Moving Mountains in Digital, Blended, and Online Learning
What a conference. This year, OLC Innovate was in the beautiful city of Denver, Colorado. My colleague (curriculum theorist extraordinaire, Dr. Michael Lockett) and I decided to fly down a couple of days before the conference began to get in some slopes at Arapahoe Basin.
During the flight down, I began to experience subtle symptoms of a strange sickness coming on. Things just kept getting worse and worse as we drove higher and higher to the elevated city of Dillan, Colorado. I think it was the combination of the bug I was coming down with added with the complications of elevation sickness. These both compounded with an inability to drink coffee (which is always my sure sign of illness) that left me bedridden all day Monday.
Thankfully, my aches and chills were beginning to slightly subside on Tuesday morning and I was able to join Michael at Loveland ski resort. The powder is where it is at, folks. We had amazing weather and incredible landscape scenery views of the beautiful Rocky Mountains.
After all the fun, it was then time to get down to business and get our conferencing on.
The rest of this post is a reflection on the conference experience for me this year.
The more you know, the sadder you are.
Solomon said something like that in the book of Ecclesiastes, right?
Well, this has been a truth for me and especially in this past year beginning in a Ph.D. program. I knew going into it that I would be needing to confront some of my long-held assumptions and that I had some unlearning to do in order to open myself up to new learning. It is painful. I imagine it is like preparing to run a marathon, although, I’ve never done such a thing.
Thankfully, I’m not going it alone. I have an incredible network of support around me. Doing this venture is on behalf of a bigger cause than just my own growth and development, but hopefully more in-line with service to a public good. Or maybe I’m just a pitiful glutton for knowledge and disillusionment. Either way, I know good can come of this in ways I am unable to currently imagine.
One thing I didn’t anticipate being able to continue to participate in has been professional conferences I’ve been involved in during recent years. Somehow, here I am in Denver, Colorado at the OLC Innovate conference where I’ve been able to contribute nominally to three different ‘emerging ideas’ sessions which are my favorite now. Other than that, my involvement in the conference has been that of listening to ideas, connecting with new folks in the field, and continuing to challenge my own current understanding and assumptions I hold in this work.
I’ll be honest here that in recent years I’ve begun to question notions of ‘best practices’ and other lofty claims of the latest innovative trends on the rise in today’s market-driven economy. So much so that I nearly skipped out on yesterday’s keynote. I assumed it would be another voice in the crowd clamoring to carefully craft in as many buzz-words as possible in a talk. I’ve come to loathe attempts at getting more folks on an ‘innovation’ band-wagon without critically slowing down to ask harder questions lurking behind the latest silicon shine.
But thankfully I am attending this conference with a whole host of brilliant Spartans. With them, I decided to sit in on the “Digital Sociologies: How Inequality Shapes Our Technologies” keynote. I’m glad I did. Huge praise to the OLC Innovate conference chairs this year (Clark & Ben) who brought in the very voice we needed to hear in our community. I had known through passing word of Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s work and had one of her books on my long ‘to-read’ list, but I hadn’t realized she was going to be the keynote at the conference this year. I hadn’t yet known her by name. Her work is really important and I’m thrilled that I was able to be introduced to it through her talk before diving deeper into her books in the near future. She has compelling inquiries for us to grapple with in the world of educational technology in what she calls ‘lower-education’ which was the title of one of her earlier books that caught my attention. These inquiries are rooted in experience and built upon decades of research. They are interrogating some of the deeper societal ills and philosophical underpinnings of our postsecondary education cultures at large. The provocations are rightly holding us to account for our role in changing the world in which we live and in which future generations are entering into. I hope that keynote was a beginning to further conversations we can continue to revisit and grapple with in years ahead.
Speaking of conversations, I had the pleasure this year of getting involved in the Ranger program at the conference that began for the first time last year in Nashville. Here, we are able to connect first-time attendees of the conference to those who have attended before as a way to catalyze new connections and orient folks to the ins and outs of the overall mapped out experiences designed for participants. I enjoyed pretending to know what I was talking about and meeting new folks who would often express that they hadn’t attended a conference that was so personable like this in the past. I fondly remember my first time attending and experiencing these same OLC joys that I continue to love today.
