I was invited by the Virtually Connecting team to present with them at OER17, and I of course, jumped at the opportunity. I’m a VC advisory buddy and have done a few VC sessions at conference but the work Maha, Autumm, Rebecca and others put in to making it work is tiring just to observe. For those of you who don’t know VC, it started as away of those not present at conferences to feel part of the experience. This is often realised through an hour session with a keynote or two after their talk, with someone onsite facilitating and a group of online people joining a Google hangout (which is recorded and shared on Youtube). The session is very informal, definitely not an opportunity for the keynote to just give their talk again, but rather to discuss issues. In this sense it more resembles the corridor/bar/coffee chats at a conference. One thing the team have been very impressive at working towards is varying the voices we get to hear, so for example the Hangout only allows limited guests, but they try to prioritise people who haven’t been in before, to get a diverse group and to allow everyone to feel welcome and able to contribute.
The team have conducted a number of focus groups (while I was sunning myself in Cape Town). Autumm has an excellent post on some of the paradoxes of inclusion these explore. Maha follows up, applying James Gee’s work on affinity spaces, which looks at how games go beyond the content itself to meta-spaces and communities. In relation to VC Maha comments:
There are the actual sessions which everyone can watch online or which people can even join and be part of the conversation. That’s the “thing” and it is valuable to many people. But there is also a meta thing that has more value for those who are part of it
This has certainly been my experience – I have been the guest on one, and the onsite facilitator for a few of them. This has influenced the physical experience at the conference also – I’ve made new connections with people I didn’t know who are the same conference (indeed I’m on another panel at OER17 with Jim Luke as a direct result of the VC connection). And VC has expanded the people I communicate and share with online.
From the focus groups I took away three things of interest:
1) Safety – Just like the GO-GN students, some participants stated how the VC sessions feel safe or comfortable, where it’s ok to ask all sorts of questions, to share concerns. As the online environment gets increasingly brutal, this is clearly an aspect that people value.
2) Interdisciplinarity – Nadine makes a point about being included regardless of staff role, discipline, education level, etc. The role of discipline in inclusivity is one we don’t always consider. It’s often difficult to go to a conference for many reasons and one of these is that ‘it’s not really my area’, particularly when budgets are tight. In an era that seeks to promote interdisciplinarity that is potentially important.
3) Democracy – this is one of the paradoxes that Autumm talks about, and something the VC team anguish over. In some ways by getting the keynotes to have sessions afterwards, it’s reinforcing a certain celebrity. But equally, these are often people that those who are remote want to talk to. Sherri makes the point that being ‘in the same room’ as an ed tech celebrity such as Tressie was a big deal for her, and being able to talk in a relaxed environment is liberating. But the team are also expanding beyond keynotes and getting a range of people in the sessions. VC is one of the examples of we can remove some of the formal barriers that traditional practice puts in place.
The team believe deeply in inclusivity, it is the sole purpose for VC existing really. But every inclusion can be seen as an exclusion. I think they get it right, but others may not, but I don’t know anyone who thinks about it as much as the VC team. As I mentioned in my OpenEd post, conferences should learn a lot from the approach and values of VC. The focus group videos are listed below, they represent part of an ongoing reflection about VC and its operation. Because as Morris Zapp said in Small World, ‘every decoding is another encoding’, so the job is never finished. Anyway, it’s a privilege to be involved with them, and a reminder that open practice still brings the good stuff.