© 2005 Vicki Suter, Bryan Alexander, and Pascal Kaplan
EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 40, no. 1 (January/February 2005)
Consider the following scenario. The Association of Technology Enthusiasts decides that it can save a tremendous amount of time and expense—for itself and its membership—by eliminating its annual conference. Since its members come to the annual conferences for the thought-provoking presentations on applying technology to anything and everything, why disrupt members’ day-to-day routines by having them come to a conference at a distant location and stay at a costly hotel when existing technology can streamline the conference experience? And the streamlining process is so simple: all sessions that are scheduled to be presented at the annual conference will instead be posted on the association’s Web site. Members will be able to download any and all presentations. And these are not simply lecture notes or documents; these are full-featured videos of the presenters, including animated PowerPoint slides with voice-overs and with Web site links to additional references. The association’s members will have all the content they would have experienced at the conference, and more—because they won’t have to choose among overlapping conference sessions.
What’s wrong with this scenario? The answer is obvious: conferences are only partially about content. More important than the content—and after six months, usually much more memorable—are the opportunities for collaborative learning, for networking and relationship-building, and for developing new research or funding opportunities that emerge from personal interactions. It’s the social context of the experience—not simply the content—that energizes a conference and makes it worth the effort and expense. Should the Association of Technology Enthusiasts actually eliminate its annual conference, before long even its members would likely call for the reestablishment of their face-to-face meetings.
We attend conferences for the conversations, among other experiences. Through conversation, we create a common ground from which we can explore the issues and problems of our professions and practice, as well as potential solutions. Conversation is the engine for work, for community, for decision-making, and for collaboration. However, the conversations we have at conferences are ephemeral. If we could find a way to make the conversations persistent, what effect would that have on our ability to construct knowledge collectively? Certainly, synchronous digital communications, such as chat or instant messaging, can be persistent in character, especially if a transcript is saved. According to Thomas Erickson: "Persistence expands conversation beyond those within earshot, rendering it accessible to those in other places and at later times. Thus, digital conversation may be synchronous or asynchronous, and its audience intimate or vast. Its persistence means that it may be far more structured, or far more amorphous, than an oral exchange, and that it may have the formality of published text or the informality of chat. The persistence of such conversations also opens the door to a variety of new uses and practices: persistent conversations may be searched, browsed, replayed, annotated, visualized, restructured, and recontextualized, with what are likely to be profound impacts on personal, social, and institutional practices."1
Further, part of the power of conferences is that we are co-located. We are together in space and time, and we are able to give and receive immediate feedback. If we could find a way to provide a powerful sense of the presence of others who were not physically at the conference, how might that expand the network of interconnections that conferences make possible?
New social software technologies can support the conference experience, and perhaps go beyond, by providing such a "container" for persistent conversation and for the social presence of those participating remotely. Indeed, new technologies are emerging that not only deliver content on demand over the Web but also support what might be thought of as the social architecture of an organization or community. When these technologies are brought to bear on the experience we call "conferences," they can significantly enhance the value and effectiveness of the learning experiences and personal interactions that occur when people gather in traditional face-to-face venues to share knowledge and ideas, explore new directions for their professional work, and connect with colleagues whom they may see only occasionally. When handled with skill, these social software technologies promise to transform the conference experience; afterward, communities might even coalesce and continue to work on their collective knowledge-building. We have already seen some experimentation in this area for individual presentations.2 A conference-wide example is the San Diego Experiment at the NLII 2004 Annual Meeting.
The social software idea has taken off as a movement recently, based on the key insight that technologies can work not only as autonomous entities, such as a game’s artificial intelligence, but also as social multipliers, enhancing our abilities to connect with other people, share ideas, work collaboratively, and form communities. As Howard Rheingold notes, we should "expect the unexpected when previously separate technologies meet."3
New Web applications have proliferated to support this social drive: Friendster (http://www.friendster.com/), LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/), Tribe.net (http://www.tribe.net), orkut (http://www.orkut.com/), Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/), Eliyon (http://www.eliyon.com/), and even a campus-based version, Thefacebook (http://www.thefacebook.com/). And Web publishing tools, such as blogs and wikis, have developed new means for connecting people: the URL post-connector TrackBack, the personal linking analysis tool Technorati, and the blogosphere-scanning index Blogdex.4 At the same time, social network analysis (SNA) theory has grown in depth and application, allowing us to better understand the connective patterns between people.5
The social software movement rekindles our thinking about the socializing features of virtual spaces, which cease to become individual sojourns in isolated content and emerge as zones for information-sharing, collaboration, exploration, and extended community process. In this sense, the software supports a sense of social presence as well as place. At a conference, such a virtual space can help strangers connect through content items, even if they don’t recognize each other’s appearance. The content can be pre-populated or can be generated live during events. Public and private interaction levels offer different ways to approach other participants. Synchronous and asynchronous options allow different timelines, and time can be shifted in another way as well: the conference experience can actually begin before the conference and extend well after it.
Let’s look ahead to the near future, to a conference in which the material and the virtual are fully intertwined and functioning through well-designed, well-integrated social architecture and technical architecture. The social architecture would enliven the experience and includes "the roles, processes, and approaches that engage people together—whether face-to-face or online—in relationship building, collaborative learning, knowledge sharing, and action."6 The technical architecture would include software and hardware for social computing, communication, collaboration, geolocation, and content/knowledge management—all working together in a wireless mesh that is persistent, pervasive, and mobile.
Before the Conference
Registering for a conference provides a participant with immediate access to a secure conference Web site. This Web site provides the standard travel, hotel, and scheduling information that one expects from a site publicizing a conference, but it is based on collaborative community software. Such software delivers content and also provides a variety of mechanisms for launching the interactive and social networking dimensions of the conference.
To begin, each participant fills out a professional/networking profile and uploads a photograph. Because these can be searched by keyword, participants start contacting one another using the built-in tools of the platform: real-time meeting (chat) capabilities or private messaging within the platform. As shared interest areas emerge—areas that might reflect the structure of the upcoming conference or complement it by expanding on core themes—subgroups form spontaneously among the participants. Such subgroups or special-interest groups organize themselves into discussion forums and begin the process of collaborative interchange and learning. Because sufficient time is allowed before the conference, participants are not limited to exploring just one or two "tracks" but can dip into as many of these special-interest areas as they like, expanding the horizons of their own understanding and learning by seeing how lines of exploration of secondary or even tertiary interest to them might nevertheless relate to their areas of primary concern.
In addition, small subcommunities of interest organized around a particular conference theme might identify all the conference presentations on that topic, contact all those speakers, and offer the speakers the opportunity to share their presentations beforehand, so that they can get feedback from the community and learn about the relationship of their projects to those of others who are already working in the same area. (This approach is already being used by the NLII Electronic Portfolio Action Committee [EPAC] Virtual Community of Practice.7) The result might be better presentations and more fully integrated tracks, with each presentation being a clear part of a larger, thematic whole.
The conference community thus starts to coalesce and become energized before any session presenter begins to talk.
Rita and Lola, on the plane trip to the conference
Rita: I wish we had gotten rooms at the same hotel. I’ve never been to this conference before, and I don’t think I’m going to know anyone there. Any advice?
Lola: Take vitamins! It will be nonstop ideas and enthusiastic people. I wish I’d had more time to look at the program and figure out all the sessions I should go to, but I’m glad I saw the posting in the online community I belong to, the Bridging Community. It helped me find the sessions I’m most interested in attending.
Rita: What types of sessions are those?
Lola: Mostly the stuff about learner-centered principles, design, and practice. I’m kinda embarrassed to admit it, but I don’t always really understand the pedagogy behind using technology for teaching and learning. You know, my background is more technical and less educational. The Bridging Community facilitators did a great job of previewing the sessions for my interests. In fact, a couple had readings available and asynchronous discussions already started about the topic, with postings and even some presentation previews by some of the presenters.
Rita: I wish I’d know about all that before! Just starting out in this new role of mine, I don’t feel at all prepared with some of the projects that are getting thrown at me—like I’m supposed to try to figure out how we might be using wikis and weblogs for classes. Until last week, I didn’t even know what a wiki was.
Lola: That really is too bad – one of the plenary speakers, Jacob, is doing something on social software and teaching and learning. From the narrated presentation and white paper he posted in the Bridging Community, I know he’s really into wikis. I was so intrigued by the title I went through it last week, and I got to post my responses in the discussion area after I read his draft white paper – boy, that got lively!
Rita: I don’t know, it sounds kinda stiff and academic to me. "Social software"? Maybe this is just another one of those technology fads we’ve got to put up with.
Lola: Well, I’m still not too sure about the social software part, but I know I am concerned about the trust and privacy issues. But the speaker was really responsive to my questions about those. You know, I feel bad because he sent me a thank you e-mail for my participation and suggested getting together at the conference, but I just haven’t had a chance to figure out whether I’ll even have time.
Rita: That’s not like you; usually you get right back to people.
Lola: Oh OK, the real reason I haven’t responded is I don’t really know him and he’s kind of a big name while I’m this poor middle manager squished between twenty learning designers, faculty support staff, and students who report to me, the faculty who want their courses online now, and the upper administrators who want me to cut my budget by 25 percent. At least Gerrie, my boss, is supportive of continuing staff development, and funded the trip to this conference for me this year. But I’ve had to put up with Fred and Mike complaining for a month because they had to stay home—we just couldn’t afford to send them this year. They’ve been whining so much that I’m starting to fantasize about getting a nice staff development budget by firing them! Just kidding, but you know what I mean.
Rita: Well, we’ve got a "quarter-a-whine" pot back in my office that seems to help with that problem. According to our rules, you would owe the pot a quarter already, you "poor squished middle manager." By the way, I saw that the Bridging Community environment is some sort of "parallel virtual conference space" for the conference. What the heck does that mean?
Lola: I’m not sure, but I guess we’ll find out.
E-mail message, to Fred from Mike
Hey, Fred, I still think it’s really a bummer that we aren’t going to be able to go to the conference. I was really hoping to meet Jacob – he’s such a cool dude. At least Lola promised me she would attend his session and share stuff with us. I also got to see his presentation in the Bridging Community – that’s better than nothing, I guess. I think I’m going to post something in my blog about the importance of staff development.
Jacob and Julia, in a bar before the meeting
Jacob (waving his arm and spilling his port): Aargh! This plenary conference presentation on the impact of social software for teaching and learning has been a bear to get together. One section in particular is still giving me grief. Can I run it by you?
Julia: Only if you buy the next round. Just kidding, sure.
Jacob opens the file on his laptop to show the first paragraph:
Julia: Sorry, Jacob, you’ve already lost me, which word?
Jacob: You’re right, maybe I’ll leave that out. OK, so how about this start:
Julia: Hmm, pretty dense, Jacob. I can pedant with the best of them, but what’s the audience for this?
Jacob: Well, I haven’t ever presented at this conference, but I think I’ve gotten some sense of the audience through interaction with members of the Bridging Community. Their review and feedback on my white paper over the past couple of weeks really helped me tune it to their interests and experiences. I especially appreciated Lola’s feedback. I would have been caught completely flat-footed by her very appropriate concerns over the issue of identities and trust in virtual spaces that are more ad hoc and ephemeral - like a conference virtual space. I’m glad I had some time to think through my response. I’m sure the question would have come up, and I wouldn’t have been prepared to respond, since my major experience and research has been in the classroom and on campus.
Julia: So, back to my question: what’s the audience for the presentation?
Jacob: I think the attendees are mostly instructional technology types, with faculty, librarians, and administrators sprinkled in.
Julia: Well, right off the bat, I can tell you that the language is too academic for most of that crowd. Didn’t you get some teasing when you posted your presentation for preview in the online community?
Jacob: Yeah, I could see I wasn’t going to be able to just present my white paper like I’m used to doing. I’m going to have to do a whole separate production for the presentation. You know, it is kind of cool that the conference itself might give us a place to experiment and explore these issues. There’s a place to enter our own professional/networking profile and our interests and to upload a photograph. I know these can be searched by keyword – I wonder if participants will start contacting one another using real-time meeting or private messaging. I sent Lola an e-mail thanking her for her feedback, and she never got back to me – I wonder if I’ll run into her "virtually" there, and then maybe we can make arrangements to meet? . . . Hmm, I wonder if they’ll know what "SNA" is or if I need to repeat that?
Julia: If they are techies, they should be used to acronyms by now. Besides, I think you should torture them a bit with it—they aren’t so careful to be clear with us nontechies, you know. Now it’s payoff time. I’d like a lemon drop, please.
Gerrie and Susan, on the phone before the conference
Gerrie: I’m looking forward to seeing you at the conference. Have you set up the Sunday brunch reservation for our crowd? Since we’re supposed to be working on that lobbying kit for CIOs, we might as well be someplace pleasant while we’re working on a Sunday.
Susan: Not everyone in the workgroup has confirmed that they are coming in early enough for the brunch, and I need to know how many people to make the reservation for.
Gerrie: Just go ahead and make the reservation as though everyone in the workgroup is coming. We can always change it on Sunday. We just have to get that lobbying kit done – I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked about it by all these CIOs who want to get resource priorities adjusted to reflect the strategic importance of teaching and learning. We’ve been stalled trying to do this work via e-mail and the phone – failure to RSVP on the brunch is a case in point, isn’t it? People just get too darn much e-mail, and stuff is falling through the cracks.
Susan: Besides your usual work-a-thon (yeah, yeah, I know you like to leverage all that face time with people), are there any sessions that you want to try and make?
Gerrie: I have no idea which of these sessions I’m going to be able to go to. I just hope I can download that one white paper on social software for teaching and learning to read on the plane. That’s not too likely, since Lola’s evaluation is late, and I’d better get it done before the conference starts so I can go over it at lunch with her on Tuesday. Isn’t it horrible that the only time we’ve found to meet is when we’re both out of town?
Susan: Isn’t that always the case? I’ve got staff that I spend more quality time with when we’re out of town than I do back on campus. But what’s this about social software—what is it, and why should we care)?
Gerrie: I have faculty wanting wikis and weblogs and I don’t know what-all other "w’s"—I think they fit into that category. One of my staff, Mike, is really enthused about them, but he has a bit of a problem with technology rapture sometimes, and I’m not so sure there is always a practical use for some of his enthusiasms – he was talking the other day about the "world as a writable surface." Sounds a bit sketchy and experimental– but I do hope I can take the opportunity of the conference to find out about some of these emerging technologies, their potential uses, and their implications on policy before I get blind-sided.
Susan: Gerrie, by now you ought to know you’re walking around with a big target on your back. That’s your job as Deputy CIO! Being blind-sided is pretty much a constant state of being for us, isn’t it, and that’s why we get paid the big bucks, right? But you’re right, conferences are an opportunity to get some important heads-up. Are there any sessions on this social software stuff?
Gerrie: Yeah, the author of the white paper, a Jacob somebody, is doing a plenary session on it.
Susan: Maybe I’ll try to go to that.
At the Conference: Day One
With social software environments—where content, interaction, and collaboration are integrated—the conference experience is no longer confined to content delivery. Because presentations have been available online weeks before the face-to-face session, the time that people are actually together in physical space can be transformed from the standard one-way lecture format into a wide array of interactive and experiential learning opportunities.
Of course, additional content may still be presented in conference plenary sessions and smaller breakout sessions. But now these sessions are recorded—in audio and/or video, including slides and even drawings made on physical whiteboards or flip-charts—and are uploaded into the virtual conference space. Thus, new content becomes available almost immediately for those who could not attend the session or those who want to deepen their understanding by reviewing it again. And since this new material is posted directly into discussion forums in the virtual conference space, it not only is available for downloading and viewing but also becomes the basis for further interaction among audience members. During session breaks or after conference hours—indeed, even during the plenary itself if the presentation has been uploaded beforehand—participants can discuss the material online and can expand on the presentation threads that seem most worth exploring.
Lola and Rita, in a quick meeting/synchronous chat early on the morning of the first day of the conference
Lola: I saw your name in the list of people online in the virtual community – so you’re an early riser too!
Rita: I’m still on East Coast time, so it’s really 8 a.m. for me. I always get adjusted just in time to leave! But it’s so great to be here. For some reason, it’s much easier to meet people for the first time at this conference than at most of the others I’ve been to. I already feel like I know a bunch of people. Wasn’t that "Virtual Icebreaker" at the reception last night great? I went because someone told me I could have a sample from a $500 bottle of wine, so I had to check it out.
Lola: Wow, they must have some food and beverage budget!
Rita: I was pretty excited until I figured out that it was a virtual bottle of wine. But anyway, I thought the arrangement was kinda interesting: with laptops on bar tables in each corner where virtual cocktails were being served and with facilitator/rapporteurs helping to lead discussions and also with people participating online. I went over to check it out, and there you were too, virtually speaking! I didn’t know you had read Smart Mobs—wasn’t that a heated discussion? Gave the reception quite the "salon" atmosphere. I think they were talking about a different book in each corner.
Lola: I still think that the question of presence, trust, and social norms is more important than the particular technology.
Rita: Yeah, yeah, I know your position. I must say that Jacob held his own in the discussion. He apparently also logged into the virtual meeting area from his hotel room—probably working on his presentation for tomorrow. What was your excuse for not coming to the reception?
Lola: Oh, I had to read my draft evaluation from Gerrie before Tuesday, and I didn’t think I’d get to it after the conference started, so I skipped the reception. I got curious when I was online, though, and checked out the virtual conference space and saw the Smart Mob meeting area.
Rita: Just how much multi-tasking can you do?
Lola: OK, I admit it, I was also checking my e-mail at the same time – that’s why I disappeared from the conversation a couple of times. But that’s the nice thing. I could catch up by reading through the messages and then just come back in to the conversation.
Rita: Jacob got so engaged he decided to come on down to the reception and meet us there in person. It was a great low-stress chance to find people who had common interests—I just hate making small talk with strangers. It also seems like the collaborative energy started to flow sooner than it normally does at these conferences, because we decided to get together and try to come up with a proposal that the association adopt educational uses of social software as one of its areas of research during the upcoming year.
Lola: So, besides Jacob’s presentation, what other sessions are you going to?
Rita: I looked at the "parallel virtual conference space" last night – turns out that they adapted the Bridging Community site so that everyone at the conference has an account. All of the resources for the conference are right there, and they’re going to be uploading handouts and presentations for each session. I think there are some opportunities to participate in some online synchronous and asynchronous discussions too. I’m not quite sure how that will play out—we’re here to talk to each other, right? I browsed some of the presentations, readings, and pre-meeting online discussions there, and I’m thinking about following the gaming and simulations track—that really interests me.
Lola: I like being able to check out the session topics that way rather than reading fifty-word descriptions in the brochure. In fact, I haven’t even read the brochure.
Rita: Well, I feel like I’m getting to know some of the key players already. Meet you at the Horizon VCOP table at lunch?
Lola: What’s that?
Rita: I met Chip, one of the community’s co-facilitators, at the Smart Mob swarm—that’s what I think we were doing, right, swarming?—and he told me about the community’s project to explore emerging technologies. Sounds right up your alley, if you’re interested in gaming.
E-mail message, to Julia from Jacob
I’m so glad my presentation is over – it was great, but it was intense! I figured since I wasn’t doing the formal paper presentation, I might as well go all the way with an experiment using a wiki. I encouraged people to post comments, resources, and questions at the end of the wiki page, and I had a virtual meeting area open that I displayed at intervals during my presentation, when I would pause and take questions. I got the feeling I was losing the audience at one point, so I went to the virtual meeting area and realized from a question someone had posted that I did need to explain "SNA" in my context, since it is also a technical acronym. A lot of people had their laptops and were using wireless to follow along to the different Web sites and participate in the side-by-side discussion that was going on in the virtual meeting area. I got a lot more questions than I usually do in a presentation before an audience of 300, and I wasn’t able to answer them all. But the great thing is that the virtual meeting area is preserved, including the questions posted so far (and a transcript was automatically made for a back-up), so I can spend some time "meeting" people in the space at a later time or even posting my answers to the question so that attendees can "pick them up" and talk about them with whoever is "there" at that time, at their convenience. And of course, people were blogging the session like crazy. I think we should take a look at the RSS feed for the conference, harvest it, and use it to structure an ongoing asynchronous discussion after the conference. Want to join in?
Gerrie and Lola, after Jacob’s presentation
Gerrie: Whoa, I still don’t quite get this social software thing. Jacob’s presentation went way too fast for me.
Lola: For me too, but at least I know he’s posted a more structured PowerPoint about the topic, along with a link to the wiki that he set up.
Gerrie: I was a little nervous when I started to see Mike’s comments and questions show up in the wiki right while Jacob was using it for his presentation. My gosh, doesn’t having one’s "presentation" open to the world like that – not just to view but also to change – create all kinds of possibilities for embarrassment?
Lola: Did you notice Mike seemed to be following some sort of rules that are associated with civilized wiki behavior?
Gerrie: Well, let me chew on these ideas a bit more, and when we meet at lunch tomorrow maybe we can spend some time translating Jacob’s presentation for a different audience that thinks more like me. I know there’s something in there, but I don’t think I could communicate it to the CIO or the Provost right now.
Lola: There’s a discussion area in the virtual community where we could go post questions and comments.
Gerrie: I know, but that’s a bit too public for me until I get my thoughts sorted out a bit better.
Meanwhile, Back at Campus
The capability of uploading conference activities in real time (or immediately after an event) opens the possibility of extending the reach of the conference to an even larger audience "back home." Those who can afford the time and expense to attend the face-to-face conference benefit from the many forms of interaction that unfold during a multi-day conference, of course. But those who are unable to participate physically can nevertheless participate virtually by logging into the conference site, either individually or with organized gatherings of colleagues in "extended breakout rooms." As individuals and as self-defined subgroups, they can actively participate in the parallel, online dimension of the conference. Overall, conference attendance increases thanks to the accessibility of these extended breakout rooms; the impact of the learning and of the knowledge-sharing is broadened.
In October 2004, at a meeting during the EDUCAUSE 2004 annual conference in Denver, a spontaneous demonstration revealed the power of intertwined virtual and face-to-face environments, the social presence that blended environments can afford to those who are not in attendance, and the high quality of dialogue that can result from such interaction. Several members of the Horizon Virtual Community of Practice (VCOP) were meeting to discuss emerging technologies, and Jim Gaston was briefing those in attendance about an interactive agent (a robot, or "bot") developed by his team at South Orange County Community College District. Jim was explaining that the agent uses instant messaging (IM) networks and a conversational interface based on natural language processing to respond to student queries about administrative policies and procedures (http://mysiteagent.com).8
During the meeting, one of the VCOP meeting attendees, Gardner Campbell, was engaged in a chat with several staff members back at his home campus, the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He mentioned Jim’s interactive bot to one of these colleagues, Martha Burtis, and sent her the URL for the project. In the chat, Martha commented about the possibility of "using these types of bots/avatars for any kind of academic use—rather than just providing general university information." The participants in the face-to-face meeting were beginning to explore the same question at that very moment!
From that point on, off and on synchronously for over three hours, a conversation occurred simultaneously in three environments: in the face-to-face meeting in Denver; in a three-way chat among the University of Mary Washington staff; and in a shared virtual meeting space (one of this article’s authors, Vicki Suter, was taking notes about the face-to-face conversation in an iCohere virtual meeting space, where several of the meeting attendees were also posting notes and comments). One person, Campbell, was participating in all three environments and so served as a conduit between them (and posted the exchanges from the other chat window into the Horizon VCOP meeting space).
The conversation was a lively, intense, and productive discussion about the pedagogy and technology of intelligent agents for instructional use. The separate but parallel discussions were only periodically connected—a kind of syncopated pacing, via Campbell, so that they did not disrupt each other. Occasionally, Campbell would share insights between the two parallel conversations, setting off a new line of thought and inquiry in each. The quality of the combined discussion—and some of the group insights that were achieved about interactive agents, intelligent agents, and how these might be used for teaching and learning—are no less than remarkable and will likely prove the source of much more reflection and, ultimately, publication. Campbell remarked, "This was equal to a month of staff development—for all of us."
Over the course of the next week, participants reflected on what all agreed had been a compelling, generative experience, and they continued their analysis of what had happened. Nick Noakes, one of the participants, speculated that it was a matter of pacing: neither of the parallel discussions settled into a pattern but instead accepted and incorporated the periodic dissonance (one discussion into another) in a creative, productive way. Campbell agreed but suggested that the "chat/f2f dynamic was a kind of interactive multiple-conversations event—a kind of 3D turn-taking."
The entire exchange was captured in the Horizon VCOP virtual meeting space and was then made publicly available on a wiki, http://careo.elearning.ubc.ca/wiki?VickiSuter/HorizonVCOPNotes. Participants continue to use these notes to reflect on the experience (and Burtis and her University of Mary Washington colleagues continue to explore the educational use of intelligent agents).
Mike and Fred, on a coffee break
Mike: OK, maybe we won’t harass Lola so badly when she gets back from her junket. She’s already sent about a dozen resources and contacts on the list of topics I gave her.
Fred: They must have wireless there, because I’ve been getting messages with "goodies" all day long too.
Mike: Even more awesome was that I participated in Jacob’s session as it was going on! His session was webcast and audiocast for all us remote viewers, so it was almost like I was there. I posted one of my questions about P2P networking and its relationship to social software. I was much more comfortable posting my question in the wiki he had set up to collect questions online for the Q&A after his session—I’m not so sure I would have been brave enough to speak up if I had been there in person. He also gave me a great online resource that he considered a fine source and blog on social software and a couple of books to check out that go into greater depth.
Fred: Always the big reader—you like to come back from conferences with a new reading list that you inflict on the rest of us. But the reason I was grumpy about not going was the missed opportunity to make some contacts for my GIS project. Augmented reality mapping takes GIS and visualization applications to a whole new level.
Mike: I know. Have you been geocaching yet?
Fred: What the heck is geocaching?
Mike: I can’t believe you don’t know, with all your GIS experience. It’s a game for people who own and use GPS devices. My friend Jeff sent me info about it from the geocaching.com Web site. The basic idea is that individuals and organizations hide boxes called "caches" all over the world and share the locations of these caches on the Internet. The creator of the cache places the exact GPS coordinates to the hidden box. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches, which usually contain a sign-up sheet to place your name and the date you found the box. They also contain little trinkets—small plastic toys, plastic animals, business cards, etc. The finder of the box is supposed to sign the book, take something out of the box, and then put something else in.
Fred: I’m not sure what the teaching application would be for that. Anyway, I was really ticked that I wasn’t going to be able to make the contacts and find people, from other colleges and universities, who might be interested in working on this with me. You know, there isn’t anyone else with this GIS and pedagogy specialization here on campus. Well, after his session, Jacob started that asynchronous discussion on augmented reality mapping in conference spaces, and I had a chance to look over all the postings when I got home last night.
Mike: Oh, I just keep a window open to the community all the time. I’ve met some really interesting people real-time that way.
Fred: I don’t usually have the time or patience for that synchronous stuff. I always feel interrupted. But this time I saw a couple of guys who posted in the discussion and who apparently have the same GIS background and interests that I do. I also noticed that one of them had given a presentation on a small pilot project he had done for a botany class using his large campus arboretum. I downloaded the presentation and went through it and checked out the project site while I was at it.
Mike: I normally don’t find the PowerPoint presentations too helpful if I wasn’t there when they were given, but the narrated versions with the presenters’ comments and an integrated discussion are a lot more useful.
Fred: As I was saying, when I was online today in the virtual conference space, I noticed this same guy was logged in to the meeting space, and I started a quick online meeting with him. He’s going to connect up with the other guy at the conference, and I think we’re going to pursue a joint grant proposal to fund this idea I’ve had for adapting some classes, to begin to create a living, geolocated map in the arboretum on campus –essentially to create living learning objects. Now I plan on hitting Lola up for some of the matching support in terms of my time – how do you think that will fly? Do you think she’s feeling guilty enough about telling me I couldn’t go to the conference this year?
At the Conference: Day Two and Right After
The best professional-development conferences are, at heart, learning environments. Many of the deeper learning principles suggested for the use of technology in higher education teaching and learning hold true for professional development as well. Deeper learning
- requires ownership,
- encourages engagement,
- is a social process,
- is contextual or situated, and
- is an active process.9
It’s a bit ironic to attend a conference on deeper learning and the improvement of teaching and to find oneself sitting in a large auditorium, watching PowerPoint slides, and listening to someone deliver a traditional-style lecture. Even if the presentation is thought-provoking, even if the presenter is charged with enthusiasm, even if the slides are animated, even if the podium is shared with a panel of highly respected thought leaders in learning theory, even if . . . , one is left with the feeling that a grand opportunity has been missed, that gathering together so many creative and talented people could have resulted in an experience with a very different quality—or at least different from that of sitting in a lecture hall.
Although a well-prepared and enthusiastically presented lecture can indeed spark ideas and insights, the electricity really starts to flow after the formalities, when those who have been sparked by some idea or insight in a presentation come together at the front or the side or the back of the room and engage with colleagues and the presenter(s), to share stories and experiences that play out the implications of what has just been presented. Further, if one thinks of a conference environment as a learning environment, and reflects on how technologies might facilitate learning for the participants (which is certainly reasonable if the conference is about the use of technology to transform teaching and learning), the idea of a virtual environment that echoes the physical and intellectual conference space—and likewise, of a physical conference space that has virtual extensions—becomes even more compelling.
We already know many of the benefits of using virtual space for teaching and learning. For example, one of the best-known advantages of a virtual space is the lack of geographical identification. A student posting to a class blog or wiki could be living in Vermont or Moscow, whereas the class lecturer next week might be streaming audio in from Tokyo. In the conference context, those who aren’t able to attend because of geographical restrictions can still participate and make important connections with ideas, practices, and people.
More recent work has also reinforced a kind of spatial tethering—the linkages between virtual space and physical space—by seeking to geolocate digital materials. Web sites like GeoURL (http://www.geourl.com) and thinkers like David Weinberger ("The Semantic Earth")10 have followed the pioneering work of J. C. Spohrer, whose 1999 work "Information in Places" first argued for the possibilities of tying access to spatial location.11 For example, a student in an arboretum could annotate a digital space for an arboreal point with comments and images, to which a faculty member could reply from elsewhere. Geolocation overlays the physical with the digital, adding a layer of data associated with the space. Thus documents and objects could be stationed throughout a conference. A meeting room for an interactive session could have a virtual echo, with all of the necessary materials (e.g., white papers, handouts, PowerPoint presentations) and resources (e.g., URLs) placed on a table in the back of the room, virtually speaking. Even more important, this virtual room could continue to exist after the face-to-face session, with participants (and other interested parties) coming back to engage in dialogue after they’ve had a chance to reflect—or returning to pick up a resource they had not earlier realized they needed. The digital reinforces the physical by adding a layer of meaning and description, just as an e-mail conversation can enhance one’s sense of a Web forum or as a telephone call can deepen one’s perception of a person known via the Internet.
Groups that emerge through discussions could also stake out new virtual spaces for themselves. This can lead to breakout sessions grounded more firmly in the rich intellectual and social content brought by all the participants, not just by those selected as presenters. And groups, such as work groups and committees that typically conduct side meetings in and around conferences to complete specific tasks, can have their own meeting spaces within the virtual conference space to support their collaborative efforts.
Finally, learning is intensely personal. The experience of using such a learning environment through a wireless, mobile connection is subtly different from the experience of working on a tethered desktop machine. Most of us feel a more personal connection to small portable devices, especially as they become more like clothing that we wear. A highly networked, wireless conference setting provides the entire conference space with a parallel virtual layer; the two layers can be intertwined into a complete, robust learning environment. Participants can check out, on the spot, resources and ideas that the presenter is mentioning. A remote participant can post comments to a presenter’s wiki during a busy question-and-answer session. And because the virtual representation for the presentation persists past the particular time slot of the session, the presenter and other participants can reply to commentary from attendees later, continuing and building on themes that would otherwise fade into memory. In short, mobility combined with asynchronicity can enhance the social multiplier effect of the software.
E-mail message, to Rita from Lola
I was sorry to miss you at the interactive gaming session on Tuesday. It was exciting and a bit disorienting. The session actually had a meeting space in the virtual conference space that was set up before the meeting, with all of the resources (including the PowerPoint presentations for the mini-lectures) available in advance. After listening to a panel talk about immersive gaming for about fifteen minutes, we broke into small groups at each table; those of us with laptops shared with our neighbors and used the wireless connection to click on the URL listed as a resource in the virtual meeting space—that connected us to ActiveWorlds. We fired it up, then entered the game world. It wasn’t as much fun as SimsOnline, but it was game-like to see other participants walking around the zoo and the school spaces. We were texting each other in AW and talking out loud from the sheer fun of it, so much so that I can’t remember how we decided to all meet in the AW Lyceum. Some people played with the fake gravity, shooting up into the virtual air. I preferred moving between the conversations around the fountain. For about thirty minutes, we explored the experience – this was the first time that most of the people there had actually experienced an immersive gaming environment.
For the next fifteen minutes, facilitators helped each small group explore a series of questions designed to help us reflect on our experiences with the game world and any insights that might have emerged about the implications of gaming on learning in higher education. They immediately posted group discussion summaries in the virtual meeting space while the panelists did another fifteen-minute mini-lecture on their sense of the implications and issues of gaming and simulation on learning in higher education. The interactive session ended with each small group taking a look at the postings of the other small groups and discussing those for a while in the context of the panel presentation, to see if there were similarities, differences, or new insights that emerged from a synthesis of all the perspectives (but we didn’t have to listen to group leaders drone on in a "wrap up" session—all of us could see all of the comments at once, without intermediation). The interactive session facilitators had told us at the beginning that our commentary (anonymous if we preferred, but attributed to the participants in the session) would inform an article they are writing on the subject.
I have to admit that after we left the session, I felt confused. It was as if the conference room was a colorful, noisy, endless space, and I was somewhat overwhelmed by all the channels for communication – but I was also relieved that I could reflect on the discussion, that it was preserved and I could revisit it later, and that in a gaming and simulation forum held as one of the last sessions of the afternoon, we could take up where we had left off earlier in the day. Not only that, but Mike joined the virtual meeting space remotely during the small group discussion periods, and although he couldn’t hear, he had previewed the presentations and the resource materials that the meeting facilitators had made available in the meeting space. He saw the small group summaries posted by the facilitators, and he and I had several "side conversations" in a private chat in the meeting space. He also had an opportunity to post his reactions to the small group summaries before the final round of synthesis. Now I know that he and I can pursue this conversation, with some shared context, when I get back to campus.
It was fabulous to have this intense and fun experience, to balance the stressful lunch I had with Gerrie, going over my evaluation. But that turned out really well after all. I suspect that my helping her with her work group project on a lobbying kit for IT funding might have a little something to do with that.
E-mail message, to Dee (the meeting organizer) from Jacob
In response to your thank-you message (wow! I’ve got to say that was the fastest thank-you I’ve ever received as a speaker—the next morning?), I can honestly say that it was my pleasure. I’ve now realized that this kind of environment has changed my experience as a presenter. After presenting, I was more energized, more engaged with other sessions, and better equipped to grasp the larger currents of discussion. This was partly due to my being able to commit myself to the conference beyond the presentation as performance, but also partly to the questions and comments I received during and after the talk.
The wireless space has certainly expanded this effect. Along with the personal greetings and comments, I’ve received a series of virtual pings and comments via e-mail, the wiki, and the conference IM. Typically, some of these are from shyer people or from participants who took longer to formulate their query than the f2f framework allowed. But now I’m catching a ripple effect, as people who attended my talk chat with those who were elsewhere, carrying concepts and arguments through the larger network and then connecting back to me through the software. It’s a second level of discussion—attenuated, distributed, and more persistent. I’m enjoying the ability to reflect on the asynchronous comments and to copy and paste URLs and text.
Naturally, I’m doing the same with other presenters. I like building up questions at the end of my notes, so that I can shape them according to subsequent discussion and rethinking. I’m told of presentations I missed (especially the gaming ones), and I’ve started conversations with the presenters already. Again, it’s a second level, what Alan Sondheim has referred to as a sort of "aura" around the primary (f2f) venue. I do wonder how participants deal with the "double vision" this entails, but I sure appreciate the meeting organizers’ willingness to experiment with social software in this way. The next time you need a presenter, don’t hesitate to ask me. I’ve found this to be an entirely engaging experience that has benefited me greatly – and that’s not true for most of my gigs.
Gerrie, composing an e-mail to Susan on the plane trip home
Thanks so much for arranging that brunch (but I’m blaming you for the five pounds I gained on this trip). Thanks also for your hard work on that lobbying kit!
I have to say these past two days have really been productive for me—it’s great to finally check off that darn lobbying kit project. I was thinking about why we were able to get it done so quickly there at the end (besides the fact that we are two brilliant women, right?). IMHO, there were a couple of circumstances that helped. First of all, there were four concurrent sessions on strategic planning and alignment, and three of them were quite good and helped me to clarify my thinking about the principles and, more important, the methodology for making a case for the priority of teaching and learning (a process that could be tailored to individual campus cultures). Second, Lola used the virtual conference environment to help me set up the separate virtual meeting space, the resource library, and an asynchronous discussion section for just us. Then we organized the resources, put the latest versions of the documents up (my gosh, we had to troll through a lot of e-mail messages to figure that out—I wish we’d kept track from the beginning, what a waste of time!), and Lola started four discussion threads, one for each section. I know you weren’t too sure about the idea, but I think it really paid off to make those two discussion threads public to all the conference attendees (with the sections that were closer to final draft form available right there in the discussion area) and to ask for input from conference attendees by making announcements at the end of those four concurrent sessions on strategic planning. And the conference planners were kind enough to do a news announcement in the virtual meeting space about the project and to ask meeting attendees to provide input and commentary in the space we had set up. You know, we had some really thoughtful posts that got us over a couple of major conceptual hurdles.
Meanwhile, we were redrafting one other section like crazy (I admit it, sometimes I was typing frantically away during some of the less interesting concurrent sessions – but I just felt like I had to get this done), and I believe that together, we managed to shame Jeff into tackling the other section, since he didn’t show up for the brunch. We were able to do document version control and give access to the work at each stage to everyone on the work group, whether they were at the meeting or not, and we actually got a final draft wrapped up (with one late-night session on my part last night). I’d never used any collaborative tool so extensively before, and this got me to thinking about other collaborative uses. And I really did appreciate all of Lola’s help – I know I would never have attempted this without her.
By the way, I did go to that interactive session on gaming with Lola, and as someone who had never actually experimented with games personally, and not having a child around to provide even vicarious exposure, I really did appreciate both the opportunity to experiment in a safe environment and the thoughtfulness of the facilitation so that we didn’t get lost in the game but actually came back out and looked at the experience from a broader perspective. It doesn’t feel quite so mysterious and theoretical to me. Wanna play a massively parallel multi-user game with me? Just kidding!
After the Conference
As currently organized, the three- or four-day conference tends to be one of those experiences that are discontinuous with the rest of our activities. We leave home and office, travel to the conference venue, reacquaint ourselves with people we have met at previous such venues and acquaint ourselves with new colleagues, open ourselves to be stimulated (and overstimulated) by the nonstop opportunities to listen to and actively participate in discussions on topics of professional interest, and then pack up and return home—soon to find ourselves reimmersed in our day-to-day responsibilities, with the fresh energy awakened at the conference fading (slowly or quickly) from our awareness.
That’s not bad; after all, vacations are discontinuous, and they are refreshing precisely because we remove ourselves from our day-to-day habits of thought and feeling and open ourselves to new interactions and engagements. The difference between a conference and a vacation is that conferences are ideally designed to stimulate ongoing learning and to reinvigorate the intellectual and professional lives of the participants. Conferences cannot become vehicles for deep learning if all sense of continuity is lost as soon as the last suitcase is loaded into the airport shuttle. Moreover, some amount of retrievable conference discussion could bring back that moment of reflection into even the busiest schedule.
An integrated conference learning environment does not allow the continuity to be lost so easily. Instead, by remaining accessible and active for weeks or months or, potentially, years after the face-to-face event, the online collaborative environment sustains and augments the energy generated during the physical event. The site is not simply an archive of the original event: the environment now morphs from being a conference support site into a venue for one or more ongoing communities of practice to explore the important themes that surfaced. Such an environment builds a sense of continuity between the experience of attending a conference and the reality of returning to the "dailyness" of one’s professional life, by enabling a wide range of ongoing connections and interactions. It thus has real potential for changing practice. Consider the following examples:
- Threads of stimulating conversation sparked by a chance hallway interaction expand into ongoing topics in discussion areas, engaging colleagues from distant campuses.
- Research summaries that extend and illuminate presentations from the conference are linked to the online version of the presentation and help expand the context and deepen the significance of the issues being investigated.
- Private messaging and real-time chats/meetings continue to support spontaneous, ad-hoc interactions among the participants of the conference community.
- Because the community is an interactive site and not simply a repository of conference proceedings, the dynamism of the conference experience—the social and professional networking that is so central to such events—is extended over time as colleagues reflect on and share the practical and theoretical outcomes of what they learned at the conference.
In addition, as experiences from the blended, face-to-face/virtual conference are shared with colleagues across professional networks, new "attendees" request access to the living conference archives as a way of entering into the experience after the fact. These new participants can fuel additional dialogue.
Gerrie, Lola, Fred, and Mike, at a meeting back on campus
Gerrie: After my experiences with the interactive session on gaming, I’m inclined to set up a small campus team to explore the implications for our campus now, rather than later.
Lola: There’s another virtual community I found out about at the conference—the Horizon Community—that has developed a methodology for doing an initial assessment of the teaching and learning implications of an emerging technology. Do you think we should encourage one of the team members to get involved in that community? The community uses the same environment that was used for the virtual meeting space at the conference.
Gerrie: I’m starting to get an inkling about the potential of these collaborative environments, so yes, go for it—unless there’s a charge to participate.
Lola: Well, we want you to know that we really appreciate that you ok’d the budget allocation so that Fred and I can take that immersive gaming environments online workshop that the Bridging Community is sponsoring next month. The workshop is reasonably priced, especially since there aren’t any travel costs associated with it. Besides, the asynchronous aspects make it a lot easier for us to participate and still get our work done. As I said in my proposal, I believe it will help save us some time in getting our heads around these emerging technologies. At the conference, I made some good connections with others who will be involved in the workshop, so I can continue to explore the issues and questions about the pedagogical and implementation implications of games, and I understand that the workshop will help the team design a pilot project.
Fred: I’ve got some ideas about "living learning objects," and I want to explore wrapping learning activities around the learning objects, possibly in a simulation or a geocaching game.
Mike: Hey, I’m the one the turned you on to geocaching!
