An Open Letter to Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology (COLTT)

Update: Responses from Twitter and COLLT can be read here.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Dear Dr. Deborah Keyek-Franssen, Conference Director of Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology (COLTT), and Members of the 2016 COLTT Program Committee,

I write this open letter in response to an email I received yesterday, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 10th, 2016. The email included two directives; the need to “calibrate your voice on twitter to meet the tone of COLTT as to not upset others,” and to “ensure that you adhere to the content proposed for your sessions.” First, I will not under any circumstances barter basic tenets of my scholarly activity — including freedom of thought and expression — in exchange for participation at the 2016 COLTT Conference. Second, I reject the suggestion that I did not — or that I would not — adhere to the content of an accepted presentation proposal, and whether at a COLTT conference or any academic function. In response to these hurtful implications, I will neither participate in two sessions (one workshop, one general presentation) accepted into this August’s 2016 COLTT Conference, nor will I attend any aspect of the conference program.

Advocates of academic freedom will surely appreciate the ease with which I decided to both withdraw from the 2016 COLTT Conference and write this public letter. I cannot and will not silence myself, trade diversity of thought for a few CV lines, and gag opinion because my expression might upset an abstract group of “others.” Moreover, because my comments at last year’s 2015 COLTT Conference vocally addressed issues of representation and inclusion in the field of educational technology, critiqued institutional patriarchy and my own positionality as a white male in higher education, and foregrounded dynamics of power and privilege as central to any discussion about teaching and learning with technology, I find it deeply troubling that there may be a planned strategy to preemptively censor my participation. I have been a public employee for over a decade, and during this time I have worked tirelessly to create the conditions for more equitable education, to critique — when necessary — staid norms of the status quo, and to rigorously examine my own privilege as ever-relevant to my teaching, research, and public service. As the proud graduate of a Quaker college, circumstances like this remind me that I must not mute dissent for fear of speaking truth to power.

The email I received yesterday was written by a member of 2016 COLTT Program Committee, followed a collegial lunch she and I had on the afternoon of Friday, July 1st, and stated the following:

There were two things I meant to touch on that I didn’t, partially because they are a little strange to bring up and partially because it puts me in the role of the messenger, which is unusual for me. There was feedback from some of our committee members from COLTT 2015 regarding your twitter activity and session. I believe you and I touched on this f2f at the end of the conference last year. I likely asked you for your ideas and critique directly as an opportunity to improve in the future. However, I have to ensure that this year you 1) calibrate your voice on twitter to meet the tone of COLTT as to not upset others and 2) ensure that you adhere to the content proposed for your sessions. If it brings up any questions let’s please talk about this by phone or f2f as I don’t wish for there to be any miscommunication.

This message does indeed raise many questions and concerns (some of which I have discussed briefly yet thoughtfully with this individual via phone today, on the morning of Monday, July 11th). Yet I cannot in good faith contain my ensuing thoughts as a conversation privy to two individuals. Presuming that my colleague wrote her email on behalf of the COLLT 2016 Program Committee as “the messenger,” I do not believe there has been any miscommunication whatsoever. On the contrary, this message is an explicit directive to preemptively silence my voice and suppress my academic freedom.

With this open letter I am creating an opportunity for transparent and honest dialogue, a practice I dearly value as a public employee and scholar. My letter primarily addresses the content of the message I received yesterday. I will also briefly comment upon the means by which this message was delivered to me. And I reiterate that while I expect, will gladly participate in, and deeply value conversation that subsequently arises because of this letter, I will not attend any aspect of the COLTT Conference this coming August 3rd and 4th.

As concerns the content of the email I received, I will begin by openly requesting that additional detail be provided to me by the Program Committee concerning “feedback from some of our committee members regarding your twitter activity and session.” What, precisely, were the concerns about my Twitter activity during the 2015 COLLT Conference? Because I have not been provided with formal feedback from the committee about my Twitter activity (and, for that matter, should such feedback be provided to each COLTT participant who tweets publicly? Is such feedback even practical or ethical?), I can only speculate as to the nature of this concern. Is this, perhaps, because I was one of a handful of participants (about eight, by my count) who, during the conference keynote on August 5th, 2015, engaged in a robust and critical conversation during Michael Feldstein’s address (an educational leader whom I deeply respect)? My fellow participants and I critiqued a debatable message about the role of mathematics education in higher education retention. We applauded Michael’s messages about the limits of educational technology in higher education teaching. During Michael’s keynote I actively invited back-and-forth debate that should characterize an expected backchannel during any keynote presentation at a major conference. The same expectation holds, for example, when I keynote educational technology conferences. In this respect, I invite you to read (and join!) conversations that are both critical of and supportive of the messages I have delivered when keynoting a conference, as has recently occurred in both international (#BCtechquity) and local (#APSMovesTheBoxes) settings.

