Saturday, March 27, 2010

Virtual Encounters of the First Kind

Winning Entry - Roving Reporters competition, IATEFL 2010: Writing Challenge
Hanaa Khamis

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Virtual Encounters of the First Kind

The last time I participated in an international conference was in 2001. It was special to network with professionals from all over the world. It became a dream to regularly attend similar events. However, many practitioners are bound by space and time, among other constraints. I remained one of those till Spring 2009 when I first heard about a free online conference. Bottom-up planning, volunteer moderators, simulcasting were all foreign terms. To top it all, presentation platforms were new as well as overwhelmingly diverse. I felt intimidated but insisted on conquering those unfamiliar territories. It was a three-day cultural experience.

Webheads-in-Action Online Convergence (WiAOC09)i was my first interactive participation in a virtual conference. Despite previously attended synchronous and asynchronous events, this was a true convergence. I witnessed the most professional endeavour by dedicated members of a community of practice.

In a matter of days, I registered online on Ning social network for free. I had no idea how to access conference platforms, yet I found tons of helpful responses to my queries. It took me sometime to figure out my way around times and virtual venues in the program book. I first encountered the practical use of a wiki where organizers, volunteers and participants collaborate in bottom-up planning of conference events. I entered a virtual beehive of active members willing to dedicate their time and effort nonstop over three days, not to mention time spent before and after the event.

I managed to attend the inaugural session just in time. I was excited that I could access Elluminate without problems. It was fun interacting with presenters and other participants via text chat. I could not attend the following session in Second Life as its installation was too demanding for my laptop. However, I was amazed that I could still follow the session through audio simulcasting on WorldBridges. I struggled my way in and out of sessions, trying hard not to miss any. Still I could not attend all due to time zone differences. Interestingly, I woke up to find recordings and Slideshare presentations of the sessions I missed. Watching the event in action was like virtual gymnastics blowing my mind away.

One session I cannot forget was by Professor Sugata Mitra, the inspirer of Slum Dog Millionaire. A ‘Hole in the Wall’ summarized a leading experiment conducted in India. Poor kids with little or no knowledge of English or technology learned how to play computer games through trial and error. Listening to the philosophy of that scholar was humbling.

In retrospect, that event transformed me from a mere lurker to a proactive member. I could not fully comprehend the positive energy it generated. As maintained by George Siemens in his talk, in another conference, on ‘Connectivism and Social Networking’ii, networks are changing learning and teaching in ways we cannot fully grasp. Furthermore, modern technology is bringing professional events to one’s doorstep. It is admirable that renowned figures dedicate their efforts to bring fellow practitioners to the centre of professional events.

(500 words without end notes)

i WiAOC09, May 22-24, 2009
ii AVEALMEC ARCALL Social Networking: Thriving as a Community of Practice, November, 5-8, 2009