This last Monday I witnessed something extraordinary. It might not be as extraordinary for you as it was for me, but the event I am about to talk about has a story behind…a narrative with a plot that evolved over time as new characters joined in to help write the story.
More than a year ago I had talked to Prof. Myriam Salama-Carr about doing an online conference in her field. I had already run the first Trainers in Europe online conference and knew these things can actually work. Furthermore, the process of organising it as a team is an extraordinary learning experience, and I thought this would be a great way to get students introduced to these kind of environments and approaches.
To be honest, I am not at all interested in doing sessions without a context. Not anymore. I’ve learnt the hard way that they don’t work. They have little effect on people’s practice, because they have a hard time relating to things that seem to be really out of their main focus. Instead, I aim to introduce people to participatory media in a contextual way, and I especially aspire they embed them in their practices. My goal is to help people make relevant use of these technologies and perceive their value in action. So what a better way of doing this than finding an excuse for PhD students, researchers and myself to get involved in something that genuinely interests us – even if for different reasons – and contributes to our area and learning. Also, it helps me get my message across. I don’t want to deliver stuff. Rather, I want to help create meaning, or as one of my mentors has inspired me to do, to co-design contexts in which the people I work with also become responsible for the environments we develop.
The OCTIS Open online conference was a result of that. Almost a dream come true. No! Definitely a dream which came true!
How it all started
As I mentioned before…this idea was not new, nor did we start working on it the week before. It was one of those ideas that needed maturing. First in our minds, and then in our deeds. I launched the idea a couple of semesters ago. Prof. Salama-Carr, whom I had worked with before, was very receptive to it and soon put me in touch with the Centre for Translation, Interpreting and Intercultural Studies PhD students.
I did a small session about it, introducing students to the idea. I never like this part of the process, because it feels like I am selling something, which, in a way, I was…! And I see all those faces going …’what on earth is this…?’ What I really like is when it stops being one person’s idea and people start sharing ownership of it as ‘our project’.
The first reaction I got from the majority of the students was concerned with the technology. “For heavens sake, technology is not really our thing. We only use translation software…” Yet, they have never discarded the idea of the conference. That I found pretty amazing, My reading of such reactions was that they were more concerned with their technical performance than anything else, which as it turned out, was not an issue at all. They might have never used the kind of tools we were going to work with, but they were not digitally illiterate, as they made it seem. And even if they were, that should not be an issue. There’s always a first time for everything. But that was not the case in this situation. Actually, they all used technology with proficiency. They just hadn’t applied it to any academic activity. And that made them want to ponder about the idea for a while before jumping into it. So after that first sessions, not much happened for a while.
Sharing ownership of ideas
To cut the story short, I decided to give them time to think it through. I did not want to impose any ideas on them, but rather have them take ownership of it. That is quite crucial, I have learned. If one is not genuinely interested in it, it doesn’t matter how ‘brilliant’ your idea is, it will never really work. Not the way you had envisaged it.
A couple of months after the first meeting, students contacted me again, and so the conference organisation started. It was quite an interesting process. I enjoyed seeing them running with it. I loved being part of the team. They wrote the call for papers, invited keynote speakers, agreed on deadlines, created the programme and we started to disseminate it. Interestingly enough team meetings were held over skype, and all the rest of the organisation was handled via email – and no, it was not my idea, I only showed up for the scheduled times, provided my input and worked on the tasks agreed!
Testing the technology
Then it was a matter of helping presenters and delegates using the virtual conference room the weeks prior to the conference. These kind of systems are still far from being straightforward, especially when it comes to activating microphones, testing sound settings, etc. It gets even more complicated when you try to help people on the other side of the screen. Literally, you can only guess the settings other people are using. You cannot change anything for them. You can only help them do so. Hopefully they’ll trust you. We had speakers from different parts of Europe, using different systems, with different internet connections. It sounds more complex than it actually was. After numerous testing sessions, changing headsets, configuring settings, etc we eventually got there.
I must say this was probably one of the smoother conferences I helped organise. On the day we hardly experienced any glitches, everyone joined the virtual room without any problems and even the recordings seem to be OK.
Use the links below to access the recordings. The conference programme can be found here.
On the day of the conference some of us met in the ThinkLab. That was the place where those wanting to congregate face-to-face went. The face-to-face attendance was low – only the organising committee, but online we had over 20 people for each session. Attendants spread from Spain to Egypt and we even got a delegate all the way from Taiwan. So is the power of open connection.
You may think that 20 attendants is not a great number, but if you think that for researchers in these areas this is still a fairly new way of communicating knowledge this is quite something. Besides, for many people this was just the first week back to work.
So where do we go from here?
Looks like new challenges await. Not only a second edition of this conference, but also other mini projects with I will unveil as they start to happen. The main thing to point out was that as soon as the conference finished, new ideas started to bloom. What if we also got the MA students involved? What about having open sessions on a more regular basis, etc? The hardest part is to get started!
This is music to my ears, of course. This is what I love to see people doing: thinking about other things they want to do to complement their activity. Never mind the technology: we will get there eventually. Let’s focus on what can enhance our practice. Let’s make it a bit different! Let’s reach out to a wider audience. So thank you for collaborating and making this an amazing experience to us all, at different levels.
I must also not forget to thank the ThinkLab. Special Kudos for Carla Kocsis and Dulcidio Coelho for being so patient with me and helping me with all my crazy requests, which usually come as a last minute idea! And a big thanks to BuHu, Sarah Ricketts and Elluminate for supporting this activity.