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Reflecting on ET4Online 2015

I got back in town yesterday from the 8th Annual (and what was announced as the last) ET4Online Conference (Emerging Technologies for Online Learning International Symposium) in Dallas, Texas. Usually, I come home from these things exhausted, both physically and mentally, due to travel and what tend to be long days of extroverted activity. But this time I’m coming back with a much different feeling. The conversations were rich and the human interaction was unparalleled to any conference I’ve attended in quite some time.

Which brings me back with a lot to reflect on. I did a session with Chris Mattia from CSU Channel Islands on our local Domain of One’s Own projects, where students are giving top level domains (.com, .net, .us, etc.) and web space to build and shape their digital identities. We bring a couple different perspectives because, while both projects are academic in nature, Channel Islands, or CI Keys, focuses more on the LMS replaceability of domains while we are using it more as a digital portfolio (Gardner, let me know when you’ve came up with a better name. I’m counting on it!)

I did my talk as a personal narrative from the perspective of a dude with a class doing domains and how we were able to scale it to a 1,000 person domain pilot called OU Create. I called it a “tale of three Dallas’s.” The first being the MOOC Research Conference (#MRI13), followed by ET4Online 2014, and now today, where the pilot has only bred more questions for me and certainly no Solutions (with a capital S). I quoted Audrey Watters, who, as Jim Groom has mentioned, has been a guiding light for the ethos of what I’m calling for ease the Reclaim Movement (Reclaim Your Domain, Reclaim Hosting, etc.) The quote:

Too often, education technologies are developed that position students as objects of education, a reflection no doubt of how traditional educational practices also view students. Education technologies do things to students, rather than foster student agency. If we are to challenge what “school” should look like, we must also challenge what “ed-tech” does as well. What sorts of technologies can and should we build to give students more control? – Audrey Watters

I particularly like her choice of pronoun there: “we.” What we should build. We as the edtech practitioners; as campus leaders. What we should build. This is not an interrogation of IT-driven, enterprise-level solutions, but rather it is more an admission that higher ed has too often decided that digital learning is best to take place 100% of the time inside a single tool where the students work is invisible to the rest of the web and inaccessible to the student the day after the semester ends. This is been recently articulated by Amy Collier and Jen Ross with, a very endearing term, “not yetness”:

Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve. – Amy Collier

Adding to Amy’s thoughts, the role of ed tech should not always be about the viability/scalability of the product(s) but also about how we sheperd students into building, shaping, curating, and refining their personal learning environment. And this brings deeper questions into what technologies can enter the classroom. Consequently, edtech practitioners should, to some degree, consider redefining what “edtech” is in their own community and that process starts with us asking some hard questions. How important is the open web to us as an institution? How important is data control? What will the future of our learning virtually look like and where do we want it to take place? And, to some degree, how much of that are we putting on the backs of companies whos terms of service we’ve never read?

From this lens, I’ve started to evaluate ET4Online broadly. As much as I’m thankful for the exhibiting companies who spend their time, effort, and cash to set up space at the conference, it was quite clear there was a massive disconnect between attendees and companies desires for what learning tools should look like:

This couldn’t have been made clearer than at a session titled “Teacher Tank.” If I remember correctly from last year, there was a session where some edtech entrepreneurs did some sort of elevator pitch and where George Siemens live tweeted his disappointment. Well, it seems like the conference organizers picked up on it and decided that this year it would be better to just give George a mic rather than relegating him to a back channel. To best sum up how it went, by the time the last company pitch started you could hear a faint quiver in his voice. The sharks were swimming and they didn’t hold back any punches. As theraupetic as a session like this was, I honestly felt bad for these poor folks for having to go through the process. While I’m not sure how to you could make an effective pitch in that situation, I can tell you its in poor taste to make learning claims you can’t back up, use excessive buzzwords, or show a 60 second video of scrolling (really, this exists). Here’s a picture of the judges doing their best not impressed face:

Several attendees also commented to me about the level of uncomfortability of the exhibitor presence.

  • I received 10-15 meeting requests from exhibitors (one guy emailed me three times!)
  • My badge was scanned as I entered every room (interested on who wants this data and what they plan to do with it)
  • I showed up to chocolates on my bed when I got home one evening. One attendee mentioned to me that he assumed since his room was clean that he could feel comfortable that no one would enter his room after it was cleaned. Someone had mentioned to him that they were in a towel when they were handed their chocolates.
  • Another person felt cheated when they thought they were going to a conference session only to find out it was a sponsor pitch. It seemed unclear to some how to tell the difference between a company pitch and a non-company pitch as it seemed indistinguishable on the mobile app.

Maybe this is the M.O. at most conferences, but it felt a little heavy handed this time around.

