DML 2014: a Conference Occasionally Practices what it Preaches

Every conference needs a cute canine ambassador - here, Catie Copley
Every conference needs a cute canine ambassador – here, Catie Copley

Another novel experience: last week, I had the pleasure to attend the annual Digital Media & Learning conference, held this year in downtown Boston (luckily for me, as I live nearby). It was a grand feast for thought in an opulent setting (the venerable Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel), and it’s taken me several days to digest it. I went there seeking edification, connections, and the nurturing of my personal mission; I found all three in spades, as I’ll describe further on. But I was also looking for illustrations of the use of digital media (apropos the conference title) and participatory learning (a key theme in many of the sessions); I was a bit disappointed to find little practice of those in the conference itself.

Less Talk, More Action

I’ll admit that I’m judging from my own personal experience in the conference, and session descriptions in the program guide. That said, it appeared that fewer than half of the sessions featured integral use of digital media or participatory dynamics (opportunity and encouragement for everyone present to contribute meaningfully). A fair number of workshop sessions did, especially on day 2; I was glad to see that the “Playing for Keeps – Gameful Design” track (which I was most interested in) boasted more than its share of interactive workshops throughout the three days. Still, the majority of the sessions were traditional “talks”: presenters showing slides and occasionally interacting with co-panelists, while audience members sat in rows listening, and a few asked questions at the end of the presentation. During the plenary and “featured” sessions in the Grand Ballroom, side screens showed a scrolling Twitter feed (#dml2014), but the sages on the stage didn’t actually respond to the tweets during the session (at least the ones I attended), so I wouldn’t consider this an example of participatory use of digital media.

I understand that truly interactive and participatory experiences are hard to arrange with scores (let alone hundreds) of participants in this kind of setting, but I was hoping that a gathering of so many creative and innovative people might have pulled it off, or at least made a more concerted effort to “practice what they preach”. I found only one small shining exception, as you’ll see if you read on.

OK, enough griping about shortcomings. To paraphrase Mark Antony (as I’m reminded on the Ides of March), it’s best to praise Caesar while burying him; so let’s glance at some highlights:

Day 1

During the first day, my most constructive experience was in the afternoon workshop titled “Place + Play = Game Design for Mediating Improvisation”, run by members of Games Learning Society (U. Wisconsin – Madison). I arrived mid-way through; participants had already divided into groups, and were evidently on-task. The approach was an innovative way to leverage participant interests through team-based exploration of specific aspects of a place, in this case the Fairmont Hotel and its environs. I chose to join the smallest team, two strangers who said they had been “volun-told” to explore “everyday art”; however, they appeared to be only slightly engaged, and unclear on the goal of this activity. Our discussion broadened to meta-issues of group relatedness, team synchronization, the importance of goal clarity/ownership, and the social-emotional aspects of learning. It felt like our group was rebelling a little against the structure of the workshop, but building stronger relationships and sense of purpose; an exciting taste of adolescent transgressive play! From this new vantage point, we decided to chuck the assigned topic of “everyday art”: too narrow, limiting, and didn’t grab us; instead, we gradually generated the broader “What would make people want to live in Middleton?”, an avenue with more opportunities for interest-driven exploration. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to develop it further, as the workshop was drawing to a close. Still, this spontaneous exercise in identity play wasn’t merely fun; the connections I’d made with my two teammates blossomed, through encounters later in the conference, and possibly into the future.

Day 2

A standout was the afternoon short-talk panel titled “Playful Learning and Political Engagement”, especially the second half:

The enthusiastic and effusive Scott Nicholson from Syracuse University entranced and inspired the audience with his presentation about the “Game Designers’ Guild: Empowering Gamers to Meet Gameful Needs of Local Community Organizations”; his slogan: “don’t make games for the community; help empower the community to make games for themselves”.

Steve Walter & Wade Kimbrough from Engagement Game Lab presented the lessons they had learned in “UpRiver: Tension between Analog & Digital Games in Developing Communities”, a great case study in how implementation difficulties can lead to breakthrough results.

Day 3

On the last day, I was only able to attend in the morning, and sad to miss the afternoon workshops; but I was lucky enough to be among a few dozen participants in the presentation/workshop “Developing STEM Literacy Through Gameplay and Game Design”, which far exceeded my expectations. Not only because it provided valuable insights and connections in the subjects nearest & dearest to me. Not merely because the panelists were funny, fascinating, and provocative; especially the always-engaging Scot Osterweil, who kicked things off by leading an audience-participation game involving cryptography and a Fermi problem. This session was superb mainly because it featured the right mix of participatory & digital/analog elements:

  • The aforementioned interactive game (using the projection screen) to set the tone, foster relatedness, and activate discussion.
  • Continuous audience input in the form of tweets and text messages, to some of which the panelists responded on the spot, igniting some lively discussions.
  • In the last half-hour, everyone moved to an adjoining room for a “STEM Arcade”, with panelists showing-off digital demos while chatting individually with audience members.

For me, this session was truly the dessert of the 3-day feast (and I don’t mean chocolate-covered broccoli). You can see more details of what transpired in the session moderator’s blog post.

Those were the golden moments of the conference; I found silver ones as well, in a few other sessions, in serendipitous interstitial encounters, and more. This account is already getting long in the tooth, so I’ll save the other anecdotes for later (maybe).

But wait, there’s more

Last but not least, the conference helped to advance my personal vision involving digital media and learning: an augmented-reality game concept I call “Minecraft’ing the real world”. Several conversations with conference attendees from varied domains (researchers, teachers, designers, curators) gave me valuable opportunities to practice & refine my pitch and to garner insightful feedback. More about that in a future post!

To sum up, my experience at DML 2014 was well-worth the investment of time and money, especially as the registration cost was much cheaper than average for a national conference (thanks to reduced expenses, such as relatively little included food/drink and no swag). Still, it could have been even more valuable if a higher proportion of sessions had included dynamic participation & digital media integration. Is that a possible goal for DML 2015, or is it precluded by the structural and logistical limitations of a big conference? Let me know what you think (especially if you too attended DML 2014), in the comments section below.

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