Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Alone in a crowd… And disconnected discourses on education


Lonely in a Crowd

At a face to face event, I walk in, I know no one. It is embarrassing, it is obvious. You cannot lurk unnoticed. It’s not like online, where you can lurk unnoticed. It’s not like online where you can “butt in” and no one is surprised, no one minds. Have I gotten to used to virtual conference attendance?

I look out for someone I know, I find none. I decide to wing it and go up to someone and say, “you look familiar”. I later look out for someone who stands alone and risk a, “you don’t know anyone either?” (it ends up sounding like a pickup line, but who cares? I’m desperate here). It’s not like on twitter where you can just talk to anyone in the world, whoever they are. Even if they don’t respond, you’ve lost nothing, but often they do respond, and you’ve gained so much more than you ever imagined,

They call us to go inside for the meeting to start, and I am relieved. But the setup is round tables. Ahh, I have to find the courage to introduce myself and sit with people I do not know. I find a table with two people who look like they don’t know each other and are exchanging business cards. I find an opportunity and I take it. Turns out I actually know one of the people at the table (just had not seen her in around 10 years and she looks different – so sorry that she had to remind me of herself).

Anyway… The rest of the event was less lonely for me for several reasons. One is that a few people I do know showed up, the other is the interactive format of the second half of the event.

[Important note: attending other face-to-face events where either I know lots of people, or no one knows anyone else, is completely different and quite comfortable]

No Educators to Talk About Education

The event begins: I listen to a panel about education in Egypt, that has experts from government, the private sector (HR), two civil society reps and a student. I just realize now as I write this that they never invited someone from higher education on that panel. They were discussing the failings of higher education to prepare students for employment, and it somehow slipped their mind to invite someone who actually works at an actual university to express that view. They actually needed two kinds or more of higher ed experts: from the public universities and the private universities; they needed an academic and a career center expert, or someone who knows about both. Maybe a professor of organization theory or something. But to totally exclude any educators from the panel is…like suggesting educators are irrelevant to this conversation!

Anyway, the panel provided some interesting insights, such as a confirmation of how students and corporate think about each other, and the disconnect there; such as governments’ useless proposed solutions to ideas, and how they do not understand the idea of “participation” (when asked if they involved anyone in their strategic planning process, the response was, “we’re finalizing the draft, we’ll share it when it’s ready”).

The best panelists, in my view, were the reps from civil society who were on the poor students’ side, and able to be critical of government, as well as corporate, while maintaining hope in what they could do for students and fresh grads.

Solving Educational Problems in 25 Minutes

The interesting part of the day was the second half, where we broke out into discussion groups on different topics, of 25 mins each, and were asked to work with a facilitator to come up with solutions to the topic at hand. This was incredibly energizing but also frustrating. Why? You’re at a table with strangers (well, ok, sometimes I knew a couple of them). You’re mixing people from corporate and civil society and academia and young and graduate students and asking them to talk about education. There is something powerful about that heady combination and the spontaneity of it. But there is also something superficial and problematic about it. It’s like a twitter chat with people you don’t know. I say this because when you have a twitter chat with people you do know, you have a history, you know who this is, what they’re background is, some of their other ideas. Even in a twitter chat where you know few people, they often belong to some sub-community and have some shared ideas, discourse, jargon, and you can look up a person’s twitter profile during a conversation.

But to have abstract conversations about education, in these roundtables you ended up hearing a lot about very very specific experiences of people as students or teachers (some Egyptian, some not), and you heard some very superficial views on education, and some deeper views that could not be expressed clearly in 2-3 minutes. Some amazing ideas still came out of it, but I think to truly believe that you can get something deep out of this is an illusion.

It should be the start of something deeper and more long lasting. Possibly a precursor to longer or repeat meetings, where people get to know each other more deeply as they continue to converse over these matters, where they have opportunities to explore further and over time and absorb each other’s views.

As one of few academics in the event, I knew I had the discourse and ideas to make an impact, but I also wanted to listen to others, and to express myself in ways comprehensible to others, to get my ideas across.

It was important for me to highlight how, even though it was important for education to help graduates find employment, that this was not the purpose of education, that education was a goal in and of itself, and a colleague (whom I know from before, a close friend) built on that idea, to say education should be what helps the person develop so that they can then set their own goals and meet them.

It was important for me to not have people discuss technological determinism in overly utopian ways, to steer the tech conversation towards digital literacy and not just technology. I now realize I do this a lot in my own teaching, but I need to maybe make it more explicit to my own student-teachers, that it should be a more explicit thread throughout our ed tech program.

I did learn quite a bit from listening to other people’s views, but I only heard snippets of what they were thinking about, distilled versions of what they felt able to say in a small crowd of people who also had different agendas and things to say.

So yeah, it was an amazing event, to be able to converse with diverse others interested in education ofer 25 mins (we had a chance to attend two such roundtables) – it was a great achievement for 25 mins of chatting in a table of 6-10 people. But education problems are not solved this way, and visions for education are not created this way. And so I hope that this event was not a one-off, that something more, some sustained/sustainable conversation can come out of it.

Conferences: face-to-face or virtual…

It made me think of conferences and when we attend them face to face or online. You go to disjointed events around a particular subject, and you have 15-30 minutes to hear a talk and discuss it with the presenter, but the key thing is that you have the rest of the day to interact and get to know each other better. And you can maintain contact, see these same people again at another event, find other ways to collaborate.

But see, when it’s online, it’s much easier to do all that, if you know how to. Your conversations are not restricted by time or space, they are fluid and over different platforms and can include people who were not even at the event itself!

So I am looking forward to  Sloan-C’s #blend14 (just got their recent email announcement, including the video they did with me on virtual attendance), my next virtual conference, where it is one of my fields, where I know some people, but even if I don’t I will be just fine 🙂


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