Again, the effect this had on my overall evaluation of the conference was little. The session lineup was heavy hitting and the discussions were deeply rich. Maybe it’s that I am beginning to raise my own questions and am starting to notice it’s presence more. I’m always willing to admit a slight bit of craziness on my end :grinning:. And I can’t say enough about the caliber of people I got the opportunity to spend some valuable time with this week. It will be hard to ever beat my favorite post-midnight session: #moocmoocelele

The end of my talk discussed how we as institutions need to consider adopting some guiding principles. Two that I’m a fan of are the Indie Web Camp principles and what Alec Couros asks his students (“How are you making learning visible and how you are contributing to the learning of others?”). I’m still coming down from the good vibes of Dallas, so I might be a little closer to the edge than is necessary, but I’m starting to think I will round up some folks to build some IWC like tools and widgets with their frame: Build for yourself. Own your own data. Make it machine readable. Document your work. Open source your work. Build platform agnostic platforms. This means Jim Groom, Tim Owens, Alan Levine, Chris Mattia, and others who can help me flesh out my idea… I’m coming for you… Watch out!

Update: Here’s a link to my talk!

3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Damn, I got the sense something big was happening in Dallas via Twitter, and now I get a peek into some of the magic. Witnessing the amazing work you have been part of over the last year (is it only a year since we started this insanity) has been amazing. And your willingness to exist within the ambivalence of the web in all its glory is so rare and powerful. Not-yetness, indeed. But I think what struck me most about this post that tells me the big story is that you mention a wide array of people that you are both inspiring and inSpired by, and you are making a point to build and create with them. The people come first, and that’s the way of true jedi. I AM A VERY BIG FAN!
    • Adam
      The community part is really something. I’ve been thinking more and more how we begin to move more work to Github and allow people to collaboratively build remotely. I know you’ve been mulling this idea for a year (it takes me about that long to catch up :-)). But I like where this community is going and what I believe can be done collectively.
  • So much energy in this post, too, Adam!!! Thank you!

    Now here’s my question: how do we get faculty thinking about these things? With students, I’ve found it is so easy: give them the opportunity to run with these things, to make their learning visible, to build their digital presence, they just go go go go.

    With faculty, though, it’s not so easy. Any chance of trying to build something like the “humanize” workshops that Michelle is doing at CSU CI for people at OU, especially folks who are interested in teaching online…? I’m going to be working on my next UnTextbook all summer long and am totally ready to be cheerleader, groupie, mentor, participant-as-needed in any such endeavor. I would love for this to go places next year with some kind of faculty critical mass… whatever that might be!

    Thanks again for blogging. :-)

    • Adam
      I believe you have to start by simply modeling it. In the spirit of not yetness, I don’t believe in some of these arenas we have enough answers to say we can deploy it across the faculty (and thats ok!). I’m more interested at the moment in how to model experimentation with courses and give faculty the freedom to know they can experiment without it coming back to bite them. I agree that students are sometimes more willing to jump in the waters, but a part of that has to do that we incentivize them much more through grades than we currently do with faculty in the courses. Keep the faith and keep doing the excellent work that you are doing! I’m excited to watch the Untextbook 2.0 project!
  • Thanks for this – both for its depth and usefulness as a jumping off point for some of my reflections (which will have to come later, because I am wiped after missing my connection!).

    THE thing right now, though, that strikes me is that – even more so this year than last – the clarion call for real human and humanizing teaching and learning demands that we meet it. Just who the we will be is certainly ambiguous right now (although those dudes at the Shark Tank certainly got a wake up call that they ain’t it right now!), but I’m excited for you and others who are working through that ambiguity. Keep going!

    • Adam
      Your spot on with the call for more humanness in online. I think there is a genuine call for technology to enable learners and my hope is that we start to see more work in that direction. You ruled the technology test kitchen. That was a brilliant idea. We shall chat soon re: Mad Men as well!
      • Adam & Ben – I don’t think its just about humanness online (although I don’t disagree with your comments). The approach I am working towards is the concept of the “best of both” whereby we maximise the value of face-to-face and the benefits of online to develop our core delivery to be a blended experience. Even where we may have entirely online course we try and encourage local face-to-face study groups.
        • Totally agree with you. I just graduated from an hybrid Masters program and I can attest that the connections made physically are what fueled and amplified the virtual interactions. Lots of value your approach!
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  • Thanks for this great synopsis that captures so many valuable threads related to #et4online. Bummed that i didn’t get to meet you but hopefully soon
    • Adam
      Thank you! And its going to happen soon enough! I’m keepin the faith!
  • How come there isn’t an option to subscribe to comments on ur blog?
    • Adam
      Maha–Looks like it may have been an issue with Jetpack Comments which seems to not have that option. Going to try to make things work so you can subscribe. I’ll send you a message on Twitter as you probably won’t see this. :-)
      • I did :) got notification from wordpress app on my iPad. Probably won’t send email tho
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