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Intentionally Equitable Hospitality in Hybrid Video Dialogue: The context of virtually connecting

Special Issue: Paradigm Shifts in Global Higher Education and eLearning

By Maha Bali, Autumm Caines, Rebecca J. Hogue, Helen J. DeWaard, Christian Friedrich / May 2019

TYPE: HIGHER EDUCATION
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Being intentional, we, the Virtually Connecting (VConnecting) community, do not assume that saying “welcome” will mean people feel welcome. We are intentional about every step in our process. By equitable, we intend our practice to challenge power structures that contribute to unfair access and opportunities, in favor of emulating different power structures that promote greater equity. We constantly assess whether our processes and outcomes actually do this within our own community and others who use VConnnecting, including people who have critiqued us publicly and privately [1]. We agree “Equality is not a credential. Equality is a task. It is what we have to do, because we are not there yet” [2], yet we strive toward it. Equal access does not result in equal outcomes [3] and inviting people to participate is not equity without parity of participation [4].

VConnecting is a connectivist learning movement [5]. Using synchronous video technology, VConnecting hosts informal conversations between people who are attending academic conference onsite and people who are unable to attend. These conversations are livestreamed and recorded. We call these “hybrid conversations” since we seek to give equitable weight to onsite and virtual participation. VConnecting's purpose is to extend the onsite conversation, allowing the marginalized voices of those who are not present to participate (such as adjuncts, unaffiliated academics, graduate students, parents of young children, people with health issues, Global South scholars, or others who cannot regularly travel to conferences), while also allowing those who cannot attend an opportunity to network and learn from those who are present.

Online interaction in informal learning spaces, such as VConnecting, is reflected in communities of practice [6], affinity spaces [7], connected learning [8], and personal learning networks (PLNs), but these forms of community do not call out hospitality as a fundamental tenet. Online informal learning spaces (OILS) are often distributed and less hierarchical than formal learning spaces. This characteristic obscures power dynamics and lines of responsibility. In OILS it is not always obvious who invites whom and what are the entry points to these spaces. However, there is almost always implicit hospitality taking place. There are ways of inviting new members in, welcoming them and helping them become active members once they join, ways of recognizing and encouraging different modes and levels of participation, and considerations of whom to include and exclude—even when the space claims to be “open to all.”

Among the Merriam-Webster definitions of hospitable, we find words like “generous and cordial reception,” “generous and friendly welcome,” “pleasant and sustaining environment,” and “readily receptive; OPEN.” In this article, we call VConnecting’s dimension of community building “intentionally equitable hospitality (IEhospitality) to differentiate it from hospitality that is superficially generous, friendly, or welcoming. Further, in order to be considered intentionally equitable hospitality it must question its own values and how this works in practice within power structures.

In the following sections, we describe (1) the benefits of intentionally equitable hospitality, (2) challenges with hospitality in hybrid video conversations, (3) VConnecting hospitality practices, and (4) conclusions and remaining challenges.

Benefits of Intentionally Equitable Hospitality

Hospitality is not the default in academia. Bonnie Stewart suggests “scholarship has never been particularly open to the public” it is “a carefully-managed ecosystem of gatekeeping measures” [9]. VConnecting is an intentionally inclusive space, an intercultural space meant to break down access barriers: “inclusive intercultural digital pedagogy is not a luxury, and can no longer be an afterthought. This time of walls and travel bans demands conviction and ingenuity from critical digital educators concerned with gestures of openness and hospitality” [10]. Being hosts of an informal, synchronous, and audiovisual conversation breaks down academic barriers as it allows interaction between established scholars and graduate students, for example, in ways not possible in most professional contexts [11, 12].

VConnecting challenges academic gatekeeping via rendering private hallway conversations that build social capital at face-to-face conferences into public hybrid conversations in which people who cannot attend conferences are able to participate. There remains a power differential between high-profile speakers and virtual participants, and the technical and location differences create a further power imbalance, all of which requires intentionally equitable hospitality in order to host a conversation that indeed challenges academic gatekeeping rather than reproduces inequalities.

