Well, that’s a wrap. The first (and hopefully not last) dLRN conference is officially in the books. The reflections are rolling in on Twitter and blogs, and they are largely positive from the participant perspective. That makes me happy and perhaps a bit relieved. But as a co-organizer, I am conflicted when I think about what might have been.
As a community, we share a social justice vision of higher ed. I am concerned about the future of higher education and believe research can be a lever for positive change. I have high hopes for dLRN generally. But by the middle of day one, we weren’t talking deeply about research. We were expressing opinions and bonding around serious concerns that are worthy of attention, like the problem of casual labor, or the needs of non-traditional students, or the lack of learning science behind edtech. We weren’t building toward solutions.
I walked out of one session, locked eyes with my wonderful co-chair, Dave Cormier, and vented my frustration. To be honest, the disappointment I felt really had more to do with higher ed conferences in general. We ask our educators to flip and blend, and then we come together for report-outs that follow with very little time for deep dive discussions. When we have a room full of smart people with great ideas, as we did during these two days of dLRN15, why not leverage that latent capacity to design and plan new research projects that address the concerns we all share? Why not build something together?
At that moment, Dave and Amy Collier bore the brunt of my frustration. Without hesitation they both challenged me. “Why not break your plenary panel?”, they suggested. That moment and that push back encapsulates the dLRN community. We’re agile. We’re solutions-oriented. Candace Thille and Cristi Ford were graciously on board. Our two students, Andrew Rikard and Emily Rapport were ready for anything, so the next day we went unconference and changed focus about an hour before the session. We could not have pulled off the quick pivot without Amy, who is simply one of the best educators I know. Thanks to all involved, the session seemed to generate some interesting potential research designs.
One of the things I love most about this dLRN community, and about many other peers in digital learning, is the way we like to think together in the open. On the morning walk to Stanford before that session, I had a conversation about the conference with two of my favorite higher ed thought partners and friends – Allison Salisbury and George Siemens. Thinking out loud with them, I eventually came to a different perspective on the conference – one that embraces the style that took shape as a necessary first step in building a strong grassroots activist community.
With that in mind, I’ll summarize the rest of my reflections as a response to a question posed in the closing session, and I am paraphrasing:
As a taxpayer concerned about how expensive higher ed has become, why should I trust your goal to impact change through research?
…because we will bring collective intelligence to the challenges ahead.
These are some of the smartest, most collegial, collaborative, and genuinely kind people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Perhaps it’s because we need each other. This dynamic digital space is filled with contradictions and uncertainty. We are all trying to understand it. We know good research, and are in consensus that we can go much further working on solutions as a network.
…because we believe in critical pedagogy.
The cynics within are often the ones who care the most. That is certainly the case here. Many of us are fans of Fanon and Freire. We put the learner at the center of education and research – all learners. We are committed to aligning institutions to the core mission. That does not mean we are working to preserve the status quo. We are working for social justice in a digital age.
…because we think deeply about who we serve.
We recognize that education will continue to go digital. We want to shape a future of education that best serves modern learners. Increasingly, we are bringing student voices directly into these conversations. Andrew and Emily spoke eloquently and powerfully in our plenary session, challenging us to respond to these questions through a research lens:
- How might we understand the role and responsibilities of students in defining their individualization?
- How might we increase a student’s awareness of the learning process inside and outside of the curriculum?
Like Andrew and Emily, we view student agency as a key driver of optimal learning. And, we understand that their agency can be achieved only when all actors in the relationship of teaching and learning have agency.
…because we want research to impact change.
We suspect that new forms of participatory action research are needed for the ‘last mile’ that moves our research findings to action. And we have great leaders thinking about how to get us there – folks like Rebecca Petersen and Amy Collier, to name two. We also recognize that institutions need effective change agents who understand how to implement responsible systemic change. Eddie Maloney is hard at work on an exciting new discipline model that can get us there.
…and finally, because we have great leadership.
He will hate this characterization but thank you, George Siemens.
I am excited for the future of dLRN. I want to express my gratitude for the time spent knowing and learning from Kate Bowles, Dave Cormier, Matt Crosslin, Justin Dellinger, George Siemens and Bonnie Stewart. I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of this organizing team. I am also grateful for new colleagues and friends I met over the course of two days. I do hope we do it again next year.
Now that we know who we are, let’s build something together.