I had planned a more comprehensive post coming off the epic two-day OERxDomains21 online conference, but I’m still so jacked up as a result of all the energy that it’s been quite difficult for me to focus. I can point to a few events that have left me with this kind of energy: UMW’s Faculty Academy, Northern Voice, OpenEd from 2009-2013, and more recently both Domains and OER separately and this year as one awesome juggernaut.
I think these gatherings in some way tell the story of the education of this edtech. I know there are folks who might ask “why are we still doing the conference in such a way where folks go to a place, give talks, and then go home?” “We can do it easier!” they say. “We can spread it out!” they say. “We can save time, money, and energy in all sorts of ways!” they say. And all these things might be true to a degree, but the idea of committing to a time and place with others for an intense experience—an idea of being all in—is something not to be so roundly undervalued. There is a sense of being in it and opening yourself up to other people, ideas, experiences, stories, etc. that has real value, and I’m not sure being there physically is everything (though it helps with focus and timezones), but the idea of feeling consumed with and by an experience is an intangible that while never guaranteed by any one conference, is certainly the hallmark of a great one. But beyond that, it cannot happen if you don’t (or can’t) take the chance.
In many ways my professional and personal community was forged as a result of many of these professional get-togethers (both in-person and virtually), and I think the more we try and make these events business-as-usual without any discomfort or exposure to something new it becomes relegated to the realm of just another thing you have to do during the day, which in turn diminishes its potential impact.
That’s a round-about way of saying that when Reclaim Hosting partnered with ALT (under the brilliant leadership of Maren Deepwell) to produce the OER Conference as a shared online event there was a wee bit of concern about these issues in the back of my mind. I think conferences have an obligation of providing a platform for folks to connect and be exposed to a variety of ideas and (in our field) technologies, but more than anything else people. Doing that adroitly online in the midst of a pandemic is no small feat, and I think we were somewhat intrigued, if not intimidated, by the challenge. We knew there was a possibility we would fail miserably, but if we did it we had to be all-in, that was the first requirement. The second was to design it around a conceit rather than a specific theme with the idea that good art would provide a platform for discussion more than a defined sense of what we need to talk about and why—I mean the very title of the conference, OER, is vague and contested enough to take care of most of the ideological pieces for us.
The other element was how to use various technologies to ensure not only an engaging social platform, but that nothing goes terribly wrong. That’s important because as understanding as any community is—especially this one—there’s little patience for technical issues these days when attending a paid event. This meant using tools that are enterprise-grade, such as Streamyard for producing the videos, YouTube for live streaming and commenting, with Discord serving as the social piece that Lauren Hanks absolutely nailed, and as has been the case for over a decade now Twitter proved to be the “unofficial” backchannel. The glue for at least two of these platforms (namely Discord and YouTube) was the TV Guide-inspired two-day program that was integrating videos and chat as seamlessly as possible, while keeping videos behind a login during the conference. So there were quite a few moving pieces that could have gone wrong. That’s why we made the TV Guide site—the aesthetic glue keeping the whole experience together—as lightweight as possible. It was designed brilliantly by Michael Branson Smith in roughly 5 weeks using HTML/CSS/JS and pulling data as needed from a WordPress backend/database customized artfully by Tom Woodward (read more about the headless conference site here).
In the end, however, none of this would have been noteworthy if the open community that the OER conference had been building for 11 years hadn’t showed up and brought their A-game. The real story here is that they did in a major way! Almost 250 registrants from 18 countries across 6 continents showed up ready and willing to engage, and I believe that’s the energy that’s still fueling me right now. What’s more, it should be underscored that the hard work of more people that I can even pretend to name in this post have been building this community for years. In many ways Reclaim stepped in the proverbial shit by having access to an amazing community to experiment with delivering this conference. And like those long-time OER conference faithful, we came to the event in search of a shared purpose and a larger sense of what drives the work we do, and it did not disappoint. The occasion was a healthy and much-needed reminder how much this community both challenges and inspires us all.
I’m tempted at this point to go into specifics about the people, the presentations, and more, but I will RESIST because another beautiful afterglow of this conference is that the archive is already entirely intact with every session already linked and available at OERxDomains21.org. We’ll take down the login when we get back to work on Monday, and it will then be open season for sharing, blogging, commenting, etc., for any and everyone. What’s more, I can take that occasion to continue this OERxDomains21 post mortem blog series by reflecting on as many Domains21 sessions as I can in order to continue to reinforce the awesome work this community is doing to make the web a more open, equitable, and fun place for teaching and learning. Big fan!