At the Emerging Technologies for Online Learning Conference (#et4online) held in Dallas Texas (April 22-24), I worked with Rebecca J. Hogue to create a pilot program, known as #et4buddy, that allowed me to attend the conference virtually from Egypt and still participate in the informal and social parts of the conference. The #et4buddy pilot program took advantage of mobile technology and cloud-based video conferencing services to provide opportunities for virtual participants to interact with onsite participants through a variety of videos, livestreamed and recorded with Google Hangouts on Air.

Entering the Conference with a Purpose — Rebecca’s Onsite Experience

I (Rebecca) initially signed up to go to Emerging Technologies for Online Learning Conference (#et4online) in Dallas, Texas, because Maha was planning on being there. I figured if she was traveling all the way from Egypt to attend, I could make the effort and travel from Santa Clara, California. I had attended #et4online last year. It was a marker into my past — the last academic conference I attended before being diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed after diagnosis was four long months of chemotherapy and three surgeries. This year’s #et4online was a milestone in my recovery: It was the first time I traveled on my own since diagnosis. It was a chance to reclaim my identity as an academic.

One of my motivations for the #et4buddy pilot program was that it allowed me to piggyback on Maha’s social capital. She knows a lot of people. Preliminary results from Bonnie Stewart’s thesis research highlighted that, although I was present on Twitter and the blogosphere, I had little influence. Although Maha may not describe herself as someone with high influence, she is definitely someone who is well connected. She has personal connections with all three keynote and plenary speakers, as well as members of various steering committees. I was hoping to capitalize on Maha’s connections to become part of the “in” crowd. I was also hoping that Maha would push me out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to approach new and influential people.

The #et4buddy pilot program meant that I entered the conference with a purpose: to allow Maha to interact with people on an informal level. I wanted to bring the social aspects of the conference to her. It also meant that I had a reason to approach session presenters and other people that I had only heard of, but didn’t really know. Her network of people became my network of people. It became easy for me to approach others when I was doing it as Maha rather than as me.

Any time I felt uncomfortable in a social setting, I needed only to seek out a familiar face. Initially that was Whitney, but it soon became many others. People I had followed on Twitter for years suddenly were people that I felt comfortable approaching. Over the last year, my breast cancer blog has meant that I am more connected than even I thought. People within the #et4online community knew my story. They recognized the significance of me even being physically able to attend the conference. They reached out to me.

I did, however, find that being the onsite presence for a virtual attendee could be exhausting. It meant that I was “on” when normally I would have been recharging. I could not easily escape because I was constantly looking for those serendipitous moments that made the best ‘buddy’ experiences. I wanted to make sure that Maha connected with everyone she wanted to connect with. I saw that I had elevated Maha’s presence at the conference—one of her friends reported that “I knew that Rebecca was Maha.” I had helped extend her presence, making her more than a virtual attendee, able to be seen as onsite by many conference participants.

I do wonder, however, if I achieved my goals in the #et4buddy program. I feel that I connected with many more people than I had last year, but how much of that is because of #et4buddy and how much of that is because of my breast cancer blog? As Maha’s friend had observed, in some cases people didn’t see me; they just saw a human conduit that was bringing Maha into the room. In those cases, her social capital overshadowed my physical presence.

In the end, I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to experience the #et4buddy program as an onsite buddy. I met many people that I likely wouldn’t have. I’m pretty sure, that as a result of the experience, my social capital has increased. But more important than all that, my friendship with Maha deepened.

I Was There, Even Though I Wasn’t — Maha’s Virtual Experience

I (Maha) was kind of obsessed with the desire to attend Emerging Technologies for Online Learning this year. I was a steering committee member and co-presenter in several sessions, so the sheer number of people I knew at the conference was overwhelming, more than any conference I had ever participated in. I was ready to finally meet everyone in person.

But life happens. For a mom of a young child, living in Egypt, too many things needed to work out for me to make it. Despite many generous offers to help, in the end, I had to let it go. I was heartbroken.

