I wrote a short blog post about my first time as onsite buddy of Virtually Connecting (VC). In my previous post, I noted a couple of reasons and motivations to virtually connect and now, after participating in four sessions as onsite buddy of VC, two main motivations kept on creeping up on me during our sessions at #OEB16:
Budgets & Access
Especially at a conference like OEB, access is highly limited. This is not because the conference organizers would not appreciate more participants. I didn’t ask, but I am sure they would find a way to host more people and I am sure the many vendors would applaud any initiative that brings more potential customers onsite. The limitations arise around budgets. A regular ticket to OEB amounts to almost 1000 Euros, a speaker still has to pay 570 Euros. Both are offered the OEB Plus Package (“the opportunity to gain even more from your OEB attendance”) for more than 220 Euros and all participants are asked to book a room at the Hotel Intercontinental – the special OEB early booking rate would have been 197 Euros for a single room (I booked a room at a hotel 5 minutes walking distance from the OEB site for 50 Euros per night and I am still alive and well). OEB lasts from Thursday-Friday, additional pre-conference workshops on Wednesday ranged from free participation to more than 300 Euros. Add flights to Berlin and the overall costs can amount to 2000 Euros per participant. Now, I am employed at two universities in a country that values education, personal development, exchange and academia as a whole and I know many colleagues in German Higher Ed. Only a handful have made it to OEB, even though their institutions are funded and they would be able to take the train to Berlin. Imagine what kind of barriers this holds to people from other countries, especially when local currency has been de-valued or when average incomes are not as high as in Germany. I don’t think it’s a surprise that OEB has a high participation rate among Scandinavian countries where wages are a lot higher than in most other places. The mentioned rates are among the highest EdTech conference rates in Europe and they can easily compete with the cost level of most conferences in the US. So, additionally to other reasons not to join OEB in person (border restrictions, travel time, family issues, etc.), the costs really are an issue.
I am not naive enough to think that VC is going to solve that problem. But VC acts as an entry point to these kinds of events for anyone with an Internet connection and an interest. Most of the virtual participants had never been to OEB and to have the possibility to include their views on conference themes and trends is an enrichment of the overall conference experience. Also, and maybe even more importantly, VC is pushing boundaries. For our sessions, we had to claim a space at the conference, we had to ask for help with organizing sessions. VC made the invisible online lurkers of a conference like this a bit more visible to the organizers.
In pretty much every session at OEB, I missed the opportunity to ask questions and to challenge mislead beliefs about disruption of education, AI in education, the Blockchain, MOOCs or video-based learning. Most sessions went slightly longer than scheduled and they were not designed for me (or anyone else) to ask these questions. As you can probably tell when you go through the recorded sessions, this frustrates me a bit. But while going through them, you will notice that VC offered exactly that space. VC made it possible to engage with speakers and experts, both onsite and online. We took the chance and made sense of the nonsense, we enriched our impressions by adding interesting ideas from elsewhere and we had a chance to reflect on each others’ associations and ideas. OEB offered Yoga classes in the morning, but no such space. I am deeply convinced that my OEB experience would have been a very frustrating one, had I not had the chance to blow off some steam or exchange some ideas. All in all, VC provided some urgently needed grip on reality and I am not sure how and where other participants at OEB got that.
Being onsite buddy for the first time was a great experience and I can’t wait to join my next conference online. If you ever have the chance, please do take it and become onsite buddy – it will change your perspective on the conference and it will allow you to make new connections. A huge thank you to Maha Bali for inviting me to be part of VC, to Helen DeWaard, Maha Abdelmoneim, Nadine Aboulmagd and to all the guests and organizers of VC for joining me here in Berlin to what would have been a much lesser conference experience without you.