happen…maybe a viewing party and discussion, sort of like Oscar night, in the digital pedagogy commons.

When it comes to academic networking, Twitter has clearly become the place to connect. It would be an exaggeration to say that “If you weren’t on Twitter, you weren’t at the conference,” but that wouldn’t be entirely off the mark. Many attendees modified their id badges to include their Twitter handles as well as their names. Every session I was in was heavily annotated in real time on Twitter. Some folks, like Laura Gogia (@GoogleGuacamole) have a gift for capturing insights from a presentation, often including screenshots of a slide, while it is happening and tweeting them out efficiently. These streams of updates represent an unfolding conversation and provide a measure of access to people not physical present at the conference. And beyond the conference itself, participation in Twitter networks is becoming a critical digital literacy for academics. Bonnie Stewart’s research into scholarly networking observes that

Over the past decade and more, digital networked communications have crept into scholarship. List-servs, then blogs, then social networking platforms crept into corners of scholarly practice. Twitter in particular has become a means by which many scholars create and curate public identities and share their work and that of others. But open networked scholarship is, by definition, open to those who choose to participate; the price of admission is not a degree or an accolade or a particular number of publications in the right journals. The price of admission is the willingness to engage, in public, over time, in sustained and iterative discussions over ideas and knowledge and what counts as the public good, among other things.

Speaking of Twitter, one of the sessions I participated in, “Perforate Your Classroom: Collaboratively Hack the Open Online Game #TvsZ 6.0,” was an extended immersive exercise in digital literacy, collaboration, and creativity, carried out largely on Twitter over the course of the conference. The game was facilitated by Pete Rorabaugh (@allistelling), Andrea Rehn (@profrehn), Christina Hendricks (@clhendricksbc) and JR Dingwall (@jrdingwall), with help from Maha Bali (@bali_maha). It’s hard to convey the experience if you haven’t played, but the session abstract gives you some sense of the game design (you can also find out more at the main game site, #TvsZ):

This game builds digital literacy through creating avenues for participants to engage in international collaboration, to compose for a visible and active audience, and to craft personal learning networks. It is a dynamic experience for engaging students in transmedia storytelling and narrative collaboration, and it can democratize the classroom by blurring the line between teacher and student. The game design itself is democratized through emergent rules: players re-shape the rules and revise the narrative as the game unfolds.

Several dozen of us played this game for three days. I was pretty disoriented at first (and only somewhat less so later!), but it was an exceptionally fun way to quickly network with and get to know a cool group of new friends. We formed teams, carried out tasks and missions, debated rules, and created an emerging community and storyline. All of this mostly happened in the interstices between conference sessions and other activities (though we managed to sneak in some gameplay during a few talks as well).

Another theme that coursed through the proceedings is the idea that authentic learning is often unpredictable, loosely structured, ill-defined, emergent…in a word, “messy.” (In fact, one session was entitled, “The Messy Session on Messy Learning.”) By definition, learning involves a movement into the unknown, into a zone of ambiguity, into a place where discovery and insight arise, perhaps in a surprising and non-deductive leap, perhaps after many experiences of failure. Learning environments, and the technologies embedded therein, need to strike a delicate balance between the structure of scaffolding and directive pedagogy, on the one hand, and an allowance (or even a preference) for uncertainty, novelty, and unexpected breakthroughs, on the other.

For example, while statements of learning objectives and expected student outcomes have become standard elements of course syllabi, an excessive insistence on predetermined, measurable, and quantifiable outcomes can actually impede learning. For an intriguing take on this, see Gardner Campbell’s April 2014 blog post, “Understanding and Learning Outcomes,” which includes an illuminating exchange with Robert Talbert (@RobertTalbert) author of the Casting Out Nines blog and a thoughtful voice on pedagogy and technology. Campbell observes that

Teaching and learning are difficult, sometimes bewildering activities, and it’s natural to want to have clarity about it all. It’s also natural, and to some extent a good thing too, when we seek accountability for our professional activities. Asking “what do we want to happen, and how will we know if we get there?” is an entirely fair and just thing to do. It’s when we’re forbidden to use “mushy” words like “understand” and “appreciate” because “they can’t be measured” that the trouble begins. And it’s when we believe that an “ordered list” will take us through the paradoxical encounters of meaning-making, curiosity, awe, and wonder so that we safely arrive at “student success” that we end up with what Ted Nelson famously termed “a forced march across a flattened plane.”

So while there are appropriate reasons for and methods of documenting, assessing, and analyzing student learning, such practices, and the technologies that enable them, should not privilege administrative efficiency and control over the potentially messy pathways within which learning occurs.

