Replacing conferences with effective online learning experiences

By Maha Bali, George Station and Mia Zamora

authors_maha-bali_george-station_mia-zamora
1. Maha Bali (biography)
2. George Station (biography)
3. Mia Zamora (biography)

What options are there for developing effective online replacements for face-to-face conferences? How can these options promote better access for those without funds or freedom to travel? How can they contribute to climate justice?

We share our experience in co-organising (with others) Equity Unbound’s inaugural Mid-Year Festival 2022, aka #MYFest22 (referred to throughout as MYFest), a virtual event that sought to center community and support, and avoid the many pitfalls of online, in-person and hybrid events.

Equity Unbound is an equity-focused, connected intercultural learning network that co-creates diverse, open learning experiences. MYFest was not a conference per se, but was designed to be a three-month-long “recharge and renewal experience” with a “choose-your-own-learning journey” approach, exploring a variety of themes, in our case around equitable learning. In addition, two themes intentionally addressed isolation: “well-being and joy” and “community building and community reflection.”

More than 300 participants from five continents joined us.

We offer eight ideas for what organizers of other online events can learn from MYFest.

1. Have a diverse community of organizers

To capture a diverse audience, design with diverse organizers. MYFest built on relationships among 14 organizers from four different countries (Canada, Egypt, South Africa and the United States), many of whom have built trust and collegial friendship online as part of a thriving, intersecting long-term personal learning network with community values of mutual support.

2. Aspire toward participant agency and reflection

MYFest was a “buffet approach,” where participants chose sessions of interest, could change selections at any time and could attend as much or as little as suited them.

Scheduling the event over three months, rather than two to three days, gave participants time to build community and relationships synchronously and asynchronously, and opened up room for reflection and cumulative transformative learning. Individual and collective reflection was the glue of the MYFest experience.

3. Foster global connections and community with Intentionally Equitable Hospitality

We sought to foster global online conversations through skillful facilitation, designing sessions to ensure everyone participated as fully as possible in the ways they felt most comfortable, and inviting the most marginalized voices.

Participants had various modes of participation, synchronous or asynchronous, available. There was never an expectation of cameras on or of oral participation. Slides were provided ahead of time where possible. Automated live transcription was enabled in live sessions.

Chats were lively in most sessions, and there were opportunities to participate anonymously via Google docs, Google Jamboard or polling tools. Sessions were recorded, unless precluded by the nature of the conversations requiring a safe space.

4. Co-create and experience community and joy throughout

The MYFest participants did not meet to talk about community and well-being. Rather, we met to experience and co-create community and well-being. MYFest facilitators used approaches that quickly fostered lively participation. These were drawn from our own community building resource site (OneHE) and from liberating structures.

Ahead of the main three-month long event, we laid the foundation for MYFest with at least one weekly community building engagement, making time for people to get to know one another in small groups with creative prompts.

5. Schedule wisely. Resist Zoom fatigue and decision fatigue

We spread our offerings out over three months, avoided overlapping sessions and had no more than three 1-2 hour events per day. Some MYFest events were threaded as “tracks,” where one could attend multiple sessions and do some asynchronous work around the same topic, an approach that opened up the potential of “cohort” congeniality. In our Slack channel, MYFest participants could discover, connect and share with new colleagues at any time across multiple themes and tracks. Having down time between sessions for reflections supported cumulative transformative learning.

6. Embrace emergence: welcome and leverage participant expertise

Every session in MYFest encouraged participants to bring and share their expertise. Additionally, there were special sessions within MYFest inviting participants to contribute to the OneHE/Equity Unbound community-building resource site mentioned earlier, so these sessions built on participant expertise while also contributing to an open resource that is available to all on the open web.

7. Make it family-friendly

Another unique aspect of the MYFest experience was the intuitive involvement of family and friends. By focusing on well-being and joy, as well as critical discussions, we intentionally designed and advertised programming for the entire family (saying “for all ages”). MYFest participants brought both (grand)parents and children to certain threads, embracing the power of intergenerational learning and connection.

8. Go beyond access and focus on accessibility

MYFest was awarded a Hewlett Foundation grant that covered the labor of the main facilitators and some of the invited guest facilitators, as well as the technology needed to run the event. There were multiple discounts available for participants, and also the possibility to attend for free via a waiver.

