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Photograph of Angela Gunder and Kelvin Thompson in conversation at the OLC Acclerate 18 Conference

Conversations not Presentations at OLC

I’m not a huge fan of monologues. The traditional conference paper, someone reading to me for 20 minutes and often failing to leave time for Q&A, has always seemed wasteful. Either publishing work-in-progress papers or recording and sharing videos would disseminate the work at a fraction of the economic and ecological cost of a conference. 

If we are going to bring people together for a conference, it should be to talk to rather than at one-another. The first time I actually participated in such a conference was OLC Innovate in 2016. Having just left OLC Accelerate 18, I am still struck by how well these conferences facilitate conversation.

In stark contrast to the single author paper of the history conference, all of the session that I saw at OLC Accelerate were presented by multiple people. In the panel presentations, these presenters were in conversation with each other and provided their varied experiences on the ideation and implementation of their projects at different schools. The panel that I saw on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning provided perspectives from R1s, SLACs, and for-profit schools. Because of this, the presenters were able to answer questions form the audience from relevant experience.

One conference format, the express workshop, pushed this conversational format even further by having panel members sit with the audience at round tables and  lead conversations. I was one of six presenters on a panel about academic podcasting that Ryan Straight organized, and I loved it. I partnered up with Jonathan Pizzo from UCF, and we talked with attendees about the technical process of posting podcasts to the web. Jon asked everyone we talked to what they currently do, and then we talked with rather than at them about how to take the next step. Rather than presenting papers on our experiences with podcasting, we drew on that experience to actually help the attendees plan their own pods.

With any rule there are exceptions. I don’t generally like keynotes, because they fit into the category of monologues. However, I’ve so enjoyed Jane McGonigal’s work, that I was genuinely excited for her keynote. 

Jane provided a glimpse into one possible future of education taking us to the year 2028. In this not-to-distant future, peer-to-peer education, micro-credentialing, and block chain ledgers have democratized education to the point that all skill-related experiences can be recorded in your personal education transcripts. She talked about how various games, like Pokemon Go, serve as previews of this future. Augmented reality games provide motivation for people to do and record activities in the real world. The peer-to-peer, just-in-time training available for these games on YouTube and Twitch are a model for entertaining educational content that people seek and watch voraciously. 

Jane’s provocation was interesting and had the desired effect of starting conversations on the pros and cons of such a future. However, what I was particularly excited about was that we were able to engage Jane in conversation around her work in OLCLive!

Starting at OLC Innovate 18 and continuing into Accelerate, I’ve been part of a team (Autumm Caines, Dave Goodrich, and Kelvin Thompson) that has been hosting conversations online as OLCLive! Originally modeled on the great work of Virtually Connecting, we have been able to bring the keynote and featured speakers in for interviews that anyone can join online.

YouTube playlist of OLCLive interviews for OLC Accelerate

This year, I got to talk to Jane McGonigal right before her keynote. In her keynote, Jane came across as a techno-determinist. While she was trying to provoke critical discussion, you could get the impression she thought technology would solve all our educational problems (a position that almost no educational technologist holds). In conversation, we got much more into the importance of ethics and the unintended consequences of all technologies. We talked about the biases of programmers and the importance of context in design. We will be uploading the interview on the OLC site and YouTube in the next couple of days.

One of the other really great experiences for me at Accelerate was the Escape Room designed by Maddie Shellgren. Maddie was nice enough to let us stream our attempted escape for OLCLive! Clark Shah-Nelson, Taylor Kendal and I got one of the last slots before the room’s were broken down, so that we could share the whole experience with the online audience.

This experience was so different than a delivered paper, but it served the same purpose of providing an educational experience. Maddie built her rooms around the importance of accessibility and Universal Design. The frustrations that we experienced in the room mirrored the challenges facing faculty in making their courses accessible. My engagement with these challenges, my memory of the experience, and my enjoyment of negotiating the game in collaboration with friends were transformed by the format. Getting to debrief with Maddie (and my daughter who was mocking our failed attempt) provided another layer of context for both me and anyone watching the conversation via OLCLive! We were even able to dive into some of the ideation and iteration that brought the Escape Room into existence.

In this tweet from Maddie Shellgren, you can find a link to a Flipgrid with participant reflections on the escape room.

Looking back at OLC Accelerate 18, what I am most excited about are the conversations. From the multi-presenter, conversation-centered presentations, to the online conversations in OLCLive!, to the great experiential learning in the Escape Room and Technology Test Kitchen more broadly, OLC has built this conference around conversation rather than monologues. I appreciate how Christine Hinkley and Katie Fife Schuster have allowed the many volunteers to take ownership of these spaces and how they/we have sought to use that license to create conversations around online education.

WP Campus 18 First Notes

This week, I’m attending WP Campus 18 in St. Louis, MO. For the conference, presenters are encouraged to create some sort of online artifact (usually a WP site) to share their slides and resources. Here’s mine.

I’m really impressed by the conference in terms of some of the organizational things they are doing.

  • Online artifacts
  • Almost all of the talks are live-streamed and recorded, and kept open on the schedule page for the conference.
  • Before each talk, the organizers give a brief talk about the online audience and reasserting the Code of Conduct.
  • There are nightly events for networking.
  • Lunch is on site and they set up ‘birds of a feather’ tables.

Pretty much everything about the conference is going well. Their website (in WP obviously) has a ton of information for attendees and some cool features in how it’s built. There are things about the conference that wouldn’t work at scale, but I’m taking a lot of notes on things that I want to borrow for my other conferences.

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.

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