#DML2012 – The Experience of Listening. Was (Too Often) All.

One of my takeaways from the DML 2012 conference is that the messages of connected learning have not quite caught up yet with the practices of academic conferences.

It’s a common complaint – both that I hear and that I sometimes make – that the learning spaces that we want for children should at least attempt to be modeled by the conferences/meetings where we go to talk about and explore learning possibilities. And while I get that there’s a culture or cultures to academia, and that much of the DML community is rooted in research and dissemination practices that are fairly formal, well, I’m struck that the medium and the messages of the event seemed to be in slight conflict. Even on the mothership, the interesting stuff was still rather on the edge.

Having run conferences and meetups and managed the learning of others’ both grown ups and children, I understand that it is a most difficult undertaking, so I should say right here that I found the DML event nothing short of wicked good. I learned a bunch and will be processing some powerful learning for a while to come. And yet. I’d gently suggest to the organizers of DML 2013 a few small points.

The first being a softball. I’m sure that everyone noticed that the space where the conference was held seemed far smaller than the people of DML. I think the folks there were the right folks – it was a fascinating mix of students and teachers and professors and researchers and makers and geeks. ((That said, I didn’t see lots of IT folk there – but perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. Or maybe operations types aren’t the crowd of DML. Oh. That’d be sad if it were true.)) But the way the conference was set up – or at least my version of it ((Everyone, you know, has their own conference experience, a collection of what they saw, with whom they spoke, and a variety of other factors. No two people have the same experience, of course. I may well have had the “bad” one.)) – the sessions were overcrowded and packed into too small rooms and I couldn’t get to many of the things I wanted to see. Even when I could get a seat in a room – and to do so I had to stake out a space early – there were two or three other concurrent sessions I didn’t want to miss.

Here’s the tricky thing. At an event where the messages from the community and presenters and panelists were all about experiencing powerful participatory learning, well, we sure were expected, by design and practice and custom, to sit still and listen a lot. Certainly, we were listening to fascinating stories of promise and practice and learning and teaching and exploration and study and wonder – but we were listeners, and that’s a very particular kind of experience.

I listened to Super Awesome Sylvia talk about making things that mattered. And I really enjoyed hearing from her, particularly when she raised the differences between her learning at home and at school. But might we have made something together?

I listened to Jess Klein explain the potential of a HackJam. I love the tools and mindsets that Mozilla is building in that space. Having experienced a HackJam ((That was masterfully facilitated at ISTE 2011 by Chad and Meenoo.)), I know they are transformative. They are a Big Deal. Might we have done that together? At least a little bit? Perhaps this happened and I missed it.

I came to one session where a presenter began to read from a paper – the same paper excerpted in the conference program – on the power of media for engaging students. The presenter read from the paper that was provided to me already.

Even in our session on the multiplicity of composition – a session that we intentionally attempted to do differently than a talking head panel – we struggled to make it an active learning experience ((The during that session, I thought, is worth more of my time.)). I don’t know if we were struggling against the Internet access in the hotel, or the expectations of the audience, or the limits of our imagination. Or maybe something else.

There’s work to do.

I thought the idea of the Mozilla Science Fair – an hour and a half long reception showcasing many of the institutions and organizations doing important learning work – was a great idea. But an hour or so of crowded tables meant we got short looks into thoughtful work. Those same twenty or so tables should’ve been parceled out over the entire event, with five at a time running engaging events modeling their fascinating and engaging practices. There was a big empty space in the conference area that cried out for us to use it for playing and making and exploring and doing together. ((The impromptu Occupy Badges session – a spillout of the overcrowded session on Badges – was a good example of what might’ve happened in that space.))

How can we collectively do a better job of modeling the structures, habits, and aptitudes we want to see of learning and learners, particularly when DML learns together? And what can we do with the listening we’ve done to improve the experiences that are to come? Yeah, I’m saying “we” and “DML,” because, like Chad, I’m willing to say that I am engaged by this group of thoughtful people. I’d feel lucky to be counted as a member of the DML community. I so want them/us to do well.

And there’s room to grow.

66 thoughts on “#DML2012 – The Experience of Listening. Was (Too Often) All.

  1. Teresa says:

    So, why do we keep presenting in the same way? I loved your keynote on the EC Ning summer webstitute, but heard others say “well, it wasn’t really the traditional keynote” because you dared to involve us 🙂 Are all conference participants coming with the same willingness to participate as you are? If I submit a presentation proposal should I add a warning “Caution: You will be participating as a part of this session.”
    I agree with you, I’m just trying to figure out why we keep emulating the model if the model is not acceptable and why session proposals have to be steeped so deeply in already established research if the goal is for participants to, weel, participate?
    I always end up with more questions than I have answers…..

    1. Teresa says:

      That should say, “well,…” Ugh typos!

  2. Thanks for your posts on DML. As a high school teacher who was there last year as well – and who also does the EduCon thing – I have a few thoughts to add.

    Venue: The 2012 venue was not so good. The 2011 venue had a rooftop pool, and it was in Long Beach. However, 2011 also featured a teacher meetup at said rooftop pool, and only four* of us showed up – Adrienne Michetti, Chris Bell, and Antero Garcia, one of the organizers this year. FOUR! So it’s true that there was no room for anyone this time around, but it’s also true that the K-12 voice was significantly amplified.

