Conversations not Presentations

Last week, I was at OLC Innovate at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the innovations at this year’s conference was a presentation format called Conversations, not Presentations. This format drew on the idea that when one person is talking to an audience, you miss out on the latent capacity and knowledge of the audience. At OLC, we had 1200 smart, well-informed people coming together, and the best use of our time was probably conversations around a topic rather than lectures. I have always felt that I get more out of conversations and hanging out than I do from the presentations at conferences, so I loved this idea of building sessions around discussion and distributed knowledge.

In addition to leading three(!) sessions in the Conversations format, I was also the Engagement Committee co-chair with Kirstin Riddick. Many months ago, when Angela Gunder and Jess Knott asked if I wanted to be co-chair, I said sure without having any idea what that meant. Now, I’m fairly confidant that our main responsibility was inviting people into the conversations at the conference. Through the work of a lot of volunteers, we ran a bunch of initiatives to welcome new comers into the fold and amplify as many voices as possible.


We borrowed Clark Shah-Nelson’s Field Guide idea from OLC Accelerate to get volunteers to serve as guides or “Rangers” for the conference. Focusing on first year attendees of the conference, we recruited people to volunteer to give directions and help out for an hour or two. In exchange, these Rangers received a wonderful lunch from OLC and a chance to come together as a cohort with Clark and Kirstin as mentors.

Campfire Evenings

The Engagement Committee also introduced something we called “Campfire Evenings.” Each night we hosted an event from 9-10pm to give people a space to hangout with something to do. The first night of the conference, we had a crafts night with knitting, crocheting, and friendship bracelets. This played into the “Camp” theme of the conference, but also gave us an opportunity to think about how and why crafting has been left out of “making” and “maker spaces.” While everyone was thinking about gender, equity, and innovation, we also fed them s’mores.

On Wednesday, we had a game night with board games, card games, and video games. I invited people to bring their favorite games to share and think about how games can improve our teaching practices. I’m not sure how much analysis and intellectual conversation was had, but I know that we did have fun playing Tickets to Ride, Happy Salmon, and Nintendo Switch. OLC supplied us with a candy buffet, so there were also plenty of Swedish Fish, M&Ms, and Pixie Sticks to go around.

Thursday night, we hosted a diversity and inclusivity event to raise money for scholarships for women in higher education leadership. This is a tradition at OLC Innovate, but I was really happy that we could give it a slight twist with the Camp theme of the year.

OLC Live

I’ve already written a good bit about OLC Live (both before and after the conference), but it too was about bringing people into our conversations. I collaborated with Autumm Caines, Dave Goodrich, and Kelvin Thompson to host a Zoom room as an online space for the conference. Over the three days of the conference, we brought in presenters from the conference for interviews, gave a tour of the conference center, and also brought our viewers into the Innovation Lab at the conference. We drew heavily from the format and precedence built by Virtually Connecting, and I hope that we can blend our efforts together next year. I’m really proud of how we tried to open up the conference for anyone interested in joining the conversation, and I hope that this initiative will carry on in both OLC Accelerate and the next Innovate.

Innovation Lab

The Innovation Lab has been a central piece of OLC Innovate for the last few years and is mirrored by the Test Kitchen at OLC Accelerate. This year the Lab was run by Keegan Long Wheeler and his legion of volunteer Lab Techs. The lab featured a storytelling station, where people could share their own narratives around the conference themes of failing forward and campfire stories. The lab also had a game station, where people talk about game based learning, gamification, gameful learning, and just playing their favorite games.

Two stations were built around the idea of design thinking. Participants were encouraged to come in with questions or challenges from their work, and talk their way through the design process.

The last station was a pop-up, unoffice hours hosted by Kate Sonka and Maddie Shellgren. Sharing space with Patrice Torcivia’s Design Summit station, Kate and Maddie came into the lab several times throughout the conference to answer questions and lead discussions around diversity, inclusivity, universal design, and accessibility in higher education. Kate and the rest of the newly instituted Diversity Committee improved this conference and led discussion around how to create a more inclusive conference and educational environment in the future.

The lab was also host to both Rick Franklin and the “Who’s Design is it Anyway” challenge. Rick is both an educator and a wonderful singer/songwriter, and his music was one of the biggest draws of the conference. Rick’s music provided a frame for “Who’s Design,” an improv activity that Ben Scragg started last year and continued this year. You can see a good bit of this dynamic in the video from OLC Live above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *