By Jim Shimabukuro
ET4 Online — Sloan-C’s 6th Annual International Symposium for Emerging Technologies for Online Learning, April 9-11, 2013 — was everything you could ask for in a conference. The number of presentations was mind-boggling. I was able to take in just a few. One was by Robbie K. Melton, associate vice chancellor of eLearning and a full tenured professor at Tennessee State University. She talks about “Impact and Transformation of Mobilization in Education: Emerging Smart Phones & Tablets Innovations” (10 Apr. 2013), but I have no doubt that she could probably talk about anything and get her audience to buy in. She strides the floor, mingling with her audience.
Her voice is vibrant, her presence is compelling. She has you hanging on every word. You know that she probably has outstanding teacher awards covering all four walls of her office. In a debate, you’re sure her opponents would probably end up cheering for her. One of the innovations she mentions allows professors to override the mobile devices that students bring to classrooms. With this gadget, professors can maintain control in their classrooms even in this BYOD era. However, you know she doesn’t need it in her classrooms. She’s that good.
Another standout speaker was Kim Coon, executive vice-president for strategic partnerships at Comcourse, Inc. While Melton was hot, Coon was, well, cool. His talk was on “Making the Next Big Thing Happen, When Nobody Believes You Can: Moving from Idea, to Consensus, to Implementation” (9 Apr. 2013). He, too, mingles with the audience, carrying an extra mike for audience members to use. He’s a master at engagement. He gets the audience involved. He remembers the names and comments of those who have picked up the mike, and he integrates them into his talk, almost seamlessly, like a magician.
He rarely relies on notes, and when he does, he attracts even more attention because you know it must be important. And he plants teasers that keep you glued to his presentation, start to finish. He promises a rubric that will lead the unwilling to accept your vision of change. And if that isn’t enough, he promises a Chinese proverb at the end. Enough said. With thousands of years of civilization, we don’t need much convincing to believe that the Chinese have somehow unlocked the mysteries of leadership, and Coon will share that bit of wisdom with us.
So, despite the fact that I’m watching Coon on video replay, I stay with him in real-time, hesitant to mouse past frames that might contain the rubric. After all, I’m just as eager as the next person to learn the secrets of persuasion to win the hearts and minds of my doubters.
When it finally arrives, I make careful note of it. Like the best rubrics, it’s captured in an acronym – CLEAR, for Communicate, Lead with Excellence, Adjust their Attitude, and Respect givers. Sprinkled with wisdom such as listen and think before responding, when people disagree it’s not always personal, and think about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, the rubric seems to cover all the bases for “making the next big thing happen.”
Oh, and the Chinese proverb? Here it is: “If there is a light in your soul, there will be beauty in you. If there is beauty in you, there will be harmony in your home. If there is harmony in your home, there will be order in your country. If there is order in your country, there will be peace in the world.” I’m not sure if I got it all, word for word, but it’s close enough. Enlightened leadership. That’s the key. Cool.
Melton and Coon are skilled speakers, entertaining and enlightening. What more could I possibly want?
Yet I’m left wanting. Hungry not so much for more power performances but for what seems to be missing from the portion of the conference that these presentations represent, for what’s not on the menu, if that makes any sense. And this is all the more perplexing because I seem to be alone in my discontent. Everyone else seems satisfied, content if not happy with the fare.
So, what’s wrong with this picture? What’s missing?
From the standpoint of most, there’s nothing wrong, nothing’s missing. All the parts that make up a successful conference are there. Thus, the fault is mine. I’m the one who’s out of sync. I really have no business looking for something that’s not on the agenda.
So, beginning with the premise that I’m totally out of order, let me dig into my discontent. First are the small irritants. For example, re Melton’s talk, I’m not interested in gadgets that increase the professor’s control over personal communication devices that students bring to the F2F classroom. I personally prefer asynchronous online lectures to F2F ones because, simply put, they have the anytime-anywhere advantage. I don’t have to be at a specific place at a specific time to learn at someone else’s pace. Thus, for me, the issue of BYOD is moot.
Re Coon, paint me petty, but his CLEAR is a bust as far as acronyms and rubrics go. Also, it’s not at all clear how this will help me to move mountains. Re the provocative title of his talk: “the next big thing” didn’t happen, the doubters didn’t materialize, and the process for “moving from idea, to consensus, to implementation” was a no-show. It’s not that Coon didn’t have time to finish his talk – he didn’t; it’s just that the title promised far more than any one talk could ever deliver.
And what about the Chinese proverb? Turns out it’s not Chinese. It’s Indian, and it’s a corruption of the original by Sathya Sai Baba: “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.” The ideas in both are similar, and the source is perhaps unimportant so there’s no point in making a fuss. You’re right. But these little things irritate me. But that’s just me.
As I said, these are small irritants. The big irritant for me is the assumption of how I can best learn from a conference. The linear real-time power lecture no longer works for me, that is, unless the content is truly compelling and fresh and there’s no written version available. I’m probably alone in this, but I want to learn what I want to learn in the way that’s most efficient for me. I prefer digital text because I can search for what I want, jump in where I want, linger where I want, skip what I want, copy, share, save, and quote what I want. And I’ve learned to do this quickly.
I sometimes want information quickly, succinctly, without the frills of oratorical style or audience engaging gimmicks. And this “sometimes” seems to be growing the longer I’m in the field. In other words, I want to get to the key ideas as quickly as possible to see if it’s something I can use. If yes, great! If not, I’ll move on to the next presentation that grabs my interest.
For me, it’s sorta like going to a dinner show in Waikiki. Performers twirl flaming machetes and dancers engage the audience by drawing some of them onstage to join in the hula. It’s a lot of fun for tourists, but for kama’aina, or longtime islanders, this routine is a drag. Our interest is in the few songs and dances, new or classic, that aren’t meant strictly for tourists and give the artists an opportunity to show their stuff.
I’m probably missing the whole point of education conferences. Perhaps they’re meant to be more like shows for tourists, and audiences show up expecting to be entertained. In this scenario, to be engaged means to become part of the show, to be played by the performers, to clumsily attempt a hula that only the dancers have had time to practice. The problem is that I’m no longer a tourist.
Then there was Erik N. Christensen, chair, Natural Science Department, Science and Math, South Florida State College. His presentation was “Unleash the Potential of Smartphones with Project-Based Assessments” (9 Apr. 2013). Whereas Melton was hot and Coon was cool, Christensen was dry. If the conference schedule were a google-search hit list, Melton and Coon would be stickies close to the top of the first page and Christensen would be somewhere in the middle of page 32, noticed, maybe, by the few who doggedly search beyond the first few pages.
Christensen represents a completely different population. In the Army, he’d be at the front in a foxhole, not on a canvas chair at HQ. On a team, he’d be a player in a grimy uniform, not a coach in a suit. In education, he’d be in a classroom with students, not an administrator in a posh office. His speech is slightly staccato and emanating from too high in the chest. He stands stiffly at the lectern throughout. No playing the crowd. His props are self-made, and they look it.
But he has something to say. To me, at least. He’s talking about what he, personally, is actually doing with smartphones and project-learning to facilitate his students’ learning. He’s not talking theory. He’s talking about what he’s actually doing and has done. If I were given the opportunity to chat, one-on-one, with any of the presenters I visited, Christensen would be my choice.
I’m not sure exactly where this is all leading to, and I’m not sure if I speak for anyone other than myself. If one person’s opinion counts for anything, then I’d say that perhaps what I’m feeling is a discontent that may begin to spread to others and impact instruction as well as professional development conferences. As we gradually float away from the tethers that bind us to brick ‘n’ mortar learning environments, our preferences for learning and, by extension, teaching styles may change, too. Learning as a self-directed experience may challenge the current notion that learning is an other-directed process.
What are the implications for conferences such as ET4 if, in the future, I’m no longer alone in my discontent with the conference experience?
One implication is for, perhaps, a flipped conference that requires written transcripts for all presentations and allows the audience time to review and rate them prior to the actual conference.* Brief abstracts are often ineffective because they omit key ideas to attract larger audiences. With access to full texts, participants can be smarter in choosing the presentations they attend. Content would be consumed beforehand, and presentation time would then be devoted to discussing the ideas, with the audience leading the exchange and “playing” or guiding the presenter rather than the other way around. This would be similar to the flipped classroom, where the lecture is consumed out of class and class time is used to discuss problems suggested by students.
In a flipped conference, I’d have a better idea of what’s being covered by whom and have an easier time setting up a schedule. My guess is that the Meltons and Coons will continue to be popular. The big change may be with the Christensens, who have a lot to say but lack star appeal. With higher ratings and excellent reviews in the preconference phase, they could attract larger audiences and move up in the order of popularity during the actual conference.
* This notion of flippping the conference experience shouldn’t be confused with “FlipCon13,” which is a conference devoted to the now popular idea of flipping classroom and homework.
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