Practicing the Value of Student Voice

by Jenna Azar and Lora Taub-Pervizpour

In a recent post, Keegan Long Wheeler reflects on something missing from the OLCInnovate conference.


To be honest, OLCInnovate is not alone in being, as Keegan notes, “mostly void of students voices.”  The lack of pathways for students to meaningfully participate in higher education conferences is pretty widespread.  And the price to attend is pretty steep.  Full price student registration for OLCInnovate in 2017 was $400, with early bird pricing a mere $50 less.  For anyone who has ever supported conference travel for students, or attended a conference as a student, you know that funding is rarely easy to secure far enough in advance to qualify for whatever meager savings an early bird registration affords.

Keegan’s post challenges us to “think about ways you could bring more students to #OLCInnovate and more importantly into #edtech conversations.”  As educators who went with students to OLCInnovate, and will have a student on the “bergbuilds” team attending Domains 2017, we want to share a few thoughts in relation to Keegan’s timely and critical challenge.

There are obvious financial barriers to students attending conferences.  Chris Gillard has also written about the absence of student voice at conferences and most recently about the troubling framing of students as cheaters and liars in particular in the ubiquitous online proctoring advertising and sponsorship at OLCInnovate.  One of the first questions Chris asked us when we met at OLCInnovate was how did we manage to fund the cost of bringing to students to OLCInnovate.  Airfare and lodging for a minimum of 3 days in New Orleans is significant and an obstacle not only for students but for many faculty and staff.  With shrinking budgets for conference travel, many of us are having to justify and limit participation at conferences.

We were able to attend OLCInnovate as a large team, including two students and five faculty and staff, because we had five free registrations.  In 2016, our project for the Solution Design Summit won the competition and one of the major benefits was complimentary registration for our team to attend the 2017 conference. Saving the $3100 in registration fees certainly contributed to our ability to fund two student registrations.  Muhlenberg students are also eligible to apply for conference travel funds from the Dean, and both of our students received funding that basically covered their roundtrip airfare.  Through the digital learning budget, we were able to support a shared hotel room and meals.  Muhlenberg is a small residential liberal arts college that values undergraduate research and faculty – student collaboration.  Practicing that value means ensuring the resources to support student conference presentations and travel.  Realistically, in the future–when we don’t have complimentary registrations for OLCInnovate–practicing that value will mean fewer of us attend so that we can prioritize student participation and presence.

Karl Schultz, Digital Learning Assistant, at OLCInnovate
Dan Lester, Digital Learning Assistant, at OLCInnovate

Keegan has started to think about possible ways to support more inclusive edtech conference spaces.  “Off the top of my head, it would be fantastic if more conferences (including #OLCInnovate) offered to sponsor undergraduates and graduate students that submit proposals, including travel/lodging. Alternatively, if instructors/institutions have access to funds that could be used to encourage students into our scholarship spaces to add their voices. We need to make this a priority.”  Certainly with the pervasive branding and marketing at OLCInnovate (which Chris Gillard has described here), there must be resources to sponsor student attendees.  There are good examples of other professional conferences pursuing more sustainable solutions — convening in less expensive venues, minimizing or eliminating conference swag, foregoing a full print run of the conference program and relying on digital scheduling platforms, scaling back catering.  We’ve attended conferences where there was a work exchange and volunteer option to help lower registration fees.  We’ve also attended conferences in the US and in Europe that waive or reduce the registration fee for students traveling internationally.  One favorite academic conference has long held the policy that no one will be turned away due to lack of funds.

digital learning team collaborating
Working on OLCInnovate presentation in the hotel lobby.

Securing resources for students to attend conferences is difficult work. We can advocate for conference organizers to pursue more equitable pricing, but beyond that, there are things we can consider to create possibilities for a more equitable and ethical conference experience for our students.  If we are able (and have the privilege) to navigate the undeniable global, financial, and personal barriers to attendance (none of which should be taken lightly and many of which are struggles for faculty and staff as well–see Rebecca Hogue’s post on this and all of Maha Bali’s writing on virtual conference attendance), we then have to pay close attention to the kind of experience we help structure for students in an environment that isn’t always or even often designed with their participation in mind.  [Note: there are some wonderful academic conferences that are deeply thoughtful about centering student participation and that embrace this as part of their mission.  They are not the subject of this post].  

In this post, we want to reflect on some of the ways we practice valuing the voices of students in our work at conferences and at home.  Reflecting back on our experience at OLCInnovate, we offer a few areas where practicing the value of student voice is critical.  Really helping students feel welcome at conferences begins with getting really clear about why we’re encouraging them to attend in the first place. What are our goals for them in suggesting conference travel? It’s not sufficient to say, “come!” We must consider and articulate our understanding and beliefs about how their voices and perspectives enrich our work and learning within the conference.   What are the individual and collective hopes for attending the conference?  If we want students to attend our professional conferences, we need to mentor and model ways of engaging in conference activities that allow them to be more than a guest or an observer in an unfamiliar space.