E-mail message, to Dee from Jacob
I’m very flattered by your invitation to be part of the planning for next year’s conference (and now I know why you are so prompt with your thank- you’s—just kidding!). While I was completing my conference evaluation form, I made a number of suggestions that I’d like to restate here, so that you know what my perspective and issues would be as a team member, before I accept. First, I want to reiterate that I appreciated the meeting organizers’ willingness to experiment (I know you took some heat from some of the conference attendees for that). I’d argue for more experimentation, not less. First of all, I’d argue for a lot more granularity of augmented reality mapping in conference spaces as well as environs that may be outside the conference space itself but that have an intellectual connection. (It goes without saying that a ubiquitous reliable wireless network for the conference space is critical – doesn’t it?)
For example, after people have gone to the trouble to travel all the way across the country for a meeting, I’d think we’d like to leverage that travel with visits to local institutions that model the new practices the meeting is exploring. But people might like to go on their own, not on some guided tour, so it would be awesome to have digital assets that are associated with the physical locations (the information commons, the informal learning space, the library, etc.) and that provide a context (grounded in the conference themes) accessible via PDA. I’d also like to explore the use of RFID tags about interests so that people could quickly find others with common interests at the reception and other large gatherings, just by monitoring for hits from some sort of RFID reader. (But maybe the technology for this isn’t available quite yet?) Finally, I’d definitely be onboard if a persistent, fully developed, fully integrated, parallel virtual environment could be provided (and if I could study it from a research perspective). ;->
By the way, you suggested that the augmented reality mapping discussion that I started be extended beyond the conference context and into the campus setting. I’ve already got my first transition post drafted:
Decades of instructional technology practice have established the pedagogical rewards of such parallel spaces, from the earliest days of PLATO to contemporary course management tools. To review, students who do not participate in class oral discussions because of shyness or other reasons have a virtual space within which to catch up and express themselves. Instructors can then feed back digital discussions to the traditional classroom. Multimedia content in such spaces rewards different learning styles and media preferences. Virtual class contents persist, in that discussions remain archived, accessible, and repeatable at all hours, unlike oral conversations or presentations. Multiple timelines, rhythms, and interactions of students and material are available. Digital versions of nondigitally created documents afford formal possibilities: hypertextuality; rapid copying, pasting, annotation, mixing, and sharing; searchability and aggregation; publication and discovery. Materials born digital offer new, inherent features, from cybertextual simulation gaming to programmable behavior. Commonly accessible digital spaces allow the worldwide distribution of participants by interest and expertise, encompassing students, staff, and instructors. Student behavior can be data-mined to elicit information about learning patterns.
Of course, as a faculty person, I’m chewing on all the interesting research questions under all of this.
We tend to think of a virtual space as some sort of alternate electronic analog for face-to-face, as a replacement location when the physical is not available. Given the evolution of increasingly sophisticated social software and of the social architecture that can manage its effective uses, we might realize significant advantages if we think of virtual spaces as interwoven or intertwined with face-to-face experiences in equal partnership. The combination may augment the benefits of each—through complementarity (the strengths of each compensate for the weaknesses of the other) and synergy (the joining creates properties that did not exist when the experiences were separate).12
Until recently, the models for conceptualizing activities in physical space and in Internet space have been limited by the thought that we have to choose one or the other. An initial integration of these apparently disparate spaces emerged when participants in face-to-face meetings (e.g., annual professional society meetings) supplemented their meetings in physical space by creating follow-up listservs and e-mail lists for communication in virtual space. The new conference paradigm we have identified here takes such integration to the next step, allowing the virtual and the physical to intersect. A face-to-face meeting becomes a social archive—accessible, amendable, and mixable throughout the year. The overall conference thus develops into a richer, more useful combination of event and object, an enduring container for experiences and knowledge.
1. Thomas Erickson, "Persistent Conversation: An Introduction," Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (JCMC), vol. 4, no. 4 (June 1999), http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol4/issue4/ericksonintro.html.
2. Two examples are "Small Technologies Loosely Joined:
Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," an experimental presentation (by Alan Levine, Brian Lamb, and D’Arcy Norman) framed as a wiki-blog-chat-fest at the 2004 New Media Consortium (NMC) Summer Conference, which also tapped into participants around the Internet (see http://careo.elearning.ubc.ca/wiki?SmallPiecesLooselyJoined); and the NLII session at EDUCAUSE 2004, "Opportunities for Engagement: Creative Commotion and Focused Chaos," which used wikis and weblogs for structuring and capturing the small group discussions (see http://careo.elearning.ubc.ca/wiki?NLII).
3. Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Basic Books, 2003). See also Howard Rheingold, "The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online" (1998), http://www.rheingold.com/texts/artonlinehost.html.
4. The blog "Many2Many" is a fine source of information about social software: http://www.corante.com/many/.
5. Albert-LÃƒÂ¡szlÃƒÂ³ BarabÃƒÂ¡si, Linked: The New Science of Networks (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 2002). See also Duncan J. Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (New York: Norton, 2003), which goes into greater depth.
6. The definition of social architecture—developed by Soren Kaplan, co-author with Vicki Suter and Darren Cambridge of "NLII’s Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Cultivating Communities of Practice"—is available for download from http://www.educause.edu/VirtualCommunities/576.
7. See the Electronic Portfolios Virtual Community of Practice: http://www.educause.edu/ElectronicPortfoliosVirtualCommunityofPractice%28EPAC%29/1154.
8. For more information about the Horizon Project and the Horizon VCOP, see http://www.educause.edu/HorizonCommunity/1155. Jim Gaston presented on his interactive agent at the EDUCAUSE 2004 Western Regional Conference; see http://www.educause.edu/Speakers/Session/1450?
9. From the NLII’s "Deeper Learning and Learning Theories": http://www.educause.edu/DeeperLearning/2623.
10. David Weinberger, "The Semantic Earth," Release 1.0, January 2004, abstract available at http://www.edventure.com/release1/abstracts.cfm?Counter=4432792.
11. J. C. Spohrer, "Information in Places," IBM Systems Journal, Pervasive Computing Special Issue, vol. 38, no. 4 (1999), http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/384/spohrer.txt.
12. D. Robey, K. S. Schwaig, and L. Jin, "Intertwining Material and Virtual Work," Information and Organization, vol. 13, no. 2 (April 2003): 111–29. One question for future exploration and experimentation is, How might social software, new content syndication and meta-tagging capabilities, and knowledge management practices facilitate collaborative, collective knowledge-building at conferences?