Thoughts on the #ET4Online Conference

As a first-time attendee, I came to the Emerging Technologies for Online Learning International Symposium (aka #et4online) conference in Dallas with a semi-open mind.

Last year I decided to check out a different conference in another field for the first time and was horribly disappointed. The majority of the sessions were blatantly commercial - almost everyone was selling something - and the bulk of the presenters were light on meaningful evidence and heavy on personal anecdote and/or cherry-picked data. Given the amount of time and money spent to attend a conference (I'd estimate $1000 at a minimum, although fortunately I don’t usually pay all of it), I was hesitant to try a new conference instead of sticking with some of the others that I know will be beneficial.

I'm glad I took a chance by coming to this one, and I will definitely be coming back.

To provide some context, about two years ago I moved from teaching face-to-face courses to teaching almost exclusively online courses when we took one of our master's programs fully online. We had virtually no lead time. I personally developed 4 online courses with little guidance or training and threw content up on our LMS (hopefully) a week in advance of when the students would need the material. So I'm still recovering from that and trying to do better as I know better. I feel like I entered the online teaching world in a "trial by fire" situation.

Although I was new to this conference and had only a few minor connections to other attendees, I left feeling like I've found a network of people who actually care about the same things that I do. I am usually the one pushing others at our institution to try xxx or rethink yyy. It was heavenly to be pushed along for a change, to be challenged and to see what others who are exponentially more studied and experienced in the world of #SoTL, ed tech and online teaching are up to.

I feel like I'm just dipping my toe into the edtech waters. Much of the vocabulary was new to me - "not yetness" "messy learning" and even the "connected courses" and "open educational resources" were all concepts that resonate, and at the same time I'm still not sure I totally understand them and I certainly don't have the full context for each.

Socially, it was actually easier to make connections here than it is at most conferences for me. I brought my two kiddos and partner to the conference. Since we were staying in an AirBnB off-site, I didn't participate in the afterhours events. It did feel a bit challenging to integrate with the folks present and I *loved* that the organizers had set up a dinner "dine around" and other ways for newbies to connect. Everyone with whom I struck up conversation was friendly, engaging and open to discussion. Very cool.

Compelling questions & ideas

Some of the questions and ideas I'm sitting with now, many of them based on the sessions I attended at the conference:

  • Is it possible to measure all outcomes? Is it desirable to do so? Can we have some outcomes that are measured and some that are not? How can we incorporate "messy" learning and process-based learning into courses while still meeting accreditation standards? As an example, one of my personal/secret outcomes when I teach physiology 1 is that students will leave the class with a sense of awe around the processes that keep the human body running from day to day. I don't measure that, and it isn't in the stated learning outcomes… but maybe it should be?
  • Tech tools don't need to - and probably shouldn't - change what we're teaching. You don't necessarily have to change the way you teach to use them. They are supposed to be tools that help you do what you're already doing better. Need to be discriminating. On the other hand, some people need to change what they're teaching in addition to rethinking the way that they are teaching. Many people in our institution need to move away from the "stuff this factual information into their heads one way or another" model. I'm moving in the right direction, but still have a ways to go myself.
  • I've been skirting around the practice of "humanizing" my courses for the past few years without putting a name to it. I'd like to bring this concept back to MUIH and work on humanizing our curriculum.
  • Is student-to-student interaction always a good thing? Do you have to have this to have a successful online course? When is conversation educational and when is it not? Do we get to say? Or do the students? Could we have truly self-paced courses that do require student-to-student interaction? Or that don't?
  • How can I incorporate more open educational resources into my courses? 
  • How can I best balance my time? Course revisions take time. Trying new technologies takes time. Many of the techniques and tools discussed take more time to assess than traditional methods.  This is something of a sticking point for me, given that this trimester I have almost 120 online students and that my job has other requirements beyond teaching…

Moving Forward & Resolutions

I've already applied quite a few things from the conference to my courses for this trimester. Here is one of my new, humanized syllabi, for example. And here is my still-not-quite-professional-but-way-better-than-it-used-to-be course intro video for another class. But the deeper and bigger work, like rethinking overall assessments and teaching methods, will need to happen over time. We're planning to revamp at least one of my courses in the next year, so I'm gathering ideas and resources for that.

On a a personal note, I really need to get involved with #rhizo15 and the connected courses MOOC. Very cool stuff. I'm also resolved to be more active on Twitter. After leaving, I was all "how do I talk to these people more and keep up with them?" Yeah, Twitter. Must jump into conversation even though I am a perpetual lurker/RTer. Ed tech and people who know stuff about teaching online and connected learning are SO FASCINATING.

​More on the conference...

Thoughts? Add your comments here. 

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Camille Freeman (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and reproductive health. I faciliate the Monday Mentoring community of practice and offer continuing eduation programs for highly trained herbalists & nutritionists. I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.