Reflections on the #OER20 conference

‘Care in openness’ was the overall theme of the 2020 OER conference, which was originally meant to be hosted in London by Mia Zamora, Daniel Villar-Onrubia and Jonathan Shaw. However, 2 weeks before the conference, with the escalating COVID-19 pandemic crisis making an international face-to-face event for over 200 people in a big city a dangerous idea, the Association of Learning Technology and the co-chairs showed immense care for participants by cancelling the face-to-face conference and instead offered a reduced programme online.

Fortunately, ALT has a good track record of running online conferences, as their winter conference is an online event. Presenters were invited to choose whether to present live (via webinar), offer a pre-recording or withdraw from the programme. I chose to do a pre-recording of my presentation ‘Practical perspectives on building sustainable and caring open education practices in culturally aware and inclusive ways‘ and posted it online in my blog a few days beforehand.

The revised conference programme was published online, the conference was opened up for anyone to register for free and attendees took our seats in our ‘working from home’ spaces and tuned in to the live streamed webinars which were all hosted in Blackboard collaborate with the live stream simultaneously on Youtube.

The OER20 programme was an absolute feast for enthusiasts of open educational resources and practices, despite being reduced from the original programme. The organisers built in what seemed like sensible timings including mid morning, lunch and mid afternoon breaks. Even so, I found myself quickly overwhelmed, not least getting to grips with a slightly unfamiliar online conferencing software (although Blackboard collaborate has similar functionality to Adobe connect which was used for the H818 online conference a few weeks earlier, the layout is different).

The opening remarks by the co-chairs was an hour long conversation in which they explored how they came to choose the conference theme of ‘Care in openness’ which unexpectedly became so completely apt for the time. They explained that it “harnessed the idea of social justice” (Mia Zamora, opening remarks, OER20) with the underlying meanings of nurturing and compassion, juxtaposed with the realities of a world of data surveillance, capitalism and risks of operating in the open web. The idea was for the conference to map out aspects of care in education practice. The Soup Can image artwork designed by Brian Mathers alluded to the iconic Andy Warhol image and juxtaposed the notion of soup as nourishing (care) but mass produced, highlighting the scale of consumer culture.

The organisers had wondered how to enable attendees to make playful and useful connections with each other at the conference. They came up with the Social Bingo ‘directory of attendees’ idea in which everyone was invited to create a Splot (Simplest Possible Learning Open Tool) about themselves without having to create an account in the hosting platform to contribute, then to click the random Splot button to get another person’s Splot to read, share and use to make connections with other attendees.

It turned out that Splot means weave in Polish, with weaving being a means of connecting. This nicely tied in with the FemEdTechQuilt project which was one of the highlights of the conference that afternoon, when Frances Bell told the story of how the OER quilt came about and shared the progress (quilt 1 was complete by the conference, quilts 2, 3 and 4 were nearly complete) as well as some of the stories behind the squares. This session became quite an emotional one because the intention had been for us to see and help complete the quilt at OER20. I had made a 6 inch square for it very quickly one evening in late January – my Shweshwe Table Mountain of the Mother City. I have got a 12 inch version which I need to stitch and will keep. The Quilt of Care and Justice in Education will travel and have a life of its own.

The day one keynote by sava saheli singh was an intensely thought-provoking exploration of the concept of modern surveillance technology use and how easily this dehumanises and reduces caring and connection between people. ‘Frames’, the short film her research project had made which we watched during the session, was utterly haunting and very powerful. It generated lots of contributions in the conference chat screen.

I have been fortunate enough to attend several OER conferences since OER14, sometimes as a presenter. Usually during sessions I make notes on the ipad (I have a Bluetooth keyboard and touch type) and use the ipad for taking photos and tweeting key points. For the H818 online conference, I used the laptop for the conference session (presenting and writing in the group chat) and the ipad for making notes and contributing in the H818 Whatsapp group chat.

H818 online conference programme divided into 4 hour sessions on 3 different days (one morning session, one afternoon session and one evening session) to accommodate the international locations of the students who all had to present for 10 minutes. OER20 was over 2 consecutive days, both morning and afternoon sessions (with an optional online Karaoke in the evening of the first day, which I was too tired to join). This was a concentrated period of screen time.

For OER20 my technical setup was the same as I used for H818 online conference (laptop and ipad) but I used them differently: I made notes on the laptop into a Word document kept in the background (taking screen clips of some points in the chat screen or some of the slides, but I didn’t do this consistently for each session I attended). I also contributed far less than previous OER conferences to Twitter, though I kept an eye on the #OER20 hashtag stream on the ipad. I discovered that I didn’t have the cognitive bandwidth to do more, and struggled to concentrate for any length of time through many of the webinar parallel sessions (except FemEdTechQuilt).

On the second day I joined a couple of the social webinar spaces between sessions for informal discussion, though this had the double-edged sword of yet more screen time and concentration problems because I was reducing my screen breaks.

Some sessions apparently suffered uninvited guests ‘zoom bombing’ the chat for short periods of time. The first time I experienced this was during the afternoon of the second day when the webinar hosts had to disable the chat function as they cleared the uninvited guests from the webinar room. This meant that for about 10 minutes, only the presenters of that session were able to post comments in the chat screen which was frustrating for everyone else as we were excluded from asking questions and making our comments for a while. The theme of ‘inclusion’ from H818 immediately sprang to mind, as being able to make contributions to the chat is a useful engagement tool.

It can be cognitively demanding keeping an eye on the chat as well as listening to what the presenter is saying and looking at their slides (this was another reason the #OER20 Twitter back channel didn’t get so much of my attention). At a face-to-face conference the Twitter back channel is the chat space and some presenters have made interactive use of it in their sessions.

I did make some new connections during the conference by following some people on Twitter and joining in the social spaces, I was gratified to be contacted afterwards via Twitter with some questions about my re-recorded presentation. I shall address those questions and my responses in a separate blog post. I was sad not to be able to present live at the conference as originally planned but Webinar slots were limited in the schedule and the dreaded imposter syndrome kicked in, so I made the choice for a pre-record instead. Inevitably, the live webinars received more attention during the conference, though I did take a look at a couple of pre-recorded presentations during the breaks on the first day.

At a face-to-face conference it is never possible to get to every presentation with only some of them live streamed beyond the physically attending audience. Fortunately all the OER20 presentations (both live and pre-records) are available as OER on the OER20 website to return to for further investigation. I hope to watch some of the presentations again and explore the pre-records further. Even though the mix of webinars and pre-records makes for less equity of exposure and discussion for some presentations during the conference, bringing the entire conference online makes all the presentations available afterwards to a much wider audience. OER20 was the biggest conference which ALT had ever hosted, with just over 1,200 registrations, a huge increase in the usual attendance at the face-to-face versions. I would like to thank and congratulate the co-chairs and the organisers for a fantastic conference, thoughtfully planned and run with an abundance of care for all participants.


2 thoughts on “Reflections on the #OER20 conference

  1. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I dipped into the conference the tiniest bit as it was sadly not compatible with my day job (soon to change), so nice to be able to read your thoughts on what it was like and the techniques you use to manage such an event.

  2. Dear Anna,
    Thank you very much for sharing! The comparative perspective is really interesting.
    I didn’t know about H818 online conference – was it like 10-minute presentations for all the 4-hour sessions?

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