Can we imagine richer opportunities for students to participate as cocreators?   

We look at this through the lens of youth media.  As youth media program directors, we find a good guide for youth-adult partnership in Soep and Chavez’s model of “collegial pedagogy.” In this model, collegiality and pedagogy converge “in ways that unsettle some basic assumptions about learning as typically theorized in school settings and academic subjects.” (2010, p. 53)

Collegial pedagogy foregrounds partnership and recognizes the opportunity for growth for all participants. We see opportunities in the following moments to embody collegial pedagogy and invite others to expand upon them.

The conference proposal:  In what ways are students part of the proposal writing process? If students are preparing their own proposals, how are you supporting them?  If students are part of your proposal writing process, how are you including them?  Are they coauthors? Are they reviewing and commenting on drafts? What kind of feedback are you inviting from student collaborators and how are you communicating about that?

Even at this early stage, students can have a clear sense of why they would want to attend the conference. What do they hope to gain from attending and how will participation support their current or future goals?  We, too, make choices about which conferences to attend — choices based on the communities of practice to which we belong, based on conference location, the relationships we hope to renew and foster, exposure to experts and new ideas–we want the students to be involved in that process as well. Knowing why you’re there and having your own personal development in mind sets the tone for a more deliberative, thoughtful, agentive experience for students.  

The conference presentation:  The same questions apply but gain urgency around the presentation itself.  If students are presenting their own work, what do they need to know from you about the conference context, culture, and professional norms? What kind of opportunities can you create on your campus for students to practice their presentation and get supportive feedback before the conference?

In a venue like OLCInnovate, it’s more likely the case that students are co-presenting with faculty and staff.  Here the work of practicing the value of student voice as process is critical.  What does co-presenting look like to you and how are you communicating that vision to your student partners?  What do they envision co-presenting entails?  An open conversation, early on, about these roles and partnerships is critical to practicing the value of student voice –not just as a highlight in someone else’s conference presentation but centered in the process.

Here’s the thing: sharing a link to an outline of presentation slides with your co-presenters isn’t collaboration. It doesn’t even set co-presenters up for collaboration, and is especially ambiguous if you’re a student co-presenter.  One of us (Lora) made that mistake and then wondered: why aren’t the students adding slides and designing with abandon?  One of us (Jenna) issued a reminder: “Was that your expectation? Oh, that requires a conversation, at a minimum.”

The conference experience:  Are we encouraging them to attend sessions based on their academic interests or professional goals? Our responsibility is to model and make visible the choices that go into which sessions, events, and activities one might attend. Are we creating space in the day to debrief and synthesize how they’re participating and engaging? Challenging students to say more, to claim a kind of knowledge and ownership over their voices there? Are we helping them understand the value of their voice in the collective conversations happening not just in their presentation but in the hallways, in the lobby, in other presentations they attend?

Practicing the value of student voice in proposing an idea, preparing a presentation and attending a conference means constructing a cocreative process that challenges us to engage with students as partners. This can be difficult, especially as conference deadlines loom and other pressures on our daily lives consume every minute up until we’re boarding the plane or getting on the road.  But caring for the process of creating a conference presentation with students enriches the learning experience for all participants. For us, accompanying students to conferences is an opportunity to consider the other ways we practice valuing their voices.  

In truth, as we prepared for OLCInnovate, we didn’t say to students from the outset: “Here’s why it’s so important that you’re part of this presentation.  We want you to join us because you represent and model a way of being at Muhlenberg that we think is important. But you also bring new and important ways of seeing that we may not be able to even see or consider because of our own location in the institution and this work.”

We should have. This reflection post serves as a reminder for us as well.

It was clear, by the end of OLCInnovate and many meals together, why the students were there.  Really, taking the time to eat together each evening created space for collective reflection and for listening closely to what Karl and Daniel were experiencing.  It created space for them to offer an account of the conference from their perspectives (and within the pervasive messaging about cheating students).  Many people, especially Chris, affirmed throughout the conference, that their presence mattered.  During our presentation, (which was not especially well attended), one participant remarked: “This is the space I’ve been wanting to see here.  We need to hear from students.  I wish everyone could have heard you. Students help us see this work differently.”

As the year ends and we head into a busy stretch of conferences–from the Bryn Mawr Blended Learning Conference to Domains 2017–we are aiming to be more open to the ways that conference partnerships with students can transform how we practice and center their voices in our work. We are not new to this and we are certainly not alone.  We think of Andrew Rikard’s Thoughts on the Limitations of Student Voice and we take deeply into our work his reminder that ‘Student Agency’ is Not Something You Give or Take.  Perhaps creating more hospitable spaces for students at conferences requires us to reframe how we speak about students and their presence and positioning at conferences.  We imagine we are not simply bringing students to Domains 2017, but practicing the value of student voice and agency in our domains work in the spaces where we share it out.

The story of Dan and Karl’s experiences in the Vendor Exhibit Hall at OLCInnovate will have to wait for a future post…