Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Turning Points in my Understanding of Virtually Connecting


Note: I started writing this post yesterday, thinking it would be the cornerstone of my autoethnography on the internet chapter. But I got derailed into doing a visual autoethnography thing (see here) then reflecting on how people reacted to it on Twitter and my blog (see here), then writing a semi-fictional autoethnography today (see here) and then suddenly for some reasons seeking other literature on doing autoethnography online (there was none, but there is enough about doing ethnography online that I could use, so I started downloading articles and samples from books). In any case, I also copied and pasted *some* of what is on my blog into the Google doc where I am putting the chapter together and realized I am way about word count and I’m not even half-way done. You know what that means? I think for the visual autoethnography, and for the thing I’m doing below (using some tweets as artifacts to jog my memory and data from focus groups) I’m going to do something different. I’m not going to try to do a “complete” autoethnographic account with “turning points” using lots of data. I’m going to do a sample of this, as a model, for others to see. So I’ll use maybe a couple of tweets. And a couple of quotes from a focus group, and one or two photos… that way, I’ve demonstrated the method, but I haven’t taken up all the word count I would take if it was a true autoethnography. I think I’ll keep the full slide deck and perhaps this post will be long enough to cover several turning points… but the idea is that the chapter would include only snippets, and then if someone is truly interested in VConnecting and my experience of it, rather than just the methodological approach, they can read the rest of it on my blog. Win-win situation? Coz not everyone wants to read everything about me or VConnecting anyway. Autoethnography has this slight arrogance that people will be interested in my own experience, anyway… uhhh….

Anyway. So back to what I was writing yesterday 🙂


Today, I’m going to take some time to focus on turning points in my understanding of what Virtually Connecting is, what it means to other people, and therefore how I see it myself.

To start, Virtually Connecting was a way for me, Maha, a global South scholar and mom, to meet people I like at conferences while they were there – and Rebecca made this “dream” possible. When it first happened, others thought it was so exciting, and some people (particularly Michael Berman, Alan Levine and Whitney Kilgore) encouraged us to keep doing it. A couple of people in private told us they thought this was a dynamic that only existed because of the relationship Rebecca and I had with each other. There was also talk of how it related to something specific about my personality, which might be related to the breadth and depth of my networks, such that people at conferences were excited to meet me, too. I used to think that if I started being able to attend conferences in person, the glamor or novelty would fade away. It didn’t. But let me back up.

The first turning point for me was that when et4online was over, I thought Rebecca would be sick of me. We met two or three times a day during et4buddy at et4online, and we were on Facebook messenger all the time trying to schedule times to meet up with folks for et4buddy. But you know what, the next morning, she and Whitney Kilgore connected with me via an unrecorded video call and we talked about how we could take this pilot further. When writing about the experience of et4buddy, an experience that I thought mainly benefited me and other virtual folks, I discovered the benefit it had for Rebecca. She wrote:

“I’m pretty sure, that as a result of the experience, my social capital has increased”.

Another couple of insights into the onsite experience came later from Christian Friedrich (now co-director) and Amy Collier (now advisory buddy). Amy’s quote was supposed to appear in a Guardian article which never got published:

“Virtually Connecting reminds the people who can attend a conference in person that there are important voices “outside of the room” that should be heard in these professional contexts.” – Amy Collier

Christian blogged a couple times, but this quote meant for the Guardian article was really special:

“conference organizers and funding organizations are shown that inclusion of unheard voices is not only a problem but also a chance that an energized community can successfully manage with today’s everyday technology.”

We intentionally conducted research on how others perceived VC in structured ways about this twice:

  1. Immediately after #et4buddy, we did a survey, the results of which were published here.
  2. Three online focus groups with selected participants who had been critical of VC (but not viciously so!) before #OER17 conference for a presentation we were doing on inclusivity of VC (see Autumm’s blogpost linking to them all and her commentary and my posts on linking these to affinity spaces here and here).

But of course there are always the people blogging about it (sparser now, but was quite heavy in the early days – and those early posts were included as data in that first paper).

And there are lots of scattered tweets. It’s difficult to find each important one, and in hindsight we should have maybe collected them somewhere… Insights into how it felt for other participants and volunteers came over time, some of it coming from a particular tweet I sent ahead of my keynote Challenging Academic Gatekeeping (July 2018).

Parisa Mehran’s involvement with VC is extra special. We first got to know her when she tweeted about not being able to attend a conference because her visa was refused multiple times, and our onsite buddy for the conference invited her to join VC sessions. While Americans at VC always felt the increasing problems with visas would make Vconnecting more valuable (e.g. George Station in focus group in 2017 but also private convos), I did not want to explicitly promote VC as such. It felt…wrong. But when it did happen to Parisa, and the joy she felt those first couple of sessions, were tremendous. An Iranian graduate student of TESOL in Japan, Parisa is keenly aware of issues of social justice, and beyond her joy with Virtually Connecting, she is also a critical mirror who helps expand my thinking about what Virtually Connecting could become. She is now an active buddy herself. This was her tweet back in July 2019:

Rajiv Jhangiani’s perspective is special because he is an open educator who is critical and focuses on those at the margins.

