We have become accustomed to jumping across geographic boundaries via the Internet to interact with colleagues. Once in awhile we have an opportunity to jump into a deep and rich exchange, as illustrated by the recent online conference, the e/merge 2018 Festival of e-Learning from the e/merge Africa professional development network. (Find excerpts and links in this series of posts about summer conferences. View presentations on the e/merge Africa YouTube channel.) I also put together a Reading List of related resources in SAGE Research Methods. If you don’t have access to a university library with SRM, use this link for trial access, which will allow you to log in and download the resources: free trial.
Online conferences offer synchronous and asynchronous ways to interact. As such, they are of interest to those of us who are looking for accessible cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary ways to discuss research in progress and disseminate findings. I caught up with organizer Tony Carr, and asked him to share stories and insights. Tony is the convenor of the e/merge Africa Network and an Educational Technologist at CILT – the Centre For Innovation in Learning and Teaching, at the University of Cape Town.
Who participated in the Festival of E-Learning?
Between 4 and 20 July there were 229 e/merge 2018 participants who logged in to our Online Festival site to find out about presenters and events, to access resources and to engage in online discussions and chats with other participants and presenters. The live keynotes, presentations and workshops sessions mainly held in Adobe Connect rooms involved 188 participants. Our participants came from 25 countries across four continents including 18 African countries. Just over a third of e/merge 2018 participants were connecting from South Africa and just under a quarter were based in Nigeria. Participation by Nigerian colleagues was boosted by the involvement of Nigerian presenters and by very active Local Hubs at University of Jos and University of Ibadan where colleagues could meet face-to-face to take part together in online events which were part of e/merge 2018.
What kinds of presentations and events were offered?
In total the e/merge 2018 online festival included 6 keynotes, 34 presentations, 2 panels and 5 workshops over a two-week period. Presenters and participants were supported by a team of online festival hosts. The programme was augmented through collaborations with three face to face conferences, namely the 1st International conference on Open, Distance and e-Learning in Kampala, and Wikimania and the University of Cape Town Teaching and Learning Conference in Cape Town. The collaboration with these conferences included streaming of events, sharing of keynotes and online participation in a face to face workshop. Our access to superb presenters who are attuned to African contexts was significantly enhanced by four years of network weaving in the e/merge Africa professional development network for educational technology practitioners and researchers, and through the e/merge Africa affiliation to the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT).
Can you share some observations from the Festival?
Organising as a community: e/merge 2018 was only possible with the support and good will of a large community of presenters, workshop leaders, reviewers and festival hosts across Africa and several other continents as well as the work of the organising team. The core organising team and many of the presenters and workshop leaders have experience of many of the previous online e/merge conferences and provided a solid core for the community while our festival hosts offered excellent support to the conversations and modelled online engagement. We are also appreciative of the willingness of the Carnegie Corporation of New York to fund innovative capacity building projects, and the supportive base that we have in Centre for Innovation for Learning and Teaching at University of Cape Town.
Standard of Presentations: Keynotes, presenters and workshop leaders were involved through a combination of invitation and an open call. The only form of peer reviewed output was the 500 word abstracts and some presenters were engaged in the Unconference track without formal peer review. Nevertheless the presentations and workshops were almost all of a very high standard.
Geographic shift: When I started convening the e/merge online conference series in 2004 the centre of gravity for educational technology practitioners and researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa was definitely located in South Africa. Over time this has shifted towards East and West Africa in particular due to improved internet access and bandwidth, an explosion in the number and scale of e-learning projects, and the growing number of colleagues in these regions who have trained as e-learning researchers and are making very valuable contributions to the research conversations about the nature and prospects for e-learning across Africa. One of the outcomes of e/merge 2018 will be a special issue of The International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology (IJEDICT) in 2019 and I am hoping to see a good representation of researchers and practitioners from East and West Africa.
Feedback from participants: From a quick review of the available data available this seems to be very positive. Participants have valued the focus on African contexts, access to a festival community with a wide range of perspectives and practices across several regions of Africa, and the engagement with practitioners and researchers from other continents. It seems that regardless of their level of experience or geographic location participants were generally able to access some presentations and workshops that were directly relevant to them. We have already had some requests for e/merge 2019 but I think the organising team need to analyse the participant feedback and engage in various follow-up activities before deciding on a date for the next online festival.