We read, with interest, Nolan Higdon and Allison Butler’s recent Inside Higher Ed piece, “Conferencing Critically in a COVID-19 World,” in which they discuss various drawbacks to remote and hybrid conferences. While we agree with some of the key points in their article, we feel that others underestimate the potential of virtual and hybrid professional development.
One statement in Higdon and Butler’s article stood out for us: “One additional risk of a remote conference—and, by extension, remote education—is that it keeps us isolated from each other.” People who have been teaching and connecting online since before the pandemic would disagree with this notion, especially those who centered humanizing approaches to online learning and pedagogies of care; many others learned during the pandemic how to build community and create affective ties with learners and peers globally, without gathering in a shared physical locale. Moreover, being “in person” does not necessarily result in less isolation. In-person events can be isolating for anyone who is not already part of the in crowd.
We recently worked with others to organize Equity Unbound’s #MYFest22, a virtual event that sought to center community and support, and rethink the many pitfalls of online, in-person and hybrid events that we’ve seen in the past two years, and even before the pandemic. We kept MYFest virtual because we agree with Higdon and Butler that virtual conferences can promote better access for those without funds or freedom to travel, and because virtual conferences are certainly better for climate justice.
The inaugural Mid-Year Festival 2022, aka #MYFest22, from Equity Unbound—an equity-focused, connected intercultural learning network that co-creates diverse, open learning experiences—was not a conference per se, nor was it similar to anyone’s local professional development. It was not a series of one-off, high-cost, multisession workshops offered by a large contracted organization. MYFest was designed to be a three-month-long “recharge and renewal experience” with a “choose-your-own-learning journey” approach, exploring a variety of themes, including critical pedagogy and open education and digital literacies. In addition, two themes intentionally addressed isolation: “well-being and joy” and “community building and community reflection.” More than 300 participants from five continents joined us.
We offer here ideas for what organizers of online events can learn from MYFest. Inspired by a “call for promoting ownership, equity, and agency in faculty development via connected learning,” we aimed to deepen adult learning by leveraging human connection, respecting agency and self-determination (heutagogy), designing for equity, and recognizing the need to make time for critical self-reflection—both individually and in community—in order to support cumulative transformative learning.
1. Have a diverse community of organizers.
To capture a diverse audience, design with diverse organizers. Many academic events are organized by people who are mostly from one institution, one country or one professional organization, yet claim to offer professional development for diverse participants from all over the world. Instead, #MYFest22 built on relationships among 14 organizers from four different countries (Canada, Egypt, South Africa and the United States), many of whom have built trust and collegial friendship online as part of a thriving, intersecting long-term personal learning network with community values of mutual support. We have supported each other through illness and wellness, grief and joy, frustrations and solutions. Our ongoing conversations have helped us realize just how significant a gap there is in traditional professional development worldwide.
2. Aspire toward participant agency and reflection.
Educator and author Sherri Spelic has observed that badly designed professional development for educators tends to be “undifferentiated.” In contrast, MYFest was a “build-your-own-learning journey” experience over three months, a “buffet approach” (participants chose sessions of interest, could change selections at any time and could attend as much or as little as suited them). In addition, MYFest was declared a No FOMO (fear of missing out) experience. If a participant’s life and schedule did not permit attendance for certain gatherings and activities, this did not result in being left behind.
Three months (not two to three days!) gave participants time to build community and relationships synchronously and asynchronously, and opened up room for reflection and cumulative transformative learning. The significance of both individual and collective reflection was the glue of the MYFest experience, including some sessions focused on group reflection, exercises with individual written reflections and a call for curation of participant-created multimodal artifacts and writings.
3. Foster global connections and community with intentionally equitable hospitality.
We sought to foster global online conversations through skillful facilitation and by embracing “intentionally equitable hospitality,” designing sessions in ways that strive toward ensuring everyone participates as fully as possible in the ways they feel most comfortable, and inviting the most marginalized voices. We sought to host with the “generous authority” Priya Parker promotes (in Parker’s words, a gathering run with generous authority is one “run with a strong confident hand, but … run selflessly, for the sake of others”). Participants had various modes of participation, synchronous or asynchronous, and there were options to go to a “quiet room” during breakout room activities if someone did not want to chat that day. There was never an expectation of cameras on, or of oral participation if someone preferred typing in the chat. Slides were provided ahead of time where possible, with alternative text for images. Automated live transcription was enabled in live sessions. Chats were lively in most sessions, and opportunities to participate anonymously via Google docs, Google Jamboard or polling tools came up throughout. Sessions were recorded, unless the conversations were very personal and the more equitable choice was not to record them in order to provide a safe space. Participants were often invited to write privately and share only what they felt comfortable sharing.