Returning to the content of my tweets, perhaps the committee was concerned about my Twitter commentary during a session on gamification, a topic I am qualified to speak on as a scholar of game-based and playful learning?

Or perhaps the committee disagreed with my vocal support for the Tech TA program at CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development?

I also used Twitter to preview, on the evening of August 5th, three messages about my own presentation on the morning of August 6th:

(Regarding this third tweet, problems of representation and participation plague many educational technology conferences, including those I myself have previously co-chaired.)

Or were my messages of professional advocacy, social media use, and inclusion irrelevant to COLTT? Maybe the committee was offended by my subsequent tweet on August 9th which stated:

Shall I not — in reference to, or while presenting at, COLTT — publicly critique my own positionality as a privileged, white, and male academic in the field of educational technology, all while contributing to a national conversation about gender inequity and institutional bias in higher education?

Lacking the presentation of additional and concrete feedback from the Program Committee, it is only possible for me to speculate as to the nature of the concern over my Twitter activity during last year’s conference. Was it my conversation and critique during the keynote, my comments during various sessions, my self-promotion, or my subsequent critique of systemic bias and privilege? Whatever the case may be, I am deeply concerned by the need to “ensure” that I “calibrate your [my] voice on twitter to meet the tone of COLTT as to not upset others.” As I wrote yesterday:

It is disturbing to learn that the COLTT Program Committee privileges a calibrated “tone” among participants over the diversity of individual expression, and that Twitter — in particular — is seen as a threat to such group-think. I’ll reserve further commentary about the role of Twitter as a means for dissent, organization, and solidarity in a pluralistic society, as the events presently challenging our nation teach many lessons about the power of social media. I contend it is neither possible nor ethical to divorce the power of such conversation from the activities of an academic conference, and — moreover — to suggest that an individual must curtail individual expression in order to subsequently participate.

Secondly, what were Program Committee members’ concerns about the session I presented on August 6th, titled “When Transmedia Practices Foster Ecological Pedagogy”? As a reflective practitioner who has taught for three major research universities, I am eager to receive this additional feedback as the quantitative and qualitative data presented to me in my Session Feedback Report (emailed January 7th, 2016) included generally favorable responses. The only two measures of quantitative feedback noted the following:

  • 71% (12 of 17) session participants responded “very likely” or “likely” when asked, “How likely are you to apply something you learned in this session to you [sic] work/teaching?”
  • 71% (12 of 17) session participants responsed as “very likely” when asked, “How likely would you be to attend a session by this presenter at a future COLTT conference, if the topic interests you?”

The 12 total qualitative comments I received included 10 (83%) that were generally positive. The following six quotes are representative of this subset:

  • “Excellent and critical presentation.”
  • “Very engaged, refreshing to hear challenges and critique of existing conference practices.”
  • “Appreciated emphasis on equity.”
  • “Although I know that Remi modified his presentation & that we didn’t have the interactive opportunities he planned, I think he gave a strong voice of conversation that *needs to be happening* & that Cafe Ped gave the most obvious (to me) example of why.”
  • “Provocative — yes. I’m still annoyed w/ the Twitter plug/berating. But I think I see Remi’s point. Thanks — this was the best session at this conference. I had all or most of them would be like this.” [Perhaps this comment is missing the word “hoped” in the final sentence?]
  • “He had some *really* good ideas about the conference!”

Of course, I also received a few qualitative comments — two, to be precise — that were generally negative (out of 12, or 17%). These two comments indicated that I did not meet expectations; according to these two individuals, I used “unnecessary theoretical jargon,” and I delivered “a really poor lecture.” In my defense, a session titled “When Transmedia Practices Foster Ecological Pedagogy” already includes some dense theoretical jargon (buyer beware!). More importantly, I am unaware of an expectation that a COLTT presenter successfully meet every session attendee’s expectation for quality and relevance. If, on the other hand, it is reasonable to expect that while some COLTT participants can be all right in their assessment of a presenter part of the time, but that all COLTT participants cannot be all right in their assessment all of the time, then it seems prudent to rely squarely upon the trends present in the available data. To that end, the content of my session was impactful, meaningful, and welcome by a majority of participants.

