Recapping and Reflecting on OLC Innovate 2018

I’ve returned from OLC Innovate in Nashville. Innovate holds a particularly special place for me for a multitude of reasons. Innovate, previously Emerging Technologies for Online Learning, was the first conference I attended who’s attendees really felt like my professional network. I still remember my first dinner in 2014 with Laura Pasquini, Ben Scragg, Jim Groom, Amy Collier, Jesse Stommel, George Veletsianos, and many more. All are people who’s company I enjoy to this day and possibly wouldn’t haven’t met had these folks not been kind enough to welcome in a new father of two. And I’ve been fortunate in that the network has only continued to grow and become even more rich. For me, that’s what this specific conference does best.

This was my fourth “et4online-derivitive” conference to attend and–without question–the busiest for me. I had three presentations accepted and got to complete the circle with both Ben and Amy (mentioned above) by presenting alongside them.

Ben and I kicked off the conference with a workshop titled Let’s Do Some Visual Design for Human-Centered Learning. I have to be honest and say I probably prepare better for talks than I do workshops. For talks, I write everything out in advance and revise multiple times. But workshops are what I really enjoy, which shouldn’t be a surprise. I enjoy the opportunity to build relationships with attendees by interacting with them. The workshop went over the basics over graphic design theory as a lens for bettering course materials by empathizing with how a student may view your learning objects. In short, we talked about good design practices and showed some tools that can help make it easy. You can view this awesome resource page that Ben put together with the links that we compiled. In particular, this tool, Colorable, which grades the accessibility of your color palette, was a new one for me.

Turn out for the workshop was fantastic and I feel like people walked away with what they were hoping for. It’s amazing how much good grace you can learn by sharing links to free tools. We also had good conversations about how constricted attendees felt, particularly within locked-down spaces, where they have no way of enhancing styles through font choices or fixing accessibility issues as they relate to color. Which was a perfect opportunity for me to dust off one of my favorite oldie-but-a-goodie tricks: embedding websites within the LMS.

Next up was a session called Is Ed-Tech Killing This Conference? I’ve been writing about the organizer-attendee-vendor relationship for quite some time. In fact, I’ve actually written about it as it relates to this conference. As I write today, I am re-reading that blog post and actually kind of sad how little has changed since I write wrote it. From 2015:

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.

Laura Pasquini, who was a co-chair for the following year’s conference, was kind enough to reach out and engage me in the process of thinking through how to better this part of the experience. Directly from the Google Doc of our first meeting:

“wanting to bridge the gap more between vendors and educators”

So it’s fair to say I’ve been thinking about this for some time.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Jeremy Dean from hypothes.is, who shares the same feelings but has the perspective of the other side of the glass. I see both he, as an educator, and hypothes.is as a wonderful partner of ours. I’ve written about this before as well. Genuinely, I believe that our institutions need to partner with vendors to solve incredibly complex institutional problems. Yet the method in which vendors approach educators largely through a sales-first strategy–and, perhaps, the ways in which conference organizers only exacerbate this issue by only allowing them to be engaged through spaces like vendors halls–at best, feels intrusive and, at worst, completely fail.

So, to update my numbers from 2015, emails are up to 25 pre-conference emails from vendors. Plus one very concerning voicemail on my personal cell phone. They also still allow vendors to deliver goodies to your room. And, yes, your badge is scanned at every door you enter.

While I was flying to Nashville, I had an idea. I grabbed all of the names, emails, and companies that emailed me, and put together a spreadsheet. Aha, if you have a spreadsheet, you have a database. I proceeded to then write a email template inviting them to this session. It’s a drip campaign which means if they don’t respond, I also reminded them.

Yes, part of this was to prove a point: these types of emails feel sterile. But it was also to genuinely try to entice vendors to come to my presentation because I want them to be included and hear what I have to say without requiring me to come see them at their booth. In fact, a couple of vendors who received the email actually showed up, which was fantastic. The conversation involved attendees ranging from newly hired to directors to faculty to organizers and OLC staff. I feel like all voices were present, which is great, because I honestly don’t know if vendors are technically allowed in sessions. And, while I understand the desire to draw hard lines between attendees and vendors, I’m actually not convinced excluding vendors from these conversations is in our best interest.

