Capturing Innovation: Why a Photo Safari at the #OLCInnovate #PlugIN


Laura Gogia, MD PhD, Research Fellow in Connected Learning for the Office of Learning Innovation and Student Success at Virginia Commonwealth University

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Several weeks ago I wrote a blog post describing some features of the digital participatory, or #PlugIN,  experience that we will explore at the OLC Innovate conference in New Orleans, April 20-22, 2016 .  So far, I’ve gotten fairly positive feedback – people seem to be curious about how digital makes, aggregated backchannels, and crowdsourced notetaking will work out at a large educational technology conference.  Will people participate?  Will it be useful? Or will it just be too much?  My response to all of these questions has been a very noncommittal “hard to say.” This is relatively untested stuff for this particular context, so I have no idea what will work and what won’t.  Personally, I’m exceedingly curious to see what happens.

For me, one of the highlights of the #PlugIn experience will be the photo safari, scheduled during the afternoon networking break on the second day of the conference.* Our photography theme for the safari is “Capturing Innovation.”

For those who have never engaged in a photo safari, they are digitally-facilitated activities in which learners explore pedagogical themes and their surroundings through photography.  Simply put, you and your friends set out to explore the neighborhood with whatever photo-taking device you have and an abstract theme to inspire your picture taking.  After you take the pictures, you upload them (super easy if you’re using a phone) to the digital platform of your choice – like Twitter or Instagram or Flickr – using a hashtag so that everyone’s pictures can be aggregated for the purpose of group viewing, discussion, feedback, and inspiration. In this case, we encourage uploads to Twitter with #OLCInnovate #PlugIN hashtags, along with a brief explanation for the pic. Photo safaris can last for different lengths of time, but as little as 40 minutes in the wild can yield excellent results.

I’ve written a brief description of photo safaris with some pedagogical background and variations on the theme.  You can find that downloadable pdf here.

Laura Gogia Picture

I took this photo near my office on an ALT Lab work safari led by Tom Woodward. At the time, ALT Lab was a new unit, and we used this exercise to get to know each other while crowdsourcing images of “connect,” “network,” and “learning” to be used for our website, any group presentations, and similar. In our case, we uploaded all the photos to Google Drive so that any of us could grab what we needed later.  The combination of the word “connection” with the fire hydrant has been particularly useful to me since I tend to use the “Internet-as-fire-hose” metaphor in my presentations on connected learning.

I’ve been on several photo safaris in the last two years, all led by my VCU ALT Lab colleague, Tom Woodward. Tom is a brilliant street photographer and even though he had fabulous camera equipment and many of us had our cell phones, he guided us through some tips on how to capture abstract themes through photography in a variety of ways.  Although not all of us at ALT Lab are great photographers, we all always come back with at least a few great shots – so don’t worry, I plan to share all of Tom’s tips with you in New Orleans [and I also plan to video my brief version of Tom’s tips and place it here and in the OLC Innovate participant sandbox, so that everyone can see it].

But there’s more to photo safaris than practicing your photography skills.  Here are some of the reasons I’ve advocated for this activity as a networking activity at #OLCInnovate.

  • It is an introvert-friendly networking activity. Although photo safaris start with a big group in one spot, people tend to break up into informal groups of three to five photographers as they disperse.  Those groups tend to be dynamic; you might join and leave several groups over the course of a 40 minute photo hunt while you wander through and around the conference venue.  The shared task of capturing innovation gives you something to talk about with all of these people.  I am a tremendous introvert. Even I don’t mind meeting people through photo safaris because we’re too busy helping each other frame shots or finding our way back to where we are supposed to be.  This is experiential learning, people. You end up talking with people no matter what.
  • It provides a different way to process conference themes. By the middle of the second day, we will be inundated with people talking about “innovation.”  We will need time to reflect on everything we have heard.  All (good) learning theories and universal design for learning point to having learners process information in different ways.  Here is an opportunity to do so while acknowledging that…
  • We all need recess in the afternoon. Studies show we need to get out, move around, see a little of New Orleans so that we might focus on the keynote with fresh minds…ok, so maybe I’m “interpreting” the research, but you know I’m right, even if you refuse to say it out loud.

Ok, those are great reasons to engage in a photo safari.  But here’s my big, from-my-heart reason for loving this photo safari so much…

A photo safari not only supports virtual participation in a physical conference networking activity, the event will benefit from it.  Virtual participation is key for this networking session to achieve its potential. 

Many times, we limit our conceptualization of virtual attendee participation to live streamed conference sessions.  Virtually Connecting (which is part of the #PlugIn experience at #OLCInnovate) challenges this by connecting virtual and physical attendees together in Google Hangouts for informal discussions and then posting those sessions on the open web.  However, I hope the photo safari will take things another step further.  Everyone – including physical attendees, virtual attendees, and virtual observers (a.k.a people who follow the conference backchannel but do not attend sessions) – can participate equally in a photo safari related to “capturing innovation.”

Imagine if people from all over the world took a minute to snap a pic in their physical location (or simulated virtual location – why not?) and add it to the media stream.   Imagine innovation being captured by physical attendees in New Orleans, juxtaposed with images from virtual attendees in Cairo, juxtaposed with images from virtual observers in Canada and the UK and Minnesota, juxtaposed with a picture of something someone just made in Minecraft.  And, recall that we are asking for a brief explanation of why….

What a blurry-boundaried mess of virtual and physical, where people from diverse contexts can read each other’s thoughts and see each other’s pictures, right next to each other…and then comment and compare and be inspired by each other. A photo safari is a very physical learning activity, but the physicalities can and should be multiple.  It is only in virtual space that these physical experiences can overlap at scale, synchronously and asynchronously.

This is the why behind the photo safari, and this is why I love it.  I’m really hoping you’ll join me.

*It should be noted that the photo safari isn’t the only networking activity scheduled for that afternoon. John Robertson is planning a stellar gaming session in the #PlugIN Lounge, and needs volunteers for anyone interested in helping out.  There are some fun things around virtual participation related to the gaming session as well. I’m sure John or I will be blogging on that soon.


About Dr. Laura Gogia

Laura Gogia
Laura Gogia, MD PhD is the Research Fellow in Connected Learning for the Office of Learning Innovation and Student Success at Virginia Commonwealth University.  She has recently successfully defended her dissertation research, Documenting Student Connectivity and Use of Digital Annotation Devices in Virginia Commonwealth University Connected Courses, as part of a university-wide initiative that aims to cultivate greater digital fluency and integrative thinking among faculty, staff, and students. She speaks frequently on issues surrounding the development of connected, networked, and open learning innovations in higher education contexts.  Connect with Laura on her blog or on Twitter.


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