Listening to Student Voices at Academic Events

students at MUN with headset

We rarely ever have student voices represented at academic conferences and events, and yet, when they are there, I often hear faculty and faculty developers feeling there should be more of these. I am talking about undergraduate students, not PhD students who have careers and present at conferences in their professional capacity. I have been in several conversations recently (mostly via Virtually Connecting at OpenEd16, OLC Accelerate and a missed conversation with David Wiley after OpenEd16). This post is mainly inspired by the latter conversation and Dan Lynds’ question on how we can bring more student voices to conferences.

I thought it might be useful to look at different models for how student voices can be heard at conferences, highlighting shortcomings and potential of each.

  1. Faculty can bring a student to present with them at an event. This happened for us locally,  but it was just one student in one presentation, and the audience asked I that student a lot of questions, which felt tokenizing for me. A better approach I saw was Steve Wheeler at ALT Annual Conference 2015 who had two students participate in his keynote. Even though it is one session,  it is a keynote, and he had two students, so more than one voice represented. Kudos to the organizers at the ALT Annual Conference who funded the travel and  accommodation of these students (they have also had a student as keynote speaker in 2013).

  2. Involve students in your work from the very beginning so that when they present,  they are there presenting their work, not just giving voice to your work (as faculty). For example,  my university prioritizes funding for graduate students rather than faculty if both are working together on research (but my focus here is undergrads). Davidson College encourages and supports research that involves student/faculty collaboration and at least partially funds the travel of the students. Sometimes funding can come from external grants, where institutions that encourage grants with student research participants could include a budget item for funding conference travel. Another example is Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik work with students on privacy and digital redlining. They were able to secure conference travel funds for students from Common Sense Education. This happened as a result of conversations and mutual interest in digital redlining, privacy and student data between Bill Fitzgerald of Common Sense and Chris and Hugh. It is worth mentioning that those group of students are racially diverse community college students, so unlike students from more privileged universities who potentially have better access to funds; as we work towards listening to student voices, we need to be cognizant we don’t end up listening only to the dominant student voices. So there are 4 models for funding students: institutions funding their own students; grants with conference travel funds included; external funding just for student travel; and conferences providing the funding themselves.

  3. In our conversation with David Wiley we discussed some possible solutions involving conference organization:

    1. Comping or reducing fees for students

    2. Corporate sponsors for student presenters (David says this has so far not been successful at OpenEd16)

    3. Faculty presenters having an option to pay a slightly higher fee that would go towards funding student presenters

    4. Consider embracing virtual presentation options. These allow students (or anyone, really) who cannot be at the conference in person to at least have a voice in the sessions they’re presenting.
    5. Host conferences in different locations (not necessarily shifting the location of the big conference, but having smaller local versions).
  4. We also need to recognize that just inviting students and funding them isn’t enough if we want them to feel comfortable speaking and conversing. Some ways of doing this is having larger groups of students present (e.g. via clarifying in CfP that this is encouraged, asking local students to help out with out-of-town accommodation (as suggested by Lee Skallerup Bessette on a hangout)), while also offering a welcoming environment for the student presenters. In some instances, presenting with a faculty member would make a student more comfortable, even graduate students (like Roz Hussin‘s at OLC Accelerate).

  5. We can start by having more space for student voice at local events. Our institution has had an undergraduate research conference for years, but I mean making space for student voice in faculty events. For example, Murieann O’Keefe writes about organizing a panel entirely made up of students at a faculty event. Roz Hussin told me about a local conference they run at UNL several times a year called TechEdge. The conference is therefore available to undergrads who have no travel funds, and allows them the opportunity to interact with professionals. The conference also is hybrid, so participants from different locations can join virtually without having to travel.

We need to always consider how it feels for students to be at events with majority faculty attendees – how it affects their confidence while presenting and also during social/networking breaks. Having more students at conferences, having informal sessions, ways of involving students in non-tokenizing ways can help. Presenting beside a faculty member helps, or with other students, where applicable.

It is also important to recognize that traveling for conferences would mean missing classes, possible difficulties meeting deadlines for courses, etc., and therefore institutions need to support students with policies overall, beyond the funds for travel.

It may be helpful to recognize the benefit of undergraduate-only events (my university has one, and Autumm Caines recently told me about a US institution called National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR))  - such events offer a safe environment for undergraduate students to get used to speaking at conferences.

Do you have other models or ideas for enhancing student voice at academic events?

flickr photo by ITU Pictures shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
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