Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Autoethnography on Virtually Connecting part 1

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Before i start, I should probably write a broad research question. Which is: how has my thinking about Virtually Connecting evolved over time? How has the experience of Virtually Connecting changed my understanding of online communication , relationships , intimacy, learning, hospitality , citizenship , power, social justice?

My research paradigm is within interpretive and critical traditions, but also strongly relies on what Laurel Richardson calls “crystallization” (i.e. the same thing can look different if you shed light on it from different angles (poststructuralist). This means I can entertain ideas of VC advocating for justice and challenging and hegemony while also reproducing inequality in some ways.

In doing an autoethnography of my experience with Virtually Connecting, I need to be mindful of the ethics of what I can include and what I cannot. Much of Virtually Connecting involves interaction with others. The public stuff, like tweets and videos, I am comfortable citing directly and attributing. Some other dimensions are more private, and I think I can refer to them in passing, but not use the details of them in the autoethnography without permission. I guess emails that I wrote would be exempt from this? Not sure!

My positonality is extremely important when discussing Virtually Connecting, and how it started. So let’s start there

Positionality

I am an Egyptian female academic, a mother of a child who was 4 years old when Virtually Connecting first started (original name was #et4buddy). I’m a faculty member at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. Most of my professional development happens online. I did my PhD remotely, traveling back and forth to Sheffield, sometimes from Cairo, sometimes from Houston, Texas, and sometimes from Norwich, UK. Near the end of my PhD I discovered academic Twitter and MOOCs, and when I got into cMOOCs and started developing my own PLN (Personal Learning Network) online learning became central to my life. I built relationships online and took them deep into collaborations and friendships. I co-authored many articles with people I had never met (many of whom I have still never met!). I co-designed internet games and used them in my classes where my students interacted with people across the globe.

Positionality: How I Got into Collaborative Autoethnography

I took a MOOC led by Dave Cormier called #rhizo14 and we the participants worked on a collaborative autoethnography about the experience. I was one of the leaders of this, because when I finished my dissertation, where my methodology was within a interpretive-critical paradigm, I realized that I would prefer my future research to be participatory, and that I had strong views on the difference between being an agent in one’s own research, and one who is being “researched” by others. Since, as Gadamer says, “all understanding is always already interpretation”, I felt strongly that individuals should have the right to represent their own stories first before others offered up an interpretation of their story for them. There are also ways in which my thinking is influenced by my postcoloniality. Much anthropological and orientalist research represents the colonized from the Western gaze. The internet is a Western space, usually researched by Westerners from their world view. My view on it is completely different. The ways in which social media has empowered me differ completely from the ways it empowers someone in North America or Europe. The risks it poses for me are also completely different. The effort it takes me to have my voice heard in an online context is also completely different and completely invisible to my friends online, who are mostly from US, UK and Australia with a few from elsewhere. For example, I am fluent in English, near-native, but it’s not my native language. I have good enough internet most of the time, but it’s not as stable or fast as in richer countries. I also have fewer opportunities for professional development in general, so online prof dev is essential to my growth as an academic. Which brings me to the next point.

Positonality: How Virtually Connecting came about

Virtually Connecting came about precisely because of my need for online professional development. It was complicated for me for several reasons, which I shy away from detailing in the article Virtual, Hybrid or Present:

I (Maha) was kind of obsessed with the desire to attend Emerging Technologies for Online Learning this year. I was a steering committee member and co-presenter in several sessions, so the sheer number of people I knew at the conference was overwhelming, more than any conference I had ever participated in. I was ready to finally meet everyone in person.

But life happens. For a mom of a young child, living in Egypt, too many things needed to work out for me to make it. Despite many generous offers to help, in the end, I had to let it go. I was heartbroken.

I was more willing at the time to admit to bring heartbroken for not going, than admitting the following fundamental truths

  1. As a scholar from the global South, it is financially much more difficult for me to attend a conference in the US. Not only the cost of airfare, but just spending there, once exchange rates set in
  2. As a mother from my culture, traveling without my child is looked down upon, and taking her with me at age 4 means I needed a husband or mom to babysit her while I went to the conference. This is an additional cost (2 more flights and expenses for 2 more people). At the time, this was not something my family were willing to pay. Later, when I got invited to keynote, and when we needed to go to London for other reasons, we made those trips (usually because The conferences invited me and paid some more – my institution would almost never afford me travel to more than one conference a year)

I was not sad that I was missing co-presenting 5 sessions. I was sad that i would not be part of the hallway and social conversation at the conference. As virtual unconference chair that year (probably because I had been the “top virtual participant” the year before at this same conference, I considered doing some sort of online interview with people onsite. I once mentioned it to my friend, Rebecca Hogue, whom I had met through #rhizo14, and she suggested she be my “buddy” onsite.

When Rebecca suggested the buddy program, I latched onto it like a lifeline. We discussed it with other steering committee members and decided to create a pilot program that I feel enhanced the conference experience for other virtual participants and people following the Twitter stream. Onsite participants also told us they felt it enhanced their experience too. This year’s #et4online with #et4buddy elevated my own conference experience beyond the best I had seen before (which was #et4online last year).

Here is how Rebecca describes it in the same post:

One of my motivations for the #et4buddy pilot program was that it allowed me to piggyback on Maha’s social capital. She knows a lot of peoplAlthough Maha may not describe herself as someone with high influence, she is definitely someone who is well connected. She has personal connections with all three keynote and plenary speakers, as well as members of various steering committees. I was hoping to capitalize on Maha’s connections to become part of the “in” crowd. I was also hoping that Maha would push me out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to approach new and influential people.

When we decided to run this, called it #et4buddy , we decided to use Google Hangouts on Air to allow us to record and livestream to YouTube automatically (Internet bandwidth at my home makes it difficult to record like via Zoom offline and then upload a video. Would take like 6 hours for a 30 min video). Hangouts also allowed us to have up to 10 participants. So Rebecca, channeling some onsite conference participants , me, and 8 others.

We announced the experiment on both our blogs asa dialogue of the process of how the ideal came about. For example:

Rebecca:.. So we could use the conference as an experiment into ways to enhance the conference experience for both virtual and in-place participants. Sort of a way to bridge the divide … I can be your ‘feet on the floor’ for a few specific segments of the conference, which I think would make the conference more meaningful for me too … you can encourage me out of my comfort zone into exploring presentations that I might not otherwise engage in …

Oh that sounds like so much fun!

Maha: oh my GOD YES that is an AWESOME IDEA REBECCA!!!

You know I am also responsible for the virtual unconference, supporting Jesse who will be there on the ground. Are you planning to attend that?

We explained what we were doing and created a YouTube video of the idea:

We announced on Twitter , Facebook, and on the virtual conference pages, and some people joined or watched the livestream. We got immediate feedback that people onsite and virtual liked it.

Somehow, these sessions were unlike previous meetings online, because they were hybrid. Some people were physically together and It made all the difference:

Hanging out with people who were sharing physical space made me feel like I was there. Other virtual participants occasionally joined the sessions and people following on Twitter enjoyed catching us streaming. I was concerned that virtual participants who didn’t know us were at a disadvantage, but we could only do so much with a pilot program.

Here are some tweets from #et4buddy when it first started:

There were photos taken, hybrid selfies like this one

This one was after #dml2015

Note:this post is incomplete. But will publish now so I can write something else.

I will ask others from VC to comment on some of these posts to help complete the picture.

One Comment

  1. Looking forward to this having just submitted a paper on AE

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