6 Steps to Expanding a Successful Online Initiative – Virtually Connecting

Photo of vconnecting

Photo by Ashley G. Shaw at #altc conference during @vconnecting session
L to R: Martin Hawksey, Martin Weller, Rebecca J. Hogue, Maha Bali

This post is co-authored with Rebecca J. Hogue (@rjhogue), an itinerant scholar and prolific blogger. She is co-founder of Virtually Connecting, and Associate Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Professionally, she produces self-published eBooks, and teaches Emerging Technologies and Instructional Design online. Her research and innovation interests are in the areas of ePatient storytelling (pathography), blogging, and online collaboration.

We have recently been inspired by the growth of our Virtually Connecting at conferences initiative, which we previously wrote about in Beyond Twitter: Virtually Connecting at Conferences. With Virtually Connecting, we facilitate interactive and social conversations among onsite conference presenters and participants with people who are not able to attend, using Google Hangouts on Air. It all started in April as a very personal pilot called #et4buddy between two friends and bloomed into a full-fledged conference experience involving multiple onsite and virtual buddies at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (#digped) this August in Madison, Wisconsin (playlist) and The Association of Learning Technology Conference (#altc) in Manchester this September where we met in person (playlist). There were many babysteps in between, and this week we are presenting sessions about Virtually Connecting, as well as holding Virtually Connecting sessions at #olc15 (Online Learning Consortium Annual International Conference) and #dlrn15 (Digital Research Learning Network Conference).

Some of what we learned as our processes emerged can benefit others who want to start online initiatives and have them succeed and grow.

  1. Start with your own passions and/or needs. #Et4buddy was a selfish endeavor: Maha wanted to be as close to the conference as possible, Rebecca wanted to help her and also benefit from onsite networking with Maha’s large social network. It was a win-win, and a strong need and passion for both of us.

  2. Recognize you are not alone – share. Although we started out to meet our own personal needs, we realized that others had a similar desire to connect with professionals in the field, and interest in interacting with speakers at conferences beyond watching livestreams and tweets. We made our virtual meetings public and invited other virtual participants to join in. We livestreamed our Hangouts so that people who were too shy to join could watch the interactive and social conversations.

  3. Recognize your own privilege. We each recognize our privilege in how well-connected we are, that others would be willing to take some time out of the buzz of the conference to conduct these sessions with us. In addition, Rebecca recognizes that she is privileged enough to be able to afford to travel to several academic conferences. Maha leveraged her privilege as an organizing committee member at #et4online to get support from organizers. We also recognized our privilege went beyond that particular conference as #4 happened.

  4. Make it public, promote shamelessly, solicit feedback and gather fans. We both promoted it on Twitter and our blogs, and retweeted anyone who blogged about it. We surveyed people on it and found that people who had participated or watched us wanted us to expand it to other conferences. As we gathered fans, we sometimes asked people going to conferences to be onsite buddies for us (we initially asked for just one hangout because we did not want to burden anyone), and sometimes people started offering to do it, or even started doing more than one hangout per conference. And then #5 happened.

  5. Turn loyal fans into co-stars. As we gathered more fans, we reached a point at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in August where we had three people offer to be onsite buddies, and three people (other than Rebecca and Maha) help out as virtual buddies. In addition, conference organizers welcomed us in, mentioning us to participants in plenary sessions, including giving us time to introduce our own concept as a presentation in their session (See Our Presentation in Bonnie Stewart’s Network Track). At #altc in September, we had a similarly positive experience, and were offered space on the #ALTC blog. The upcoming #olc15 and #dlrn15 conferences have also embraced us, #dlrn15 even giving us a page on their website.

  6. Let it go and cheer it on. As with any sustainable program, there comes a time when the founders need to step aside in order to allow it to grow. By the end of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute the virtually connecting squad had two hangouts that did not include either of the co-founders and they went beautifully. This is becoming more common.

When we first ran #et4buddy, people had suspicions that:

  • Our personal relationship and our personalities were key to the success of such a program. Initially they were, but we demonstrated you can still have caring relationships with people you are not as close to, and anyone with a welcoming personality can do what we have been doing. Ever since we posted a join us link on our website, we started getting offers from people everywhere who knew us much less (or did not know us at all), to become part of the team.

  • This initiative would disrupt the onsite conference experience. It might. But we do it so infrequently, e.g. half an hour or an hour each day during downtimes, and only with people who are willing (and many are), that we don’t think we disrupt the experience for people who don’t want this disruption. Over time, we have developed practices to avoid getting people on camera who do not consent to being on camera, etc.

  • Not everyone wants to be on camera / live on air. Some of the people we have invited to attend have said no. This experience is not for everyone. We appreciate that. We understand that.

Finally, the most important part is to believe in yourself. If you know deep down that you have made an impact on some people’s lives, recognize that there will be naysayers. Listen to what they have to say, and see if there is a way in which to improve the experience. Is there something that can be learned from the naysayers? Don’t ignore them, but don’t let them stop you from exploring your potential.

As Virtually Connecting evolves, we are seeking people who want to join in meaningful conversations. Learn more and join us here:

Do you have other ideas for enlivening the virtual conference experience? Please share in the comments.

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