For VConnecting, hospitality is a verb and a value which has complex underpinnings that are always impacted by context. Virtual participants are the center of why VConnecting exists, and ensuring they have a meaningful experience and opportunity to converse with onsite guests is key. Virtual participants are often people who are otherwise marginalized (global South scholars, graduate students, unaffiliated educators, and alt-academics are frequent Vconnecting participants and volunteers who would not normally be able to attend many conferences regularly), and intentionally equitable hospitality dictates that their needs and experiences are privileged. At the same time, onsite guests are taking time away from the precious onsite experience and we must also be hospitable to them and appreciative of their time and their choice to spend the time in conversation with virtual participants. Additionally, VConnecting considers the needs of conference organizers who may have concerns about the use of physical space, engagement with their paying participants, or the online attention that the conference may get because of a VConnecting session. Juggling all of the hospitality needs of multiple constituents is an ongoing, reflective process that is necessarily social justice focused.

Challenges with Hospitality in Hybrid Video Conversations

Through our experience, VConnecting has identified several challenges while conducting hybrid video conversations. These challenges are both logistical and related to intentionally equitable hospitality. We address each of these issues in VConnecting hospitality section of this paper.

Logistically, onsite audio is essential. Onsite participants must adequately hear virtual participants and vice versa. The challenge is caused in part by the chaos that often occurs at conferences when in public spaces. In addition, inadequate onsite audio, typically a personal laptop, make it difficult for clear communication.

Additionally, there is a visual imbalance. Some participants are physically together in a room, while others are individually joining from different locations, with their own microphone and camera. Images of the onsite and virtual participants differ in size and clarity, making it difficult to read body language, which leads to challenges in knowing when to speak, or even who wishes to speak.

Onsite there is a physical presence, especially if there is a group, which privileges feelings of togetherness among the onsite participants. This can cause onsite participants to lose sight of those who are virtual. Specifically, they see each other with equal space, make eye contact while speaking to each other, but they see all of the virtual people together as “one” person on a screen. When allotting time in a conversation, it is too easy for the onsite group to not allot equitable time for the virtual participants. This is an empathy issue, as the onsite participants have an easier time feeling connected to the conversation.

On a similar front, the virtual participants sometimes want to listen and not speak. Occasionally this is the result of power dynamics. The onsite guests may be prominent speakers and participants feel unable to interrupt the conversation in order to contribute. Silence has multiple interpretations and we must be sensitive to them.

VConnecting Hospitality Practices

“One of the fundamental principles of a pedagogy of hospitality: that however a gesture is conceived and offered, there are those who must receive it differently.” —Kate Bowles [10]

Intentionally equitable hospitality requires a combination of facilitation skills, digital literacies, and intercultural sensitivities. The role of the facilitators as hosts is an important part of intentionally equitable hospitality that VConnecting strives toward. This role is called a “buddy.” We use the term buddy as both a noun and a verb. To be viable, VConnecting sessions require, at minimum, one onsite buddy (at the conference) and one virtual buddy (not at the conference). Buddying a session entails more responsibilities than participants, including a wide array of logistics, only some of which are in this article. Specifically, we focus our discussion on the responsibilities around intentionally equitable hospitality. In the following sections, we have divided intentionally equitable hospitality practices of VConnecting into the following phases (1) pre-conference planning, (2) during-conference planning, (3) facilitating, and (4) sustaining community.

Pre-conference planning. The virtual planning phase takes place before an event begins. In this phase, we mobilize interested volunteers to lead the virtual and onsite activities (as virtual and onsite buddies).

The choice of which events we conduct VConnecting at are driven by what virtual participants are interested in rather than onsite participants or conference organizers. However, onsite participants and organizers can offer or initiate discussion about hosting a possible upcoming VConnecting event, and virtual participants may agree to engage. Ultimately, if no virtual person is interested, the event cannot run.

Inviting onsite participants takes place as part of the virtual planning phase and includes a focus on: (1) marginal onsite voices we would like to amplify, (2) high profile participants such as keynote speakers with which the virtual participants wish to converse, and (3) onsite participants who are familiar with VConnecting and wishing to hear voices from virtual participants. Combinations of these in one session helps everyone network and hopefully build community. Experienced VConnecting onsite participants and buddies help make new onsite participants comfortable.

Clear communication around planning and logistics is an important part of intentionally equitable hospitality for VConnecting. This includes scheduling across time-zones and cross communication between multiple channels. Though sometimes overlooked as a form of hospitality, clear communication during the planning process is vital to creating a hospitable environment.

Finally, we are intentional about inviting new voices into the conversation, as people often need the initial invitation to be personal not general. Marginalized people don’t always see “anyone is welcome”to mean “you are welcome.” Intentionally equitable hospitality implores us to extend personal invitations to marginalized persons. For example, if someone likes or shares our blog post, we intentionally reach out to invite them to participate. If we see someone on Twitter mention they are unable to go to a conference they wish they could go to, we invite them to participate.