 I’m having trouble embedding the tweet automatically, so I’ll do it manually via html so it doesn’t include my original tweet


Sherri Spelic’s

Whitney Kilgore’s

Sukaina Walji’s


If I keep going with these tweets, I realize I will keep including only affirming responses to Virtually Connecting. They matter. These are people who see VConnecting as open, as building community, as inclusive, as changing the way people think of conferences and what they could be. The exercise of embedding the tweets didn’t help me explore my own turning points deeply enough. These tweets are not the whole story. What comes next is a deeper exploration of the not-so-good of VConnecting.

But it’s not all positive.

There are several turning points that helped us think more critically about VC and ways we might not be doing something “good”, or at least, “good for everyone” or “good from every angle”. These are not always solicited, right?

  • 2015: ALTC and the comment on our blogpost

In 2015, when Rebecca and I met for the first time at the ALTC conference in Manchester, we did several Virtually Connecting sessions, and we wrote a blogpost for the ALTC blog. That conference has many beautiful memories – our Twitter profile picture is a photo from that conference. But it also brings back some negative emotions related to this. This negativity can be summed up by this comment on our blog by John Smith (made up name, I assume):

“So you take the keynote away from anybody who might want to talk to them and go off to a recording with your elite group? How does that help other slightly shy delegates who might have approached the keynote otherwise?

What a selfish, privileged group you are.”

Reading this now, I’m thinking of many things.
[Added later, after talking to Rebecca. I forgot to say i felt bad when this happened. Writing about it now, it hurt so bad. It hurt that someone thought we were hurting others. It hurt that they would not day it to our faces, but chose  to hide  behind a pseudonym (no one is john Smith, right?) So we could not really respond. This rush of feelings came and it was what I had been avoiding in this Autoethnography. What is next here is my intellectual response]

First of all, the keynote speaker was available the rest of the day and some of them many days. I’ve seen them sitting on their laptops without anyone approaching them. I’m not sure how taking them away for half an hour prevents others from talking to them. I also know for sure that many shy people would never approach the keynote, regardless of what VC does. But more important for me, the comment about “selfish, privileged group” stung. Big time. First of all, the virtual folks we were connecting with the keynote speaker were definitely not a privileged group. They are people who could not make it to the conference – some never travel, some rarely travel. They are, many of them, the opposite of privileged. Or at least it is intersectional. As for Rebecca and me, yes, we have the privilege of being well-connected (me first, but people who work with VC become better connected over time, and my social capital has grown over time as well) but in the more traditional sense, I was an early career Egyptian scholar who travels to max 1-2 conferences per year for financial and social reasons. Rebecca was just recovering from breast cancer, she was a PhD student, and otherwise unaffiliated at the time. Not your typical privileged person. This entire conference had like 1-2 people who were not “white”. I was the only person in a headscarf and one of a handful of POC in the entire event. So not privileged in the traditional sense. When we got this comment, we conferred with some of our trusted volunteers and came up with a manifesto for VC that clarifies our purpose. Also, Martin Hawksey of ALTC stepped in to respond on our behalf (after some private discussions) and this is what he said:

“I disagree keynotes and presenters are welcome to do as they like before and/or after their slots and [if] they want to participate in these sessions that’s up to them. Personally I think it’s great that members of the community approached participants at the conference (not just keynotes) to be part of these sessions and the recordings capture the thoughts and reflections of those involved which would otherwise been lost (also not forgetting the opportunity to engage with the remote audience who’s voice often gets lost). I also saw all of the keynotes were at the conference for at least two of the days so it’s not like there wasn’t other opportunities for other people to speak to them.”

  • Manifesto

In the aftermath of that, we collaborated on a Google doc with several VC volunteers and created this manifesto, which included things like “While our aim is to be inclusive, we recognize that inclusion is elusive” and “We try to welcome and create space for new people to participate” and “We do not aim to disrupt the onsite experience – we aim to only take up a few minutes of an onsite person’s (informal) time to offer it to those not privileged enough to attend the conference.” and “Joining is a choice, and any individual is free NOT to join (for whatever reason)”. And “We are open to constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement.

Our first published article about VConnecting  looked at feedback we had received via survey on #et4buddy, blogposts by people about VConnecting, and we compared our practice also with principles of connectivism and connected learning – all compared against our manifesto. Were we doing what we claimed to do? One question on the survey, based on feedback we got orally, was “VC feels like an exclusive club”. 70% of respondents disagreed, but a small number agreed, and 20% were unsure. So this told us that our practice was working for some people, but not all. We also asked a question about how VC can expand access and the majority of responses were around doing more conferences in other countries and more edtech conferences, and more conferences in other fields.