For example, as I have reflected on previously, my foray into the beautifully networked connections that happen at OLC conferences is in large due to my luck of getting to know and work with the notoriously networked Dr. Jessica Knott. It was at ET4Online in Dallas that I first was able to meet folks like Dr. Michelle Pacansky-Brock who I had adored her educator development work from afar for years prior. Others I was able to meet in person like Dr. Chuck D. Dziuban who I had only known from his many years of research on blended learning and some random virtual encounters because of his notoriously prolific collaborative tendencies with folks all over the world.
I also began new friendships and professional network connections that would turn out to be the most important for my growth and learning for my career to date. For instance, my Spartan colleagues and I have met and collaborated now with amazing people like Angela Gunder, Ben Scragg, Clark Shah-Nelson, Kate Miffitt, Dr. John Stewart, Keegan Long-Wheeler, Dr. Steven R. Crawford, Dr. Angela Gibson, Dr. Ann Musgrove, Adam Nemeroff, Frank Tomsic, Rick Franklin, Janet Smith, Michael Griffith, Venessa Ball, Dr. Patrice Torcivia Prusko, Shereen Twum-Barimah, Steve Merlo, Dr. Laura Pasquini, Phylise Banner, Dr. Rachael Neimer, Dr. Matt Crosslin, Jessie Stommel, Dr. Chris Gilliard, Taylor Kendal, Dr. Ryan Straight, Dr. A. Michael Berman, and so many others…
Each of these people listed here and many others who are not (but could easily add their name here through multiple connections that intersect) have all influenced my thinking and growth as a learner, educator, and professional (I try to be anyway). If I let imposter syndrome get out of hand, I can easily worship these folks and wonder how it is that I could even audaciously list them as networked influencers for me. But I know that the reality is that they are all honest, hard-working, passionate, dedicated, thoughtful, silly, curious, resilient, and compassionate educators in the world just like me. They probably also make mistakes, spill coffee, yell at their kids, get stuck in traffic, and wear mismatched clothing as I do. Although, I may have the upper-hand at these latter claims. Who’s keeping score, though?
When it comes down to it, we are all working together for the same common values, goals, aspirations, visions of the future that includes justice, equity, compassion, and more human-centered postures toward a better tomorrow. This year, I really appreciated Ben Scragg’s campfire talk on just beginning and sharing without things needing to be perfect. Also, Joshua Steele’s emphasizing a Slido question we weren’t answering the day prior on the topic of online learning being supposedly opportunistic for first-generation and low-income students and yet how we make sense of how the success rates are so dismal. What are we doing wrong?
Imposter Syndrome was the focus of one of the last sessions I attended and I have never been to a conference presentation anything like it in my life. My hands were sweating profusely during the whole session. This may be my new metric for conference session success because it indicated to me that there were courageous, honest, vulnerable, and difficult things being talked about out in the open. At times, it felt like an AA meeting. I truly believe that the most important work we do in education will look and feel much like this. True change always begins in supportive communities reaching for collective and individual salvation from the vices and lies we can fall prey to. This is similar in our professional lives as it is to our personal lives (if such a divide truly exists or is an illusion, I’m not entirely sure).
Some of the best developments at OLC in recent years have been the inclusion of slow flow yoga with spiritual guru Janet Smith in the mornings and meditation & mindfulness sessions with life coach Clark Shah-Nelson.
Sessions that were captivating and well worth my time (there are many more that I’m sure I would be listed if I had been able to be in multiple places at once) included:
- Clusters & Hexes Creating Educator Pipelines with Online Modules: Reimagining Educator Prep from Community to Classroom: Hyperlink.
- Thursday Evening Campfire Gathering: Night in Denver: Hyperlink.
- Exploring Alternative Learning Design Approaches: Hyperlink.
- Sisyphus & Squad Goals: Perpetual Becoming, With a Lot of Help From My Friends: Hyperlink.
Lastly, I’d like to thank my kind and talented colleagues who allowed me to contribute to the following emerging ideas sessions.
- The Syllabus Matters (More than you Think): Reconceptualizing the Aesthetic and Educative Properties of a Core Curricular Text: Hyperlink.
- The Journey Towards Culture Shift Through an Educator Learning Community (ELC): The #iteachmsu Commons: Hyperlink.
- Social Media UnderFire: Questions of Cognition, Literacy, and Online Learning: Hyperlink.
What a week! Now, back to the good work in the great state of Michigan. So well, Denver. You’ve been lovely and delightful, yet again. Chicago, I am looking forward to seeing you next year around this time, I hope!