    Participation: Too many lectures. True. HOWEVER, the very moment in my own presentation (on designing K-12 learning experiences, AKA doing fun stuff in classrooms) that we opened it up to a small group conversation/activity/reflection was the very same moment that a substantial number of folks left. Good thing my partner warned me away from doing a speed-dating activity, which I really wanted to do to facilitate conversations, but which she said would scare people away. I suspect that a substantial number of people are either uncomfortable with small-group conversations or do not see it as being as valuable to learn from folks who are not sitting behind white tablecloths. There’s probably some academic elitism going on there, but I also admit to feeling deeply anxious about initiating conversations with folks I don’t know. It’s easier to sit and listen, which I acknowledge can be problematic. My preference as an audience member is for a compelling speaker who talks about something I know very little about, (like the session on wearable technologies), shows stuff and/or does stuff, and pushes my thinking in a way that allows me to write or sketch ideas while they’re talking. I like structured social situations (like speed dating!), and after four years continue to be uncomfortable with the conversation aspect of EduCon even though I think I’m pretty good at facilitating a noisy, active classroom.

    All stripes, I guess. Thanks again for the post.

    *Was Sava there? I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure.

  3. Rafi Santo says:

    I definitely echo a lot of your thoughts here, both from this year’s DML as well as at many other conferences associated with the DML space. At the same time, I think it’s important that we see all of this in context. Conferences are learning environments where people are generally highly engaged with the subject matter at hand, bring their own rich and relevant experiences to it, and are participating on their own terms. The learning that they’re doing is interest-driven and on-demand – like when I’m in the middle of playing a level of a game and go and check out a tutorial that someone’s put on youtube or written up on a forum. In this case it’s just on a larger time-scale and in a professional context. The “game” that each conference participant is playing is their larger professional life dedicated to young people (in some way, hopefully), and the “tutorial” is the conference sessions that we choose to attend based on interest and need. The same reason that we like TED talks, blog posts, radio, all “content”, ostensibly in “lecture” format, but all based on our own learning process, is the same reason why the lecture format at conferences isn’t going to go away, nor should it.

    So, I’m a bit less critical than I used to be about this sort of format. That’s not to say that there’s no place for making/tinkering/playing/etc in these conferences, but I think that sharing of program models, research results, student work, etc doesn’t always lend itself to that format and perhaps some real work to be done is around figuring what kind of format works for the goal the organizer of a session has.

    I think what’s most important is that we do do our best to eat our own dogfood on making DML a space based on good learning principles. That means creating a community that’s centered on learning, that has strong structures for mentorship, where people can sometimes be experts and sometimes be novices, where the expectations of what counts as good work are made public and are open for debate, where knowledge production is valued and goes hand in hand with rich feedback and debate, and all the other good things that we know about passionate affinity groups that are rich sites of learning. We do some of these things well at DML, and others less so. To me, the lecture format is one small thing, but I see larger fish to fry in making DML the change I want to see in the world.

  4. @jillbromen says:

    This just popped up in my twittered: http://bit.ly/tbdXMP (Ed myths that shape conferences), which of course prompted me to return to your posting!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughtful and candid comments! I’m quite certain that several of us were just a few feet from each other in that grand open lobby, quietly huddled with similar pondering. In one of those lobby-chats, we discussed the potential of an ‘unconferencing’ / open space technology format woven into DML. Our small group dreamt for a moment, and then I was a bit surprised to hear, “but that won’t work for this type of conference”. Why not? Let’s challenge what will work and set the environment to innovate how we discuss and approach innovation. 🙂
    I do need to give a shout out to a session on Saturday: remixing public events for social change. Instead of ‘we talk, now it’s your turn’, We were engaged immediately with hands-on toys and a task to jointly accomplish. The learning was more situated that not, and the joy in thinking, contemplating and playing together will certainly prompt me to refer to the session, the questions and possible follow up action.
    Overall, kudos to the many many presenters, organizers and attendees… I feel grateful to have been able to work with and hear from so many light-bulb brains. Let’s all keep an open mind, strengthen the good, and work together to genuinely redesign the sit-and-get!!
    PS: I’m appreciating the posts above- yes to various types of formats in alignment with the learners’ preferences and goals for the conference in the first place. I’d still like to see us provide for an EduCon-esque structured conversation space… perhaps that’s what the big lobby is for? Ongoing speed-dating type sessions throughout the day? It could be another named learning space to join in, as opposed to finding a floor fraction on the edge of overflowing meeting rooms? Hmm…

  5. Anne McGrail says:

    While I agree that as often as we can, we need to include activities at conferences, I have to say that I come to conferences for what I call experiences of “idea density.” That is, I don’t need to talk to someone at a superficial level so that I can say I “enacted” something. I need to draw as much as I can from the smart people who have thought through big ideas. I did some mirroring and stretching with a partner at one session, and that was friendly, sure. But I really appreciated hearing in detail some data about the gendered digital divide.I really appreciated hearing in detail about the difficulties of “repurposing” using technology (aka “skill transfer”), and an exercise or activity is less likely to get me to that level of detail. I really liked watching the video shown by Make Magazine’s founder–it was moving and inspiring to see that kid make something–more important for me as a “take away” than the sticky notes we filled out before wandering around the room for awkward conversations about what we make.

    So I get it–that really, really brilliant presenters will both have idea density at the level of their research and also be able to convey that density through an activity. Ignite talks are great because of the density, even though they make us passive listeners.

    Listening is a discipline and a skill. Our students may not have that discipline yet, and they also don’t need the same level of density as at a conference. But I for one am always grateful to hear brilliant ideas, and I have the listening and note taking skills from graduate school that allow me to reflect on what I learn later. So I really wouldn’t equate the learning experiences of our students with advanced learning within the rhetorical constraints of the conference. I’m online all the time; I can watch videos or make them anytime I want. I appreciated the intensity offered at DML2012, even as I have some real problems with a lot of what was said and how it was organized. (Just for one I think it was wierd that the Macarthur Foundation and Bill Gates now stand in for “public” funding of education innovation….)

    I really do get what you’re saying, but I have to say that the only time I was bored or not learning anything was when I heard something I already knew or something was ill-considered or naive.

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