In any case…

  • Sessions don’t always work out well – #dlrn15 two bad incidents

As we experimented with different styles of these sessions, we learned that some approaches did not work too well, and that we needed to ensure all our volunteers were well oriented and onboard not just with the technical side of things, but with the ethos and values of Virtually connecting so they can be hospitable towards our guests. Some people did this naturally, but others needed more modeling and nudging to achieve that. There were a couple of private interactions via DM that highlighted these issues. One of them resulted in us republishing a critical blogpost by Jack Norton  where he recognized our intentions were good but the practice did not always meet expectations. He attended one good, regular hallway convo VC but the other one was a presentation about VC with a breakout… and things did not go well in this one. First off, he was right – we were presenting about VC from a PowePoint. We have since switched formats to more interactive ones like fishbowls and workshops. Occasionally we present about VC but it’s for really short presentations where we share research results or such. Second, the breakouts were a disaster. Behind the scenes, one of our onsite presenters got lost or something and didn’t make it, the onsite guests were confused as to what to do, and our virtual buddies were almost all totally new and not really able to implement the hospitality we had hoped. Not anyone’s fault per se. Just a growing pain, I think. But we learned from this A LOT and have been more careful in how we design these things since then. Really grateful to Jack for being open about this so we could learn. Such a big contrast to John Smith at #altc. Jack expressed respect for us, our work, and our values. He offered Constructive critique. Just today, Parisa tweeted:

  • Three focus groups ahead of OER17 and some of the insights from them

I’ll focus on Autumm’s post for this one, where she focuses on the paradox of inclusivity. Here, we used online focus groups which we recorded unlisted and then posted publicly later. We invited people who had given us critiques privately, and people who had given critiques on that et4buddy survey. Some of the really useful Autumm things Autumm notes is that while recording sessions made VC inclusive for people who could not join or watch live, the recording aspect makes it feel “high stakes” for someone who might be new to this community – it can be intimidating if you don’t already know and feel comfortable with the VC volunteers and others there.

At the same time, another paradox is in how VC is inclusive by “piercing the bubble” of those who are privileged to attend conferences… but at the same time the informality and community can seem intimidating to outsiders (some have managed their way in, but many may not even try). We felt at the time that the answer was hospitality, and that’s what we wrote about again in 2019 (coming next).

  • 2019: Writing about Intentionally Equitable Hospitality

This came out of many discussions around how some of our sessions are more equitable than others, and what does it mean to be hospitable, and could it promote inequality instead? It came after some complaints and some of our own self-reflection over where we might be falling short. It also intersected with my learning more deeply about about Nancy Fraser’s social justice framework, from the way Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams and Henry Trotter used it to critique Open Educational Practices. In this article where we lay out our approach to intentionally equitable hospitality, we included a section following Fraser’s model to critique VC as an Open Educational Practice, contextualizing for whom is it a socially just practice, for whom and when does it have a transformative effect (e.g. when it really raises social capital of marginalized groups), or just an ameliorative effect that reproduces the status quo (e.g. if guests are only high profile white males; perhaps for folks who watch recordings? because they listen but don’t have a voice?), or when is it neutral (e.g. for someone who attends conferences a lot anyway, but also does VC), or when might it be negative (e.g. to someone who has no internet access whatsoever or bandwidth not good enough for VC or someone who is too shy to participate in a video recorded discussion).

This article was partially inspired by some work a group of VC volunteers did with Mozilla Open Leaders where they invited folks to discuss radical hospitality for VC on GitHub. These two contributions particularly struck me [emphasis added]:

Radical hospitality means paying attention and not making assumptions about whether a person feels included or not (no matter how much energy you are devoting to reach/stretch for inclusion). It means cultivating a keen awareness of the way power and privilege shape our overall conversations and trying to correct or adjust for more connection despite these ever-present influences. It means listening. It means always assuming YOU have a lot to learn. And it means making certain behavioral moves of generosity even when there is seeming ambivalence on the other end. Ambivalence from a colleague is often reluctance for reasons unforeseen. Some of the best thinking partners are reluctant at first. Radical hospitality can yield special allies and transformative learning experiences, but it is work (and it can even be draining). It takes time. Submitted by @MiaZamora

Thank you for including me. The word radical makes me think of margins, people that are at the margins in different ways, maybe people that enjoy the philosophy of virtually connecting but they prefer to stay at the margin and don’t participate in any of the session Vconnecting holds. How would VConnecting be hospitable with them? Is there a need to be hospitable at all with them? Maybe could we ask in which way do they want to be invited, involved? Maybe they are too shy or they feel they are not entitle to ask questions, so can VConnecting imagine a way in which their questions could be included? That is one thing I thought. Another thing is what can VConnecting do so that those who can’t connect in any way could have access to the recordings, to the conversations, the materials? Submitted by @carolinekuhn

I’m getting tired now 🙂 So I don’t have energy to comment on these right now. I may write more in the chapter… I may not. I went up and added a few missing things and will publish now.

A quick reflection on this section is realizing that focusing on Tweets from last year was not a good idea. They were all positive and gushing and not really helpful and not turning points at all 🙂 Just happy moments, I think. Focusing on blogposts, incidents, and focus group and survey research that were more critical was way more useful. I’ll see if I can find some more critical tweets… I’m sure there are some… I just don’t know if I genuinely want to *find them*


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