During-conference planning.The planning phase during the conference occurs once the conference starts. Onsite, this involves finding an appropriate location, appropriate equipment, and notifying onsite participants of the location. IEhospitality considerations for onsite location include limiting background noise and visual interference (such as people walking behind the participants who don’t wish to be on camera or windows that glare). Over time we have found a dedicated room is most effective. It also includes clear communications between onsite and virtual buddy, as well as between onsite buddy and onsite guests and virtual buddy and virtual participants. 

Facilitating. The facilitation phase occurs during VConnecting sessions. The responsibility of intentionally equitable hospitality is held mostly by the virtual and onsite buddies but others pick up these responsibilities as they continue to participate with the community. These responsibilities are social, technical, and logistical.

Logistical: timely communications about the session including physical location and virtual details such as the link to join the session.

Technical: troubleshooting audio/visual issues that may present.

Social: greeting participants as they arrive in the virtual space (which also serves as a technical form of hospitality as this serves as an audio/visual check), being a good conversationalist to help amplify the voices of others, juggling the public/private tension, inviting participants to introduce themselves, etc., and using the text chat both to backchannel and to amplify the voices of those who are shy or have audio difficulties.

Intentionally equitable hospitality during these sessions is multicontextual, complex, and often paradoxical [13]. Though calling on someone to speak up might be empowering to some, it can be troubling to those who are shy and prefer to listen. Recording the session allows those who cannot make it at that time to listen afterward but may create an environment of high pressure for those who are participating live. These paradoxes abound, however, the perspective of intentionally equitable hospitality is not to resolve paradoxes but rather to embrace a multiplicity in an attempt to maximize affordances.

Sustaining community. Occurring all the time, sustaining community is standard ongoing operations of the community. One important point to add is that much of what makes VConnecting work is sustained interaction within the volunteer community semi synchronously, privately, and mostly textually via Slack. The community is sustained through other community specific activities such as larger planning projects, writing and scholarly opportunities, and modeling hospitality with new members, which is complicated when the entire team are volunteers. But it is also sustained through broader interactions that are outside of the community itself but which have cross-over membership.

For Whom Is VConnecting Equitably Hospitable?

Following the work of Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter [14], which builds on the social justice model of Nancy Fraser, we would like to be explicit that equitable hospitality is contextual. Fraser’s model looks at social justice in three dimensions: economic, cultural, and political. She also discusses how solutions to social justice can be transformative, but sometimes they are only ameliorative, and sometimes neutral, or even have a negative impact. Different individuals engaging in VConnecting (or not) experience these in different ways. For example, a graduate student has economic barriers to attending conferences and experiences exclusion from the culture and power of conferences, therefore, VConnecting can address all three dimensions of social justice for them. However, if the graduate student does not speak English, or does not have access to good internet infrastructure, or is too shy to participate in a session, VConnecting may have a negative effect, as it is one more space they are not allowed to participate in. VConnecting may also have a neutral or ameliorative effect if they are able to watch recordings (because this would still seem like broadcasting, or enhancing access, but not directly addressing cultural or political injustice as their voice does not get heard). However, VConnecting would have a transformative effect when it enables graduate students to have equitable conversations with high-profile conference participants, become heard, gain confidence, and develop reciprocal relationships with them over time, which empowers them as scholars [11, 12]. Another group of people who benefit from VConnecting are global South scholars, who benefit economically but also culturally and politically, particularly in terms of inserting their global South perspectives into conference experiences that often lack their presence, and if these global South scholars are involved in choices related to who is invited into a VConnecting session, for example. Again, as with graduate students, those who lack English, internet access, or willingness to participate in synchronous video will not be affected positively by VConnecting, and may indeed be affected negatively. In some countries, they are excluded because, for example, YouTube is blocked. If they speak English less fluently than other participants, or they have lower-quality internet connections, they may struggle to get heard in sessions. There may, indeed, be onsite guests who are not willing to listen to virtual participants, or who are disrespectful to others, and occasionally the virtual and onsite facilitators are unable to redress this inequality in the dialogue. But when global South scholars are able to participate fully, the impact can be transformative in redressing epistemic injustice at conferences, and addressing political issues (of representation) and influencing conversations across conferences sometimes.