The question we kept asking in our session was “What does a healthy practitioner-vendor relationship look like?” As I have said, I am one who believes vendors bring an incredible value to our work. I did and continue to advocate for better relationships. I’m just not convinced that creating an environment where my personal contact information—my data–can be sold to the highest bidder helps us any closer to a goal of better understanding each other’s needs.

You may be asking yourself, “Well then, what does Adam think is healthy?” And I’m still trying to articulate a comprehensive answer to that question. But here’s a start to what I’m looking for in my next vendor mate:

  • Transparency in privacy policy and terms or service. With events that have happened over the past few years, with unnecessary and improper storage of data and data leaks, I want to almost overly emphasize this point: store little and be excellent stewards of the data you do store. Hear me out in saying that I don’t think you have to not store anything (I mean that would be great, particularly if you just did it on behalf of the learner), but more than anything I just want it to be clear and favor the user. And we are far, far away from this one.
  • Willingness to make open-source contributions. As it turns out, we highly value knowledge dissemination in higher ed.
  • Realization that resources are finite. There are very, very, very few cases where I would ever be able to go from pilot to campus-wide adoption at a school my size, so look harder than just building business models around seats with the expectation that a school will eventually by a seat for everybody.
  • Willingness to be a part of conversations beyond your product. Let’s have meaningful conversations about edtech–not just about YOUR edtech. Also, don’t label as your potential “faculty champion” or “brand ambassador.” Rather, see me for who I am based on my work and my values. I have much more to offer you than as your product advocate with a quote on a pullout banner at your next road show.

The great thing is that I think we had a really good conversation. The not-so-great thing is I am not convinced anybody at OLC cares, as displayed in this Twitter exchange between Matt Crosslin and OLC.

So, OLC, I would like to be slightly more direct. I am really uncomfortable with the room scanners. I realize you have already invested into the infrastructure and that you are unlikely to hear me out whilst hoping that the skyline of our next conference city will simply whisk me off my feet, but, nevertheless, I wanted to propose two potential solutions:

A.) Move away from scanners in favor of a head count. Don’t worry about individualized data because total room count is likely the only data point you really care about, right?

B.) If Option A is a no-go, at least allow people to opt-out of badge scans at both the attendee and presenter level. Meaning that an attendee can request to not be scanned throughout the conference area. In addition, presenters can request that no scanning for their particular session. An EXCELLENT addition this year was the inclusion of photo privacy stickers. Let’s go one step further and do the same for session tracking devices.

Wrapping this one up…. my third session was with Amy Collier on creating an open project where students and practitioners can both critically engage with EdTech Terms of Service through a new framework as well as get an analysis of the latest tools. But I’m going to save that for a forthcoming blog post because I want that one to stand alone.

Let’s end where we started. The people at this conference are fantastic. My time in Nashville was incredible. I didn’t even getting into the amount of music I was able to enjoy (a major thanks to Jeremy’s scouting… seriously. VENDOR. OF. THE. YEAR. ;-) ) or the amount of hot chicken I consumed. These reasons are why I find this post hard to even write. I love these people and I hope the organizers don’t take it personally, as I’ve too organized conferences and can truly sympathize. Yet I would be leaving out a major part of my feelings toward the conference if I allowed my love for Nashville (and for you all) to mask my internal conflicts. If there are those reading this who wish to talk more privately, feel free to contact me. Here’s to hoping OLC makes some changes in their policies, so I feel better about ever attending a future OLC conference.

Update: April 25, 2018 2:00pm

Kathleen Ives, CEO and Executive Director of Online Learning Consortium, sent out an email to OLC Innovate attendees this afternoon that included the following language:

As we get back to work and refocus on our next major conference, OLC Accelerate 2018 in November, I wanted to let you know about one of OLC’s priorities. Like most of you, I came away from OLC Innovate inspired to apply what I learned last week. In addition to all the insights about how the OLC community is driving digital learning innovation (and there were many!), a major takeaway for OLC was a renewed focus on attendee privacy.