When Rebecca suggested the buddy program, I latched onto it like a lifeline. We discussed it with other steering committee members and decided to create a pilot program that I feel enhanced the conference experience for other virtual participants and people following the Twitter stream. Onsite participants also told us they felt it enhanced their experience too. This year’s #et4online with #et4buddy elevated my own conference experience beyond the best I had seen before (which was #et4online last year).

People in my face-to-face life don’t completely understand hybridity. They think I am delusional for considering people I have never met “friends”. They don’t understand how my relationship with Rebecca grew stronger since she first told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and why we’ve been mailing each other scarves ever since. They wouldn’t understand why Rebecca would make the effort to go to #et4online only weeks after her final surgery. They don’t understand why I was obsessed with going to this conference to meet people I have been interacting with closely for over a year now.

Hanging out with people who were sharing physical space made me feel like I was there. Other virtual participants occasionally joined the sessions and people following on Twitter enjoyed catching us streaming. I was concerned that virtual participants who didn’t know us were at a disadvantage, but we could only do so much with a pilot program.

Scheduling meetings was a struggle, and I admire Rebecca for working this out. Aside from a few pre-scheduled meetings with plenary speakers, she intuitively found spontaneous, emergent opportunities to hang out, like after certain sessions (especially ones I was co-presenting). At some point we stopped inviting people in and people seemed to “seek us out”, dropping in behind Rebecca. I didn’t feel comfortable asking people who were not my friends to meet me, but some occasionally joined us onsite and virtually. Rebecca was amazing with how she managed to schedule things around my family commitments at home, but between those and all the sessions I was part of (each facilitated by my co-presenters to include me in a different way), we missed some opportunities. Still, 14 videos! More than 20 people. But that’s not what counts. What counts is the laughter and connection we felt across the screen, and some virtual selfies and even hugs. There were also beautiful moments off the air and lots of coordination behind the scene. At one point, several people at the conference were tweeting me to ask where to go on the ground, despite the fact that I was nearly 7,000 miles away! We livestreamed so that other virtual participants could watch, but sometimes I was meeting someone I felt so close to that I did not want to talk to them in front of a crowd; in those instances, it felt like it was a reality show and I needed to actually just talk privately to that person.

I felt like a hybrid in many ways over this period. I was there, but wasn’t: my body was in Cairo, going to doctor’s appointments, feeding my daughter, and attending family gatherings. I was at the conference, but wasn’t: my mind and heart were in Dallas where some of my best friends were. I missed dinner and karaoke in Dallas (but I probably would have missed them had I gone and brought with my daughter with me). I was constantly worried for Rebecca’s health, worried that she was overextending herself and that the adrenaline rush would make her not notice how much she was exhausting herself. I was also concerned that Rebecca’s conference experience was constantly being interrupted by me. But we checked in privately all the time, sometimes even chatting privately to unwind, as if we were each unwinding with our own selves.

Moving Forward Together and More

It felt like I became hybrid in my identity, like Rebecca and I had merged somehow. People started wondering if this idea would work for other contexts, with different pairs, or if there was something uniquely special about the Rebecca/Maha pair. We are also wondering, as Whitney Kilgore pointed out, about its potential to improve access to a richer conference experience for virtual and onsite participants, making it more diverse, and helping virtuals feel less marginalized and giving them more voice and presence. We hope to advocate for and research these questions. We are cognizant of our privilege in this context and how our existing online networks made us both connected well enough at this conference that people wanted to meet us both. We recognize that the newness of the #et4buddy program meant some people onsite didn’t know what was happening, but we tried as much as possible to ensure people knew we were on the air and not to ask favors of people who were not already friends or willing to participate.

We are also aware of how much this could have gone wrong, both technically and socially. We are now in the process of exploring options for taking this experience elsewhere, encouraged by other conference organizers and survey responses. How hybrid can a conference get? How hybrid would we want them to get?

If you want a glimpse of the #et4buddy experience, here’s the Storify and YouTube playlist. We’d love to know what you think.