There are potential participants with disabilities that would be completely excluded from VConnecting, such as those with hearing disabilities. However, there are those who lack mobility due to permanent or temporary health issues who have benefited from VConnecting to conferences they could not attend. In these cases, VConnecting ameliorates injustice by offering access but not challenging culture or power at conferences.

In terms of onsite buddies/volunteers, they benefit mainly from the ability to make connections and cultural capital at conferences, as many of them are not powerful academics in the traditional sense, even if economically, they are able to attend conferences.

It is also important to recognize VConnecting may lay outside of traditional academic hierarchies, but as Bonnie Stewart says of Twitter [1], develops new hierarchies of its own. And therefore, despite the intention to be equitably hospitable to new volunteers and participants, there are emergent power structures related to personalities, histories and social and cultural capital within the community.

Finally, there are many who participate in and benefit from VConnecting who are already well-connected and not particularly disadvantaged. For these people, VConnecting is beneficial as a community but does not serve a social justice purpose related to their own privilege. However, they become allies who care about redressing social justice issues of others in the community, and using whatever power and connections they have to support others, and in many instances, they have spoken about how VConnecting has made them more aware of the voices of those not regularly present at events.

In practice, VConnecting cannot and does not challenge academic gatekeeping in every instance, but strives to create an intentionally equitable environment of hybrid dialogue in which this can thrive. Not every volunteer practices intentionally equitable hospitality in every moment, and not every conversation redresses epistemic injustice, but there are opportunities to do so that did not exist without VConnecting.

Conclusions and Remaining Challenges

What we have learned about IEHospitality in hybrid spaces can be useful to other learning contexts. For example, those of us who teach online making aspects of equity and hospitality explicit within online group work, helps to prevent many of the common problems students face [15]. What volunteers learn and practice in VConnecting often transfers to our teaching and professional practice, a reminder how we can benefit greatly from using online learning techniques and technologies in our own learning first. In addition, buddies often gain social capital of their own through greater communication with each other and with guests who are often high-profile academics.

Cronin suggests openness is personal, contextual, cultural, and constantly negotiated [16]. Our notion is that VConnecting as individuals and as a community strive towards this understanding of openness as VConnecting’s hospitality is growing in the same direction.

A group of us [17] recently asked the community what they expected from a radical hospitality of VConnecting. Kuhn [17] reminded us to consider those who stay in the margins, or who have no technical access, and how we might include them. Zamora [17] reminded us to continue “paying attention and not making assumptions about whether a person feels included or not” and “cultivating a keen awareness of the way power and privilege shape our inclusion.”

“But a wall does not appear to those who do not come up against it,” explained another [18]. As a hybrid space, VConnecting makes some of the walls of academic gatekeeping visible to everyone, and has been a bridge that aims to change the landscape of both the privileged conference-goers and the perpetually virtual participants (and everyone in between) via intentionally equitable hospitality.

References

[1] Bali, M., Beckingham, S., Zamora, M., Caines, A., Hogue, R. J., and Weller, M. Breaking the physical presence barrier: Virtually Connecting as an approach to open, inclusive conferences . Open Educational Resources (#OER17), London, UK. April 5, 2017.

[2] Ahmed, S. (2016). Equality credentials [blog post]. feministkilljoys. June 10, 2016.

[3] Czerniewicz, L. Considering inequality as higher education goes online [keynote address]. Association for Learning Technology Conference. Manchester, UK. September 9–10, 2015.

[4] Hodgkinson-Williams, C. Provocation for #BreakOpen by Cheryl Hogkinson-Williams [blog post]. Towards Openness. April 17, 2018.

[5] Bali, M., Caines, A., DeWaard, H., and Hogue, R. Ethos and practice of a connected learning movement: Interpreting virtually connecting through alignment with theory and survey results. Online Learning 20, 4 (2016). DOI: https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v20i4.965

[6] Wenger, E. Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept.”In Blackmore, C. (Ed.) Social Learning Systems and communities of practice. Springer Verlag and the Open University, 2010.

[7] Gee, J., and Hayes, E. Nurturing affinity spaces and game-based learning. In C. Steinkuehler, K. Squire, and S. Barab (Eds.), Games, Learning, and Society: Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, 129–155.

[8] Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., and Watkins, C. Connected learning: An agenda for research and design [report]. Irvine: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. 2013.

[9] Stewart, B. In public: The shifting consequences of Twitter scholarship [blog post]. Hybrid Pedagogy. April 14, 2015.

[10] Bowles, K. and Bali, M. On both sides: Networked learning in world of walls. Digital Pedagogy Lab. March 21, 2017.