And yet, in addition to the attempted policing of my academic freedom, the email I received yesterday also directed me to “ensure that you adhere to the content proposed for your sessions.” I respectfully reject the implication that I did not present the content I proposed last year, and that I would furthermore be inclined to deviate from the content I had planned to present this year (but will now no longer be presenting). While the content of this year’s multiple presentations are now a moot point, please permit me to share the following details about last year’s session.

On June 6th, 2015, I received an email from the COLTT Conference Coordinator congratulating me on the acceptance of my proposal “When Transmedia Practices Foster Ecological Pedagogy.” This email, however, informed me that I would not be able to present a workshop (as I had requested), and that I would not receive a 1 hour and 40-minute timeslot during the conference program (as I had also requested). Rather, I would receive a 50-minute timeslot (an “other presentation format”). The Conference Coordinator and I subsequently exchanged four emails over the next two days. In response to a request to change my presentation format, I wrote on June 8th: “Yes, a 50-minute general/research presentation is fine.” The Conference Coordinator responded, in turn, “Thanks.” This exchange left me with the impression that I would not facilitate a hands-on workshop, but would deliver a lecture-style research presentation. I therefore prepared and delivered a lecture, and conveyed to session attendees the change in format and time (as is evident in the comment from one participant, “Although I know that Remi modified his presentation & that we didn’t have the interactive opportunities he planned…”).

It is also true that I added new and complementary content to my planned presentation. This new content was incorporated between the conclusion of COLTT programming on August 5th, 2015, and the delivery of my presentation on the morning of August 6th. I added 23 new slides that — in my professional opinion — fully embraced the core mission of COLTT, namely: “COLTT engages participants in learning about teaching practices and technologies, challenging the way they think about both.”

Specifically, my new content asked:

  • What are your pedagogical and disciplinary commitments, and why do they matter?
  • Who writes the algorithms that determine what learning counts, and does that concern you?
  • What is your agency as an educator, and what tools amplify your agency?

My new content also:

  1. Emphasized the importance of Twitter as an educational tool;
  2. Introduced attendees to provocative and diverse educational technology communities, scholars, and practitioners who advocate views largely dissimilar from those I had experienced thus far at COLTT; and
  3. Argued that COLTT might increase the ratio of hands-on workshops to lecture-style presentations (7 workshops out of 78 total sessions).

As with all my new content, I never shied away from implicating myself; I showed how I used Twitter as an educational tool, I critiqued my own positionality as a white male in the field of educational technology; and I made tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that I was lecturing about the prevalence of lectures. I estimate that the presentation of this new material lasted 10 minutes.

Following the presentation of my new content, I then presented 41 slides over 40 minutes about transmedia practices and ecological pedagogy. I considered the inclusion of new content as an introduction to my planned session both necessary and effective. And in the opinion of many who attended my presentation, this decision was provocative and memorable. At the conclusion of my presentation I made my slides available to all attendees; they remain accessible at http://bit.ly/coltt15.

To reiterate, I respectfully disagree with the suggestion that I did not — or that I would not — adhere to the content of an accepted presentation proposal. Last year I did present my proposed content, while also adding new content; collectively, COLTT Conference participants received all of my material as a net positive experience.

Finally, I will briefly comment upon the delivery of the email I received yesterday. Simply put, I am saddened that a message of such import — and injury — was so cavalierly amended to an email between colleagues. Having organized and co-chaired nationally-recognized conferences for a number of years, I appreciate the delicacy of optics and the politicking of personal relationships. However, I would never expect such requests to be delivered informally, and I would never make a request that would trammel cherished values of agency and expression. Were the stakes higher — had I, for example, been invited to keynote — then appropriate negotiation about a range of topics and logistics would be both welcome and expected. But that hypothetical is not the case here. And this is certainly not the way scholars and teachers constructively build their learning communities.

I cannot shake loose the feeling that this message was thrown like a crumpled note from the back of a classroom, haphazardly landing at the feet of an educator who has little choice but to either read a scribbled insult or toss the garbage aside. Yet I have read it, and now welcome an open and honest conversation about what it means construct more vibrant learning opportunities and environments.

Respectfully,

Remi Holden

Assistant Professor
Information and Learning Technologies
University of Colorado Denver