Conference audience raising hands.
Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash.

Gratitude, Connection, and a So-What

I am deeply grateful for the role GO-GN/ALT/OER plays in my scholarly and personal life, particularly over these past few years. That gratitude bookends my work, and I hope that my research and practice make visible the impact this community has on those in and around it. 

The OER23 Conference theme is “Advancing Open Education Practices.” Pondering this theme provides an opportunity to consider ways in which we have employed “Care in Openness”, asked “Open For Whom” and thoughtfully enacted research and pedagogy in a time of crisis. I have been fortunate to receive support from my institution, GO-GN and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to participate in these conferences in my role as coordinator of OpenOKState.

OpenOKState  is the Oklahoma State University Libraries’ program initiating campus support for open practices. Priorities of the OpenOKState program include intentionality regarding the ethical use of learning analytics and identification of shared vocabulary highlighting alignment of open practices and scholarly work. The interventions the OpenOKState team has designed to move toward those priorities are largely influenced by the research and practices shared at ALT/OER conferences. This year’s theme prompts us to evaluate not only the effectiveness of our program interventions, but why and how the ALT/OER conferences have been so impactful.

It boils down to feeling safe enough to consider brave ideas. Let’s take a two minute time-out for some theory. 

Diffusion of innovation theory

Diffusion of innovation theory (Rogers, 2003) is commonly used to make sense of the rates at which innovations diffuse, but our program is particularly concerned with what the theory suggests about how communication in and among people impacts whether the innovation diffuses at all. The theory defines an innovation as an idea or practice perceived as new (Rogers, 2003) which diffuses through social communication channels over time. Bridge communications can increase diffusion by connecting people from homophilous groups to create new heterophilous groups. The theory states that interactions outside our local social/communication network can increase our consideration of ideas or practices we perceive as new. 

New places, new people, new ideas. 

Polyvagal theory

I’ve been digging into polyvagal theory as part of an exploration of how to design and enact trauma-informed pedagogy. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory provides “physiological and psychological understanding” (Dana, 2018) about how our autonomic system drives the way we respond and interact with and on our surroundings. The theory articulates levels of response from (level one) surviving to (level four) thriving, depending on the threat level we identify in our surroundings. In the level four response we identify a relatively threat-free environment, activate our social engagement system and “have access to a range of responses including calm, happy, meditative, engaged, attentive, active, interested, excited, passionate, alert, ready, relaxed, savoring, and joyful” (Dana, 2018, p. 26). When our social engagement system is engaged we receive and send “cues of safety and invitations to come into connection” (Dana, 2018, p. 27). 

And when we connect, we can experience ideas or practices we perceive as new. We innovate.

The So-What

I heard about GO-GN and the OER20 conference from an ed tech research friend I knew from another professional organization. She pointed me to FemEdTech on social media and sent me links to the OER19 conference recordings. Intrigued by the presenters’ emphasis on relational and process aspects of open practices, I applied to join GO-GN, partnered with Deb Baff on a square for the FemEdTech quilt, and requested support from my university to attend OER20. My funding proposals spoke specifically about the conference as an opportunity to, in theory terms, innovate my scholarship by interacting with people outside of my local social network. 

The OER20 conference was scheduled April 1-2, 2020. The theme was “Care in Openness”, and the ALT team was uniquely qualified to adjust the conference format as the scope of the pandemic became apparent. The conference planning and programming committees were attentive to communities’ need to feel safe while also committed to facilitating connection. They communicated regularly as the conference format shifted, including logistical information as well as memes and gifs about fun and safe ways to greet each other. 

Once the conference moved online, this commitment to safety and connection continued. Moderators were present in each session to provide tech support as we made our way together in what felt then like an unfamiliar space. Participants were invited each day to share pictures of their slippers as we nervously joked about presenting in our pajamas. We chatted with new friends about families, shared what was outside our ‘temporary’ home office windows, and laughed together as our pets barked or crossed nonchalantly in front of the camera. 

The ALT team and their partners were scholars, researchers, and expert practitioners who, intentionally and with care, facilitated our ability to send and receive “cues of safety and invitations to come into connection” (Dana, 2018, p. 27) in unaccustomed spaces during a scary time which necessitated ideas and practices considered new (Rogers, 2003). It might have been hard on-screen to see eye crinkles, but they found other ways to help us communicate safety and engage with each other. For me, the OER20 conference experience provided a meaningful foundation for interaction in other conferences whose format shifted from F2F to online. I took ideas and practices with me from that conference to the next, and the next, continuing to identify opportunities to cue safety and invite engagement.

By the end of the year, the slippers I had laughingly posted a picture of during OER20 had holes in the toes. Many of us have holes in our hearts and homes. 

But I also know that Jeff’s dog is named Rocket, and that karaoke across an ocean is difficult but not impossible. I know that people and practices soaked in care can create an environment that sustains connection and curiosity, even when life is scary and uncertain.

Putting these experiences in the context of theory helps me understand why what the ALT/OER20 team did worked and transfer that understanding to my own practice with intentionality and care. OERX and OER22 reinforced these understandings. I am certain OER23 will do the same, and I am gratefully looking forward to connecting with you all soon.

~Kathy Essmiller

Guest post from our OER23 Committee Member Kathy Essmiller. For more information about this year’s conference and to join us from 4-6 April 2023, head to the conference website.

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