Coming Home: 5 Surprising Gifts from the OLC Accelerate 2021 Onsite Conference


Angela Gunder, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer, Online Learning Consortium

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Building off of Jennifer Mathes’ review of the virtual conference, I’ve been reflecting on the connective and inspiring moments of OLC Accelerate 2021 Onsite that have lingered long past my return home from Washington, DC.

The time in our nation’s capital resonated with me with regards to the concept of coming home. I grew up right outside of DC proper, and as the plane landed at National Airport, I found myself humming Leon Bridges – Coming Home as a love song to the city that will always have my heart.

This was also the first time that our Online Learning Consortium (OLC) community gathered for a conference in person since November 2019, and arriving at an OLC conference has always provided me with a similar sense of nostalgia and excitement for returning to “my people” who mean so much to me.

These past two years have forced us to address challenges at a magnitude and scale that we could not have imagined, but also ingrained in us a recognition of our resilience and the strength of our connections across all modalities and spaces.

After three fully virtual conferences in 2020 and 2021, I wasn’t sure what it would be like to enter into a face-to-face space that would likely be oddly familiar, yet cast in a brand-new light given the significant changes in the world. Amazingly, I was greeted with smiling eyes, elbow bumps, and cacophonous laughter behind a beautiful array of creative face masks.

The collegiality and spirit that flowed from the experience mitigated the awkwardness of learning how to navigate a socially distanced conference. I am thankful for my colleagues on the OLC Staff, our board members, and the many volunteers who ensured that we were able to come back to an onsite experience built on the same framework as conferences prior. We engaged in critical inquiry, we connected with new ideas and new colleagues, and we collaboratively worked towards charting out our digital learning futures.

Beyond the humbling privilege of “seeing” folks IRL and not in a Zoom box, I was also treated to five surprising gifts by participating in the onsite OLC Accelerate 2021 conference:

  1. Flexibility

    One of my favorite things about online educators is that we never feel boxed in by a modality or teaching method. Navigating the onsite conference surfaced the resilient practices of so many of my colleagues who presented to the folx in front of them with a level of personalization and care that was inspiring.

    This included bringing in virtual attendees into onsite sessions over Zoom, as well as shifting plans in real-time to accommodate both the numbers of individuals assembled and participants’ wants and needs. This agility was a master class in what we hope to see in teaching and learning more broadly – educators tailoring learning experiences to the specific needs of their students in ways that center care.

  2. Creativity

    It’s never a shock to see the creative spirit of our volunteers and conference team imbued in the programs and engagement opportunities at our conferences. Yet, this year shone bright like a diamond with both inventiveness and artistry in the creation of events and offerings that leaned into both the challenges and opportunities of meeting onsite in these strange times.

    Of note, I adored the design of the Technology Test Kitchen as a fully online experience offered onsite as a new iteration of the longstanding exploratory maker space that’s been a hallmark of my OLC Accelerate experience for ages.

    I also loved the creativity employed by conference attendees, especially in the Iron Chef Battles held as the conclusion of the Leadership Network Event. The participants worked in teams to better address the needs of our students with interventions that were transformative and life-changing, and I am eager to test and share each of their solutions, which will be published in a report a little later this year.

  3. Engagement

    In a time of social distancing, it was a welcomed treat to feel so very connected to my colleagues. Seeing the friendly faces of the field guides reminded me that I was at an OLC conference and that volunteers were on hand to help me make the most of my experience and guide me to the sessions that would resonate with me the most.

    Additionally, I was treated to a brand new experience at the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) reception – a DEI Gallery Walk that had all of us reflect on our shared responsibility to ensure access to inclusive learning environments. The experience was empowering and a reminder of our collective strength, particularly in a time of significant challenges for our community in ensuring equity and social justice.

  4. Collaboration

    I love watching the dynamics of collaboration and connection unfold within social environments like conferences, and was inspired by the multitude of connective moments that brought together collaborative teams.

    Several institutions, including The University of Arizona’s Global Campus, had several of their team members attend onsite, an amazing feat that allowed me (as an outsider and a former employee of The University of Arizona) to learn more about their current work as voiced by multiple colleagues.

    Additionally, this honored the privileged and protected space afforded by onsite conferences as a way to conduct a “mini-retreat” away from the distractions of the office. From the informal meetups and interstitial moments between sessions, engaging with the teams present at the conference was a lovely reminder that while we can move quickly alone, we go further together.

  5. Future Casting

    My favorite part of conferences is getting the chance to fill my well of inspiring ideas that will power me through my work once I leave. This onsite experience was no exception, particularly at the breakfast that celebrated the OLC Accelerate 2021 Award Winners as well as the newest OLC Fellow, Dr. Cristi Ford.

    Hearing more about these thought leaders’ compelling work provided new directions for my own work, and illuminated previously unseen opportunities that will help us set the course for our online, blended, and digital learning futures.

Ultimately, this DC homecoming provided me with a rich collection of stories that I will cherish for quite some time, including the unmentioned rooftop ’80s celebrations, Rod’s magic mirror at the Volunteer Appreciation Reception, and countless belly laughs with colleagues in the atrium of the Gaylord overlooking the Potomac River.

It’s left me reflecting on my immense gratitude for the diligence and dedication of the staff and volunteers who addressed obstacles at the eleventh hour with professionalism and care — y’all are ducks smoothly sailing on the water’s surface with feet paddling furiously underneath.

It also has me looking forward to our time that we’ll share in the vineyards right outside of Dallas, Texas for OLC Innovate 2022 that is offered in partnership with MERLOT. I’ll quote Gerry Hanley, Executive Director of MERLOT, in sharing that I hope that we will continue to “give gifts and not burdens” to each other, and find as many ways as possible (whether it is online or in-person, live or asynchronously, now or later) to stay connected and relish in the joys of coming home.

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