Nevertheless, online is still not entirely accessible, especially for those with limited availability of internet or electricity. Differences in time zones meant that some sessions were inconvenient for some. We intentionally looked for “time zone sweet spots” that might work on all continents.

We focused on ensuring that when people joined, they felt included, they felt they could access learning and learn in ways that reached them where they are. We sought to ensure that people with different abilities could learn comfortably without constantly needing to ask for special accommodations, that people from across the globe could find relevance in the work and that organizers were always open to feedback and suggestions.

Closing questions

How can we best develop equitable, accessible professional learning environments that can bring us joy in community and promote the transformative learning we hunger for? Does the example we have presented resonate with you? Can you see ways of reorganising the conferences you are involved with along these lines? Is there anything you would add or change?

Acknowledgements:

The authors acknowledge the entire MYFest organizing team, as well as the guest facilitators and participants, who all enriched the MYFest experience.

To find out more:

This i2Insights contribution is a shortened version of Bali, M., Station, G. and Zamora, M. (2022). Online does not mean isolated. Inside Higher Education. (Online): https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/08/24/building-community-online-conferences-events-opinion

For more information about #MYFest22 see: https://myfest.equityunbound.org/

Biography: Maha Bali PhD is a professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is co-facilitator of Equity Unbound.

Biography: George Station MA is a lecturer in the first-year seminar program and faculty associate in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at California State University, Monterey Bay, USA.

Biography: Mia Zamora PhD is a professor of English, director of the M.A. in writing studies program and director of the Kean University Writing Project at Kean University in New Jersey, USA. She is co-facilitator of Equity Unbound.

9 thoughts on “Replacing conferences with effective online learning experiences”

  1. Dear Maha,
    I would like to thank you for sharing your experience of “MyFest.” It was an interesting and competitive event as well to sustain enthusiasm and success during the three months duration of the events connecting.
    It was a very interesting event which enthusiastically lead me to read the referred article: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/08/24/building-community-online-conferences-events-opinion
    From this point, I would like to highlight on the following points:
    1- The target audience: I agree that the “event connecting” is a better option for reaching the community. Moreover engaging the community in the societal problems and its solutions helps in developing the society. The connecting event will facilitate a better access to the community and add value to the event.
    My background is academia, and interested in Interdisciplinary research in solving societal problems. The “connecting event” will help in the multi-interdisciplinary research, where the research is solving a societal problem. Side by side with the academic conferences.

    2- The facilitators: their role is very crucial. So engaging NGO’s backgrounds will add value. I believe backgrounds and mental models are playing a major role in the connecting events.

    3- One more point, I am interested in it and I didn’t reach it in the referred article is the organizers background from the four countries of the event “MyFest”.
    Highly appreciated your efforts and the team of MyFest.
    Thank you so much again for sharing your experience.
    Best regards,
    Manal Affara
    Professor of Cultural Heritage and Tourism
    Alexandria University, Egypt
    drmanalaffara@gmail.com

    Reply
  2. Dear authors, a deep bow of appreciation for your work in designing, offering, and writing about this fabulous work. You are addressing so many important questions that will only be answered by more experiments and action research projects. For any of the 8 insights you gained from the experience, did you employ evaluation measures during or after the sessions? I am particularly interested in developmental evaluation that sheds light on “what seems possible now?” There is an experiment and evaluation of online meetings (NewRulesForWork) taking shape that could benefit from your insights.

    Reply
    • Keith, thanks so much for your response here! We had several approaches to assessing how things were going. We had a “two minute paper” form at the end of each session, and a monthly evaluation, looking back at each month. Some of us read those regularly and made adjustments as we went along for future sessions, our website, our announcements, etc. We also had a few “reflection” sessions throughout the month where folks talked in small groups about what they had been learning, while also experiencing innovative approaches to assessment.
      You will also be happy to know we also had an “Ecocycle” towards the end of August to know from participants what they would like to keep and destroy and grow and birth moving forward. We aim to do more after people reflect and go back to their daily lives again.

      I would love to personally be involved in this “experiment and evaluation of online meetings (NewRulesForWork)” if there is space for myself and some other members from the MYFest team. I’ll contact you separately.