In fact, a palpable tension emerged during the conference between what some have called “techno-solutionism” and a more critical perspective on the human context in which digital tools are employed. Are technologies being used to empower student agency and ownership of learning and to foster genuine insight and discovery? Or does their usage reinforce perspectives and practices in which students are monitored, surveilled, tracked, and directed toward predetermined outcomes that leave little space for novel and unexpected learning? Again, are students primarily the objects of administrative and technical control, or are they truly given the opportunities, resources, and mentoring to be the subjects and agents of their education?

Many colleagues that I ran with sensed a major disconnect between the promotional activities of the dozens of edtech vendors and the pedagogical values and priorities of the attendees. I don’t want to portray this as a simplistic binary of bad for-profit vendors vs. good open-source advocates. After all, we were all there using the hardware and software of capitalist enterprises such as Apple, Google, Twitter, etc. The point, again, is a reminder of our ongoing need to be critically reflective about whether technologies, whatever their source, empower and liberate students to be the agents of their own learning. For more pungent thoughts on this topic, see the post by Jeff Merrell (@jeffmerrell), “Humans vs. Tech: Reflections on #et4online.”

Another session I would highlight is the presentation by Adam Croom (@acroom) of Oklahoma University and Chris Mattia (@cmmattia) of Cal State Channel Islands, “For All a Domain: Lessons from Personal Cyber Infrastructure Pilots.” Because we’re thinking of running a similar pilot at Austin College, I was very interested in learning from Adam and Chris. The core rationale of the respective initiatives (OU Create and CI Keys) is captured here:

CI Keys and OU Create make students the sysadmins of their own personal web spaces with full control over content and design and offers students full ownership of the content they produce and the option of moving their content to their own domain if they choose.These projects embrace the Internet as generative of learning, scholarship and the distribution of knowledge. They enable participants to create unique spaces for teaching, learning, publishing and connecting with others in the open public sphere of the Internet and outside the constraints of a closed Learning Management System. The logic of these programs is that offering users this control means allowing them agency and empowering them to make use of the world-wide-web to serve their own evolving needs as learners, teachers, scholars, and digital citizens.

I would recommend Adam’s post-conference reflections and also agree with him that “The conversations were rich and the human interaction was unparalleled to any conference I’ve attended in quite some time.”

Finally, after the conclusion of the formal conference, it was time for an afternoon of #unet4online, an “unconference” facilitated by Jesse Stommel (@jessifer) and Sean Michael Morris (@slamteacher) of Hybrid Pedagogy (@hybridped). About thirty or so folks stayed around to collectively determine topics for further exploration. I was part of a group facilitated by Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer), who led us through a basic tutorial in GitHub, originally created as a platform for open source software development and now used more broadly as a collaborative space for all forms of text-based open source scholarship. For an accessible introduction, see Kris’s article “Push, Pull, Fork: GitHub for Academics.” In particular, we worked with his open-source, online interactive “textbook,” Open Music Theory, learning how we could “fork” his text if we want to take his project and develop it in new directions. I’ve started to see other such academic projects on GitHub lately, so appreciated the chance to dip my toe in the GitHub waters.

So, that’s just a bit of what went down at #et4online. If I were a better blogger I might have had more images and graphics in this post, but next year (in New Orleans!) I’ll remember to take more pix. If you really have some extra time on your hands, check out the main conference stream at #et4online, and also tributaries such as #et4women, #et4messy#unet4online, #et4reflect, and, my favorite, #et4snark.

2 thoughts on “#et4online–First Thoughts on an Edtech Conference”

  1. Thanks for the summary, Mo. 🙂 Sounds like a fruitful event.

    I had forgotten about the Campbell post for some reason, though I’d bookmarked it. I’m not in touch with the kinds of quantitatively-defined objectives/outcomes you describe, though I get hints of them more and more as I spend more of my time among administration personnel. But I agree with Campbell that there needs to be room for “softer” *understanding* of learning and pedagogy alongside those more quantitative goals.

  2. Yes, great conference…much more transformational than I expected.

    I’ve read that Campbell post several times, especially the exchange with Talbert in the comments section, and I find myself still learning from it and teasing out nuances and subtleties. I think that when it comes to learning objectives and outcomes much depends on the context of the particular subject matter and the level at which it is being studied. Specified expectations of what a student has learned do not seemed antithetical to a more global understanding of the subject; demonstrating that one has achieved a particular outcome should be itself an instance of “understanding.” And being able to provide that evidence is important because, as Campbell himself acknowledges in the comments, “students can ‘skim’ and believe they’ve understood something when they have no clue about the necessary procedures or how to do them.” In other words, it’s very easy for us to think that we understand something, until we actually have to provide real evidence that we do.

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