As a conference producer, privacy is always a priority. In consideration of recent high-profile cases of data mishandling, along with feedback from our own OLC Innovate attendees about their views on personal data and privacy, I want to let you know that OLC is reviewing all of our data and privacy handling processes. We will be following up with you soon to provide details regarding updates to our policies and procedures, including a transparent view of the data we collect, how we use it, and how you can control the data you share with us.

I invite you to email me any additional feedback or recommendations that you believe would be helpful for us to consider in this process.

Go here for the full email text.

I wasn’t mentioned by name, so I can only assume that this particular blog post (along with Amy Collier’s post last night) were a portion of the feedback that prompted the response. I want to say a thank you to OLC and the surrounding team for hearing everyone out. The response lacks specifics, but I’m hopeful we can continue to engage in this discussion about what specific changes we can make to ensure the culture of our conference properly reflects the community’s values.

I also believe that this discussion was able to gain a quick response because of the publicness of this post and hope to continue to make sure this is a conversation that takes place in public spaces. So thank you for those who shared, replied, and commented. The response well exceeded my expectations. I’ve enjoyed the discussion and am excited to continue it.

Featured image: CC0 licensed image by Igor Ovsyannykov

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  • One year I conference crashed this one. It’s easy to fiddle the scanners if a friend puts a marker to mess up the QR code. While the poor door attendant tries to sort it out I scoot behind. One can also find service entrances to big ballrooms.

    It says much about a conference personality if they try to police the attendance in a session room.

    • The point you make is a good one. Inevitably, these technologies don’t even solve that problem. On the contrary, they put the organization in a really poor spot in the event that somebody is looking for that data (whether its the individual, the institution, law enforcement, etc). My concerns with online proctoring are similar. Beyond serious privacy concerns, they can’t stop cheating. At best, they bring a false sense of security to the institution, which you could get simply through changes in assessment strategy.

      Sorry, I’m taking this a direction you weren’t intending. Yes, I feel sorry for the hired help at the doors too. Though I will say they did get physical with me this year and once even pulled me out by my arm as I walked in. I was leaving the session and tried to slip back in to say hi to somebody and they mistook me for someone trying to attending the upcoming session. That’s a line I don’t like being crossed and an unfortunate byproduct of the system.

  • Adam! So many people that I didn’t even get to run into at the conference! But I will be completely honest…. being told to “chill” by the official OLC Twitter account after expressing a legitimate concern… thinking back now, kind of made me reluctant to engage with the conference at times. Who was this person? Would they be on stage in a position to call me out? Get people to gang up on me and try to guilt me for questioning the vendors? Not that I can’t take stuff like that, but at times wanted to avoid it as well. Maybe that was why I didn’t run into as many people – too busy sulking in my room :)
    • Yes, I actually didn’t catch the tweet in real time and actually stumbled upon it after the conference had ended. I think it sums up quite nicely the attitude at the time. I just updated my post to include the response from OLC and to be honest I think that that tweet played a really big factor. It’s hard to refute my argument when I’ve got the receipts…

      And, yes! Wish we would have had time to catch up. There were several people I usually see who I just didn’t run into likely due to the fact that the space was so sprawling and evenings required taxi-ing somewhere rather than walking. Missed a handful of people like yourself. Hope all is well in A-town. We should catch up soon.

    • Wayne Mitchell
      Hi there. I’m the person who posted the tweet from OLC that is cited in this blog post. A: When i posted it I was not aware of the issues you all (as attendees) were experiencing. At that time I thought you were simply making a comment about all the emails and tweets and swag drop-offs, etc, being a minor inconvenience. Had I known the seriousness of it I would never of responded with such a causal comment. B: Not knowing that, and being the day before the conference started, I was seeing a lot of attendees using Twitter to discuss flight delays, long car rides, and other difficulties of getting to the event. My response to you was meant to be taken as “Put all those troubles behind you, you made it, you’re here now, and Nashville is fine.” Obviously it didn’t come across like that, and for that I apologize. I’m hoping you still got a lot out of the conference. — WM
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