In Praise of the Virtual Experience
At last year’s Virtual Conference, an attendee shared a post that I still snicker about today. It said, “To recreate the full conference experience, I plan to pour myself a glass of wine and then flush $15 down the toilet.” Of all the ways to create a sense of normalcy during unprecedented times, this approach would have worked extremely well for me. As someone who is attending on-site this year, I suspect my debit card will tell the tale.
While this pandemic has been devastating in so many ways, it has also caused us to adapt and grow in ways we would not have anticipated “in the before times.” Higher Education is not exactly known for our ability to change quickly. As an anonymous source once opined, “It is easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course.” With that said, new technologies that once felt foreign are now routine. I also know that many of us are more mindful of the needs of distance learners, and as disparities and inequities have become more visible during this pandemic, I have observed that we more frequently ask a question that should have been at the forefront of our work, “Who is this not working for?”
One thing that has come a long way is virtual conferences. In the early days, our efforts to recreate a face-to-face conference were sometimes clumsy. We wanted to hold a virtual conference, but what we were able to create ended up virtually a conference.
I recall reading an article during the early days of the pandemic that talked about how we can apply universal design to our efforts to serve students during the pandemic. For the life of me, I can’t find the article – but its central theme stuck with me. The point of it was basically that there is a process of responding to limiting conditions that begin with translation. We try to recreate the experience for those who are differently impacted. Those individuals get a lesser version of what is intended with the belief that it is better than nothing. Obviously, this is not enough, but we sometimes stop there.
As we seek to improve, we focus on adaption. At this level, we change the activity to make it more accessible and equitable for the individuals we serve. This is helpful, but not enough. And ultimately, everyone gets a lesser version than what was intended.
Finally, we focus on redesign. This process is guided by the question, “If we were creating this experience over, how would we re-think it to make sure that it was the same experience for everyone?” A good example is the bathrooms in airports with wide-open doors that loop around to ensure privacy. These doors work for everybody and require no adaptive technology even for those who would be challenged by opening a manual door.
I feel like we have gone through a similar process with conferences. Our early efforts were to try to translate a “traditional” conference experience to a new format. For those first conferences early on, there was little time or other resources to do any more. Over time, we’ve seen innovations in virtual formats that have helped us to adapt. My major takeaway from last year’s NASPA Conference was how I expected it to feel very different from what I would usually experience at an in-person NASPA Conference, but so much felt the same. This was a significant achievement.
As a member of the 2022 Virtual Experience Committee, I know that our goal from very early on in the process was to truly re-design the conference experience. For those attending in-person, we wanted enticing sessions that might draw them in as well. I can say that as an introvert, I am planning on engaging in a few virtual experiences from the comfort of my hotel room in Baltimore.
But, NASPA isn’t just ed sessions and keynotes, it’s hallway conversations and dinner with colleagues. The strength of NASPA has always been its people and the relationships that form. The My NASPA App will serve as a virtual interactive program book for all attendees in all locations. The NASPA Annual Conference Discord Community will recreate the NASPA Commons in the virtual space, providing a venue for interactions around content topics, areas of interest, or that casual hallway conversation. Since its launch, many NASPA members have been enticed to try a platform they had heard of but never used. We are already seeing lots of engagement in that platform. It’s exciting to think about all of the interactions that will happen between on-site and virtual attendees during the conference!If you want to access the NASPA Annual Conference Discord Community, click the link below. There are pinned messages to help you get set up and lots of helpful people. Most of us have been tutored by teenagers in our lives and will try to pass their wisdom and guidance along to anyone who needs it.
Writing this piece has really stoked my excitement for the conference – yep, I’m officially stoked! I am tempted to say that I feel like a kid waiting for the holidays, but truthfully, I feel more like an adult preparing for the holidays. I can’t wait to celebrate and to be in community with each of you - but I have a lot to do between now and that time! So, whether you are attending in-person or online, I can’t wait to interact with you and to show you all that NASPA 2022 has in store!