4 years ago

#unET4Online: the (f)unconference success continues at #et4online

Sunset 6 unconference board

I just returned from a week in Las Vegas at the Sloan-C Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference. Wow, what a lovely and useful conference. The main reason this conference was so useful?…

…the Unconference.

(I know this is no surprise, since I’ve been pretty clear about my love for unconferences)

Held in the Sunset 6 room, a room that was further from the light of day than a room called “sunset” should be, the unconference sessions brought together people who are smart, insightful, and passionate about higher education. The conversations were deliciously different each session, based on who was in the room and why, and Jen Ross (my partner in all manners of academic-troublemaking) was a superb facilitator for each session. It’s to her credit that people were willing to walk into a conference room where they know they’d have to be involved in a dialogue.

You can see snippets of the dialogues from the unconference on Twitter; check out #unET4Online. My other partner-in-crime, Laura PasquiniStorified the unconference here.

A couple of my take-aways from the unconference:

1) Digital colonization (Stanford doctoral student, Shuchi Grover’s term) is still a big concern with MOOCs. There is an assumption, especially with institutional MOOCs, that our amazing top-tier content can be liberatory for people, as long as they have access to our amazing top-tier content (I’ll have a blog post about this later in the week). Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, said: “One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.”

The talk of digital colonization and Paulo Freire led Christopher Brooks and me to talk about brazilian culture, since we have  shared experiences with that culture (I grew up there; his wife is a scholar of brazilian art and culture). We started talking about the Festa de Iemanja, a ritual-filled celebration that takes place on New Year’s Eve. People congregate on beaches and release offering boats into the ocean, gifts for Iemanja. If their boats return, Iemanja has rejected their offerings and they will have a year of struggles. If Iemanja accepts their offerings, they will have a prosperous  year. This brief tangential conversation brought us to the question, “Is your MOOC an offering boat?” Discuss.

2) Christopher Brooks, Jen Ross, and I discussed the notion of built pedagogy in physical and online learning spaces. We asked, “What does built pedagogy look like in an online course or, potentially more problematic, in a MOOC?” In f2f settings, built pedagogy is the impact of the physical space on the way something is taught or learned (e.g., a lecture hall tends to encourage lecture-style teaching and passive learning). What about our online classrooms? What does the design of the learning environment demand for teaching and learning? Is course design (LOs, assessments, activities, sequencing and selection of content) the representation of built pedagogy in online courses, or is it the design of the platform, or something else?

3) Christopher had a challenging insight when we were talking about “closeness” and “distance” in both physical and online spaces. In a physical classroom, there may be physical closeness (we’re all in the same room, sitting side-by-side) but psychological, emotional, or attentional distance (I’m on Facebook during class, so I’m distant). Researcher that he is, Christopher drew out four quadrants and we began mapping what various combinations of closeness and distance look like in physical and virtual classes. From this conversation, we identified a fun idea we want to research: the intensity of elsewhereness. Isn’t that a great term? It’s not mine (I wish!), it’s Christopher’s. It seems that distance and closeness in a physical and virtual class can be talked about in terms of the intensity of elsewhereness. Anyone want to investigate this with us?

4) The final (and longer) unconference session began with the prompt, “If it isn’t broken…” Attendees were encouraged to talk at their tables for 10 minutes or so and come up with various threads to discuss in new groups. I ended up participating in three different groups: a) a discussion of prior learning assessments + MOOCS + Credentials = ??; b) building capacity within organizations, closing spaces between departments, involving students, being “agile;” and c) educational institutions no longer “own” education. The latter was my favorite discussion because we spent a good deal of time unpacking the notion of “owning” and the notion of “education.” I pointed out that educational institutions have never been only about learning; they have been places of civic and social engagement, and more. George Veletsianos brought up the idea that “ownership” may be less about what belongs or doesn’t belong to us, and more about what can and cannot be owned by others. Brilliant! I’ll have to tackle that idea in a later post.

My recommendations for next year’s unconference:

  • Chuck the prescriptive and unmovable round tables in favor of adaptable furniture. Beanbags, movable chairs, lounge seating…you name it. Perhaps a  furniture company <ahem, Herman Miller, ahem> could sponsor next year’s unconference room and bring in better furniture.
  • Don’t lose a minute of the unconference sessions. I don’t know that I would add more sessions (especially since some organic, unscheduled activity ended up happening in that room between unconference sessions), but I would not take any time away.
  • Make the unconference track more visible. It was tucked away this year, held in a location that no passerby would find it and not clearly visible on the conference program. Put the unconference room front-and-center, sprinkle unconference whiteboards all around the venue, and make sure the conference program reflects the unconference track appropriately.

Also, don’t forget to check out the #et4online conference proceedings and limited video feeds from the event. See you all next year in Dallas!

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