[11] Hammershaimb, L. On blank spaces, being human, and the amazingness of Virtually Connecting [blog post]. Virtually Connecting. June 26, 2016.

[12] Koseoglu, S. Thoughts on open scholarship [blog post]. Virtually Connecting. June 5, 2015.

[13] Caines, A. The paradox of inclusion: Reflections prior to presenting at OER17 [blog post]. Is a Liminal Space. March 15, 2017.

[14] Hodgkinson-Williams, C. A., and Trotter, H. A social justice framework for understanding open educational resources and practices in the global south. Journal of Learning for Development 5, 3 (2018), 204–224.

[15] Roberts, T.S. and McInnerney, J.M. Seven Problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology & Society 10, 4 (2007), 257–268.

[16] Cronin, C. Open education, open questions. EDUCAUSE Review. October 23, 2017.

[17] Angell, N., DeWaard, H.J., Hogue, R. J. and Taleo, W. Help us define and give examples of "radical hospitality" #2. GITHUB issue. October 15, 2018.

[18] Ahmed, S. Women of color as diversity workers. [blog post]. feministkilljoys. November 26, 2015.

Acknowledgment

The authors would like to acknowledge the feedback the VC community gave over the years that helped influence this paper, including most recently the team who worked with Mozilla Open Leaders program to develop community definitions of VC hospitality, among other things: thank you Nate Angell, Wendy Taleo, Helen J. DeWaard, and Rebecca J. Hogue. Thank you especially to VC community members who volunteer and embody this hospitality and extend it to others.

About the Authors

Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. She is an editor at Hybrid Pedagogy journal, and editorial board member of: Teaching in Higher Education; Online Learning Journal; Journal of Pedagogic Development; Learning, Media and Technology; and Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. She has blogged for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker, DMLCentral blogs and Al-Fanar media. She is co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound. She is former International Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab. She is a learnaholic, writeaholic and passionate open and connected educator. She can be found on Twitter at @bali_maha and blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me

Autumm Caines is an instructional designer at the University of Michigan - Dearborn who has worked in the field of academic technology for 15 years. Her work focuses on online community, faculty development, educational technology, open education, and online security and privacy. Prior to her current position Autumm held appointments at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI and Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, both in the USA. Autumm is a co-director of the online connected learning movement Virtually Connecting, which helps her to better understand presence and spontaneity in virtual synchronous conversations as well as equity and inclusion in online community.

Rebecca J. Hogue is an associate lecturer at University of Massachusetts - Boston. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in health professions education at the University of Ottawa, Canada and is co-founder of Virtually Connecting. Her professional background is in instructional design and software quality assurance. She holds a Master of Arts degree in distributed learning, and a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science. Rebecca teaches courses on instructional design foundations, the design and instruction of online courses, building educational multimedia, and designing online professional presence. She has more than 15 years of experience as an instructional designer in a variety of contexts (private sector, higher education, and medical education). 

Helen DeWaard teaches digital and media literacy at the Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Orillia. She has completed a master’s of educational technology from the University of British Columbia, a master’s of education from the University of Toronto, OISE and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. Her passions include teaching and learning with technology, digital storytelling, critical digital literacy and media literacy, connecting to global contexts, and digital badges. She volunteers with Virtually Connecting and the ISTE Inclusive Learning network, and has participated in the Mozilla Open Leaders project. Helen has served as an Open Education Fellow with eCampus Ontario and engages as a mentor through UNESCO to support others in open teaching and learning. She can be found at http://www.hjdewaard.com/. Helen actively tweets about education related topics @hj_dewaard and blogs at Five Flames for Learning

Christian Friedrich is the education and science advisor at Wikimedia Deutschland. As a member of the team "Education, Science & Culture,” Christian is committed to work towards openness and freedom of education and science. Christian has led various higher education projects in the context of “open” and “digital and connected learning.” He is also part of the vibrant Virtually Connecting community, which aims to provide virtual participation and representation at academic conferences. In 2018, Christian was named one of the Virtually Connecting Co-Directors. Christian works as a freelance consultant with organizations to foster organizational change and learning while considering meaningful use of technology. Together with colleagues and friends from academia and activism, Christian conceived Towards Openness, a knowledge base and platform for critical conversations around openness and education. Christian blogs erratically on his website christianfriedrich.org, and tweets as @friedelitis. He also hosts various German podcasts on technology, learning, and open education.

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