      Reply
  3. This is an important summary of the larger document; both of which, to me, offer valuable insight into boundary infrastructures for online learning and discovery. The question about creating “equitable, accessible professional learning environments that can bring us joy in community and promote the transformative learning we hunger for”, in my view, demands more than any single answer; it’s an entire conversation.

    Having said that, I’d like to focus on the term “transformative”. I wonder if it’s fair – in this forum – to explore a distinction between the “professional” side of higher education, and the ecology of education which leads to higher education, primary, secondary, and perhaps early college level learning. My focus has been on that level, but the issues in play, as developed in this piece, remain in effect, perhaps with additional complexities. For, in my perhaps limited view, transformation seems critical. I wonder to what extent the guidelines offered here will map either directly or perhaps with augmentation into that space.

    Reply
    • Jack, thank you so much for your comment! Would you believe me if I told you some of us are having conversations exactly about that? About how some of the values and practices of MYFest might apply in different contexts? Which elements would look different because of who the people are, or what the environment mat be, or the constraints?
      I am also unsure if you’re also asking whether the principles behind these approaches to PD (mostly adult learning) might transfer to teaching different audiences. I would say some of it transfers for sure… other elements may need to be different. We talk about the connection to teaching in this podcast with Bonni Stachowiak https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/community-and-joy-lessons-from-myfest/

      Let me know what you think. It might be constructive to focus on one or two elements that you consider to be difficult to transfer to other contexts, and we could explore what the barriers and nuances might be?

      And also do let me know if I totally misunderstood your question, because it is nearly 11pm right now 😀

      Reply
      • Thank you, Maha. Wow! I left the page for a moment and now have to type this again. let’s start with your own quote in the lessons link: the one about teachers coming together and learning in ways that are different than ever before. I’d like to think that the context I present below teases open that quote in a fruitful direction.

        No misunderstandings whatsoever. But, it’s not yet clear to me that I can contribute to elements which are difficult to transfer, perhaps since I’m thinking already through a different lens. Let me explain.

        I started on this journey when I was working on a PhD with Simon Buckingham Shum when he was at Open University – the task space was that of using technology to evolve boundary infrastructures to support civil conversations online about complex, frequently wicked problems – climate change at that time. I worked with Jeff Conklin to learn the issue-based information systems facilitation process, where one records utterances in a room filled with (think: warring) people, and displays that on a liminal object (shared display) which nobody notices until asked to study what was captured. Very powerful. We wanted to see what we could do to apply that without facilitation to online settings.

        Where that leads is to the application of game mechanics and the social dynamics of role-playing game “guilds” to facilitate the migration from ego to eco-centric participation. That’s a powerful first step in transformation. With conversation participants now operating as collaborative,learning units, the opportunities for transformative conversations are raised (strong belief, weakly held).

        Your context was higher education; mine comes not just before that, but also at town hall meetings, libraries, and other places where humans gather to learn, sort things out. My middle school science teacher neighbor and her librarian friend both are eager to see this available to their constituents. Not a sales pitch, just explaining the context.

        BTW: it might be that our conversation becomes less valuable to this venue; happy to take it offline if appropriate.

        Reply
        • I would love to discuss this further off this space. I’ll admit that our use of “transformative learning” builds on Mezirow’s work, and the group of people in the sessions were not necessarily in conflict with one another, definitely not of the “warring” type, though some of the ways we structured conversations (like Liberating Structures) are meant to break down hierarchies and create equitable conversations where everyone’s voice is heard… but I don’t know if it was like a serious conflict resolution type of space, if they would be enough. I suspect perhaps all of the elements, including spacing things out over time with time for reflection are helpful to cumulative learning in general, including when there’s conflict, because it creates more time to absorb and adjust one’s worldview? But I suspect it would need additional layers that are focused on the type of conflict and what is appropriate to use with the particular people, the type of intercultural maturity needed, etc. We do hope it would transfer to other contests in the way Liberating Structures and Priya Parker’s work on art of gathering seems to transfer across contexts. But we need to explore and find out. I’d love to learn more about your idea and how you’ve done it in person, how you might do it face to face or hybrid (our team also have expertise in hybridity!)

          Reply

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