4. Co-create and experience community and joy throughout.
The MYFest participants did not meet to talk about community and well-being. Rather, we met to experience and co-create community and well-being. MYFest facilitators have expertise in participatory approaches to online facilitation, including the use of community-building approaches and “liberating structures” (these are “easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust” meant to “quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size”).
Community (and the trust that is the foundation of healthy community) cannot be established with one or two speed networking sessions at an event. We laid the foundation for MYFest with at least one weekly community building engagement, making time for people to get to know one another in small groups with creative prompts like the Fast Friends protocol, and to reflect together creatively, through prompts like ice cream/broccoli and spiral journal. We welcomed and engaged with participants as they wove in and out of each other’s lives, building and strengthening connections over time.
5. Schedule wisely. Resist Zoom fatigue and decision fatigue.
MYFest exemplified what Spelic suggests: “professional development that is wisely scheduled.” We spread our offerings out over three months, avoided overlapping sessions and had no more than three events per day. We therefore avoided the familiar Zoom fatigue as well as decision fatigue. Some MYFest events were threaded as “tracks,” where one may attend multiple sessions and do some asynchronous work around the same topic, an approach that opens up the potential of “cohort” congeniality. In our Slack channel, MYFest participants could discover, connect and share with new colleagues at any time across multiple themes and tracks.
6. Embrace emergence: welcome and leverage participant expertise.
MYFest sought to be “emergent” by actively building on participant expertise. Every session in MYFest encouraged participants to bring and share their expertise. Additionally, there were special sessions within MYFest inviting participants to contribute their own expertise in building community—contributing those ideas to the OneHE/Equity Unbound community-building resource site—so these sessions built on participant expertise while also contributing to an open resource that is available to all on the open web.
7. Make it family-friendly.
Another unique aspect of the MYFest experience was the intuitive involvement of family and friends. By focusing on well-being and joy, as well as critical discussions, we intentionally designed programming for the entire family. MYFest participants brought both (grand)parents and children to certain threads, embracing the power of intergenerational learning and connection. The Reader’s Theater invited children and adults to co-read plays together online, and MineFest invited children from all over the world to play Minecraft together safely. MYFest therefore addressed Spelic’s call for professional development that “acknowledges [educators’] full humanity in the learning process.”
8. Go beyond access and focus on accessibility.
Compared to in-person events, there’s more flexibility to make online conferences affordable, as adding participants in a virtual event does not have an incremental cost. It is therefore easier to create a system for scholarships or waivers for folks who are marginalized or do not have institutional funding. In the case of MYFest, we were awarded a Hewlett Foundation grant that allowed for the foundational overhead cost, and it covered the labor of the main facilitators and some of the invited guest facilitators, as well as the technology needed to run the event. And while MYFest was not advertised as a free event, there were multiple discounts available, and also the possibility to attend for free via a waiver.
By keeping the conference virtual, we avoided the costs of accommodation and travel associated with in-person events, as well as the logistical and social barriers to travel for parents of young children, people with disabilities and people who lack visa privilege. And, in the case of COVID-19 (and now monkeypox), people with compromised immunity.
Despite these efforts, we recognize, as Higdon and Butler do, that while “digital may be more accessible, it is not entirely accessible” all the time and for everyone. Differences in time zones meant that some sessions would often fall at an inconvenient time for people (particularly those located in East Asia and Oceania). We intentionally offered some sessions in “time zone sweet spots” that might work on all continents. But these attempts can never be perfect. And of course, some people may have no internet access, expensive internet access, intermittent electricity or low bandwidth.
However, accessibility goes beyond internet access. An accessible event should mean that when people join, they feel included, they feel they can access learning and belong to groups and learn in ways that reach them where they are. It means that people with different abilities can learn comfortably without constantly needing to ask for special accommodations, people from across the globe can find relevance in the work and organizers are always open to feedback and suggestions.
As our colleague Kate Bowles said to us, “The pandemic has also taught us that all sorts of fixed fittings turned out to be moveable: scheduling, assessment modes, grades, logistics of scale. We’re now somewhat free not to put them back as they were.” (Twitter DM shared with permission.)
Let’s not put exclusionary professional development practices back to what they were before March 2020. A more worthy goal is to aspire toward equitable, accessible professional learning environments that can bring us joy in community and promote the transformative learning we hunger for.
The authors would like to acknowledge the entire MYFest organizing team (all bios here). We would also like to acknowledge our guest facilitators and participants, who have all enriched the MYFest experience.