Small victories.

group of young soccer players one with arms raised in victory gesture

CC licensed (BY) flickr image shared by makelessnoise

I am fresh back from attending the Online Learning Consortium 21st Annual Conference last week. As is my conference habit, I tweeted a lot about sessions I attended (and stuff I thought about during those sessions) at the #OLC15 hashtag. The conference got off to an unexpectedly somber start with the first keynote from Goldie Blumenstyk. Don’t get me wrong. I am no wearer of rose-colored glasses. And the state of finances in higher education and all that means is certainly something we should all care about. I do care about it. Student loan debt alone is a disgrace and terrible legacy to leave our future generations to repair. But it was a challenge to find a lot to celebrate and share in the keynote address. In fact, I found that I disagreed with some of the implied messages. You can find where if you cruise the hashtag. Other sessions were more up-beat and I found places to connect.

Phil Hill & Michael Feldstein with Maha Bali on laptopA highlight was being able to facilitate the @vconnecting hangout with Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein. (They blog at e-Literate). This was a special treat for me-meeting both Phil and Michael after reading them for years (and of course following on Twitter: @PhilOnEdTech & mfeldstein67). It was a true #fangirlmoment to be able to sit with them in the @vconnecting aftersession. T

This conference experience has left me wondering about my own take-aways from conferences in general. I think back to my very first edtech conference experience in early 2008: The ELI Annual Meeting in San Antonio that year. I met Gardner Campbell for the first time there (I am sure he won’t recall that, but boy I did. He opened his session I attended by asking us to move our chairs into a circle. There had to be >50 of us in that room. Hmmm…very ‘untechlike’). Honestly, I don’t recall a lot of what he said. The real impression he left was of just the way Gardner ‘is’ (and was)…his very being….that was what moved me to come home and dig up everything I could find that he wrote.

Bryan Alexander was there, too. Henry Jenkins was the keynote. Those were heady days for me. And not just me. Here is what Gardner wrote then:

…that’s probably what I treasure most about ELI: the strong and unshakable belief that runs through the entire organization and emerges magnificently in these annual meetings, the belief that we can and must put our heads and hearts together and figure out how to address these core questions. How should we teach? How should we do our scholarship so that research and teaching are truly symbiotic? How do we keep our chins up and our spirits high as we work within the often-frustrating processes and politics in our home institutions? Those are the tough questions, and ELI engages them directly, fearlessly, strategically–and with a tremendous sense of community and goodwill.

I went home from that conference so full of optimism and expectation and excitement for my new career path. I could hardly read and search and connect fast enough. It wasn’t too long after the ELI conference that I ran across this Gardner classic via Brian Lamb:

It is when I really learned about Twitter and started making those connections (many of which I use to this day).

I find that I am still expectantly searching for that same conference ‘high’ each and every time I attend. Alas, I am sorry to write that I have not found it much again – at least not when I attend face-to-face conferences. These days, I leave conferences thinking about all the great work we are doing here at my place – that we don’t share. I think about presentations I could have done myself about that work that others might have found edifying. I watch other conference streams like #dlrn15 this past weekend where it seems that others are experiencing that rarefied air. (And where I might note that the conversation was centered on many of the very same questions about teaching and learning Gardner wrote about in 2008).

I am envious. I am not sure what has changed. I think it is mostly me. In 2008 I was full of expectation for what was ahead. Everything I learned was shiny and new and possible. Now, I find I learn most from my digital connections (most of which are the result of Twitter – which some say is dying. Go figure). Is my mind not open enough? Am I too jaded by my years of trying to engage around these ideas where I feel I am in a perpetual state of beginning? I long for deep engagement on hard questions – like those Gardner set out in 2008….but here…down the hall…with my ‘local’ colleagues. Don’t get me wrong. Were it not for my digital window out, I am not sure that I could continue this work at all. I strive to bring the hard questions here.

And we ARE making progress. Just yesterday in a regular monthly meeting of faculty involved in our active learning initiative we had a most poignant conversation with one of our colleagues where she shared recent experience with her class – and the change in her approach and the accompanying change in how students engage on the traditional ‘content’ she has included to move towards critical thinking and application of ideas – not just recall of fact. She was lamenting student performance on objective tests around terms and names and such. At the same time, her class is doing very well with ‘application’ activities requiring critical thinking and ‘habits of mind’ inherent in the discipline (anthropology). Hmmm…they can’t necessarily ‘name’ stuff, but they can ‘do’ stuff. Is that a problem? We talked at length about that…about the dissonance this creates for her in her own teaching practice. She asked us what we thought. We asked her what ‘she‘ thought. How important is the language of a discipline to the thinking and discourse and ‘practice’ of that discipline?  All the while I was secretly cheering for her willingness to have this conversation in the first place and look her own practice full in the face to regard the changes she is making and the results of those with honesty and candor. Well done.

So, I suppose we ARE in fact having the hard, deep conversations. Small things are happening. Conference messages are coming home.