This past weekend I attended the first OLC Innovate Conference, a combination of the former OLC et4online and Blended Learning conferences. This was my first large-scale education conference (I come from a background in History of Science), so I was a bit nervous. Attending any conference for the first time can be a lonely and confusing experience, like moving to a new high school mid-way through senior year. But OLC was one of the most productive and social conferences I’ve ever attended. I think this was because I forked up my boss’s conference.

GitHub and Forking

In the opening session, my boss, Adam Croom and I presented a workshop called “Fork U! A Github Approach to Learning and Collaboration.” The affordances of GitHub encourage iterative, sustainable, “open” design through forking, version and design documentation, collaboration, and archiving. In our presentation we weren’t so much advocating the use of GitHub as a tool as proposing it as a technological metaphor or even ethic for educational design. You can click through the presentation below:

http://oudiglearn.github.io/olcinnovate-github/

One of the central functions in GitHub is “forking.” When you “fork” a repository of code or data, you clone it into your own account. You can then improve or extend that code. If you want, you can also submit a “pull request” to suggest those changes back to the owner of the original repository. Even without the pull request, users can see all forked copies of their repositories enabling them to track how their code is being used and changed.

After presenting the terminology of GitHub, we presented repositories for several possible educational use cases of GitHub and encouraged participants to fork those repositories. One of our repositories provided a syllabus template for a college course and display code to render the syllabus as a web page.

Screenshot of http://oudiglearn.github.io/forku/

http://oudiglearn.github.io/forku/

As I was thinking about an angle for this conference blog post, I realized that this same GitHub forking metaphor applies to my experience of the conference. In preparation for the conference, I worked with Adam to build several GitHub repositories. At the same time I forked the repository of knowledge that he has built by participating in educational conferences for the last several years. This served as a starting point from which I could create my own experience of the educational tech & ID conference.

Collaboration

One of the best things about GitHub is that when you fork a repository, you can see the collaborators and their contributions to that repository. Conferences and the experience of a conference are similarly socially constructed, and Adam has a long list of brilliant collaborators.  By not only answering my questions but also hanging out with me and introducing me to people, Adam allowed me to fork over his collaborators. I met so many people that over the course of the three day conference, I was awake and alone for no more than three hours. I hadn’t realized how connected Adam was.

Ron Burgundy meme, "I'm kind of a big deal...people know me."

Ben Scragg, in addition to his work at the conference’s Innovation Lab, contributed to my experience with his great taste in food and drink. If you’re in NOLA, I highly recommend ButcherElizabeth’s, and getting a bottle of Sazarac Rye.

Andrew Rikard, writer for EdSource and undergraduate at Davidson, provided a much needed student perspective on both the conference and our broader work. His write-ups of the conference can be found here and here.

Amy Collier and Andy Saltarelli called for empathy in their presentation on narrative research in Soft Infrastructure. The juxtaposition between that empathy and Amy’s intensity when rooting for the complete destruction of the St. Louis Blues on Thursday is also worthy of study.

Adam introduced me to Laura Pasquini, Laura GogiaPhil Denman, Patrice Torcivia and so many others who made the conference great. 

Difference

My repository or experience of the conference overlapped a lot with Adam’s. We presented a talk together, talked to many of the same people, and attended several of the same talks. But a GitHub diff of the two branches would show some differences as well. My interest in gamification led me to several different sessions, I ate with my new colleagues, and I snuck into the opening of an art exhibit by Woodrow Nash and Tony Savoie.

Sculptures by Woodrow Nash

http://www.angelakinggallery.com/woodrow-nash

My conference repo includes collaborators that contributed to my branch but not Adam’s. Mark Morvant introduced me to Addy Meira Tolliver who shared a ton of experience and ideas about badging. John Robertson invited me to help facilitate a gaming session in which I got to captain the command crew for an Artemis starship. Unfortunately, my ship and her crew were destroyed in about 35 minutes. Out of our brief voyage and shared untimely deaths, I made friends.

A photo of me looking at a laptop

Prepping for Artemis Game Session. Photo courtesy of Laura Gogia, @GoogleGuacamole

Many people that I met in person also introduced me to their colleagues through Twitter.

I in turn introduced Liz and Spencer to my colleague Keegan Long Wheeler. Keegan in turn was one of the most active twitter users at the conference, despite not physically being at the conference.

Through Twitter, many of my conversations from the conference are ongoing and I have a mountain of work to do to flesh out all the great ideas that were shared.

Conclusion

One of the best sessions I attended was entitled “Women Who Innovate in Higher Ed: Challenges & Strategies.” After listening to my group’s discussion of mentorship, I realized that the GitHub fork can also serve as a model for mentorship. I have attended conferences alone and felt isolated and demotivated. Worse, I have seen friends ignored by their supposed mentors and left to figure out a conference on their own. Adam shared his work and introduced me to his colleagues affording me the opportunity to fork his experience and create my own space. By allowing me to build from his intellectual exhaust, Adam improved my experience of the conference and allowed me to accelerate my knowledge and networking within the community. This model of sharing, whether of code, experience, or informal mentorship costs little in terms of social capital. Rather than disruption, it offers development through collaboration and iteration.