Making Space for Values and Vision to Drive Innovation in Design; the Story of OLC’s New Approach to Conference Engagement (a series)


Madeline R. Shellgren (she/her/hers), Director of Community Strategy and Engagement, Online Learning Consortium

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Forewarning: This blogpost is a story because I like to tell stories. Most of all, though, it is a thought piece anchored around a call to action to get involved and an invitation to play / re-imagine as we continue to work together to innovate and dream up new possibilities for professional development within learning spaces, like Conferences. 

To begin this story, I will share one vision we have within the OLC for our conferences: a truly experiential conference experience; one where our session content and overall programming approach gives us an entry point to not only see the connection between theory and practice…but, experience it. Engagement programming is a core part of our conference experiences and has been ever since I joined the organization. Before I joined the staff, I actually started as a volunteer. At the time, my experience with conferences aligned with what many across academia likely experience. People submit to a CFP, sessions are accepted, we attend to present or to learn, and that learning experience is attending other sessions. Usually, I was overwhelmed by content. I sometimes left feeling refreshed. Moreover, I left thinking about all the things I now wanted to do, inspired by the other talks I attended. If I presented, I felt like I was better positioned to continue to advance my work, excited about new connections, or glad that I got to minimally share about the work I was doing.

But in my own case, at least, I rarely ever got to all those ideas. My connections ended up being temporary. My notes ended up scattered and archived. The tools I wanted to explore? I might have gotten to one or two of them. The plans that I had to share the things I learned with my colleagues? Other things took over as priority, so I didn’t get to roll them out. And then I did it all over again the next time. I went because going to, attending, and presenting at conferences…well they are part of academic culture. It was expected of me. Presentations carry social and professional weight. They look good on a CV, I can get my name out there (which might result in more of a presence and maybe even lead to jobs into the future). But admittedly, I did always wonder: Is this it? Is this all there could be? 

And then I attended an OLC conference. I had gotten asked to be a volunteer in the Technology Test Kitchen and support engagement programming. I can’t express enough that this moment was a pivotal one in my career and more specifically my journey within and across academia. I experienced something different. I left that conference with genuine new friends at other institutions. I laughed harder than I had ever before while attending a conference. I didn’t want to leave…and I didn’t. I volunteered for every OLC conference after that and now get to design and develop strategy around engagement for our conferences and the whole organization as a member of the OLC’s staff. 

Now I start with this story because experiences like that are important. They have the potential to fundamentally shift our perspectives and help us see new possibilities and new horizons. Those new ideas can be infectious and motivating, driving change work as we seek to make new visions a reality within our own working spaces. But as we sit with those new ideas, we of course also need to anchor them in our values and the core aspects of our organizational or institutional structures. 

We at the OLC very much view conferences as professional development. We understand this is likely a given for our community and the individuals that attend (i.e. most see conferences as professional development). But within that understanding, one thing that we are deeply committed to is the question of how we help every attendee and presenter get the most out of their experience, and this includes learning and development just as it does networking and connection. Being part of and sustaining a community that values professional development, learning, and engagement means designing with this in mind. It requires a perspective of mutual benefit and reciprocity, one that understands that the responsibility and onus for a quality conference experience is not on presenters, alone. Regardless of whether you are a presenter or attendee, you have something to give to this community. The work also falls heavily on conference organizers to design, deliver, and coordinate a conference experience that maps to and is driven by community needs. Engagement has long been a marker of a quality learning experience but research today still confirms that from both the student/learner side and the instructor/presenter/facilitator side, it is an area we need a lot of growth around. 

One way the OLC has facilitated a culture of quality and a culture of peer-learning within our conference spaces has been through our engagement programming. Through these spaces, we not only model what effective engagement is, we also invite people into the space to experience it for themselves and we support them by providing tools and resources they can use to implement similar experiences in their own spaces. For us, a key message we always hope people leave with is that engagement is programming and programming should be engaging. 

But there’s the catch…”traditional” models of conferences don’t tend to leverage effective engagement practices, and as a result, there are a variety of approaches to the challenge of helping every attendee and presenter get the most out of their conference experience. Truly, until I attended my first OLC conference, I didn’t know anything else was possible (though I had recognized I wasn’t fully satisfied with the experiences I had thus far). And even though my own original OLC experience was fun and amazing and fundamentally different, I still know there is so much more work to be done in this area and that we have a long way to go to “practice what we preach.” 

Over the next few weeks, I will be joined by the OLC Accelerate 2022 engagement team, a group of amazingly fun, talented, creative, generous volunteers from various institutional contexts leading and designing our upcoming conference engagement programming. But for now, I am excited to announce that we will be implementing a completely new and improved model for engagement at this year’s OLC Accelerate Conference. We’ve listened and learned from our community and are once again shifting the needle for conference engagement through a new model. If you’ve been to our conferences before, you are likely familiar with “classic” OLC engagement spaces like the Speed Networking Lounge, the Technology Test Kitchen, our educational escape rooms, the Field Guide program, OLC Live, and more. Though effective, these programs were also somewhat siloed. So this year, we are leaning into storytelling models and the benefits of narrative approaches to teaching and learning to deliver a truly unique, immersive, and playful conference experience. The second installment in this engagement series will specifically story two programmatic structures we are designing for this year: the Engagement Boulevard and the Engagement Block Party, so if you’re looking for specifics and insights into unique strategies, I encourage you to stick around. 

But for now, as someone who is regularly committed to continuous improvement and always sitting with new ideas, I encourage you to reflect on the experiences you have had and afford yourself the creative space to ask what if…? What if we could redesign it all? What could a conference experience look like? What would we want it to look like? What would scholarship tell us it should look like? What resources, infrastructure, community, and cultural work would we need to implement, ensure are in place, and commit to in order to have a conference experience that is guided by the very scholarship we present on/around?

This year’s engagement programming for OLC Accelerate makes space for this line of questioning and will position attendees to genuinely test, pilot, play, and experience that question for themselves…to engage with it (pun intended) in a new and innovative way. It marks a big shift for us and will be an entirely new conference and professional development experience, one that will only be successful with your insights and feedback. If you’re like me and love exploring through practice and play, join us at OLC Accelerate this year. But at a minimum, follow us here for the journey, as we story this new road we’re paving to a truly experiential conference program.

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