One Week Out: Ocotillo Retreat 2005 “Lost in Technology”

We’re one week away from my biggest yearly event responsibility, our annual Ocotillo Retreat. These go back before I started at Maricopa, though my first week on the job was the 1992 retreat at Mormon Lake, AZ.

For those not familiar with Ocotillo (go ahead, try and pronounce it ;-) it is our long standing organization that is a faculty driven, grassroots thinktank for addressing issues (or just stirring them up) about instructional technology. Learn more about the history from a March 2005 presentation, or see the plant behind the metaphor.

The retreat format has been as organic as the metaphor, sometimes a brainstorming / planning event held out of town, to mini conference formats held at our colleges with more open participation. It’s been my organizational responsibility since 1996, meaning conceptualizing, coordinating logisitics, etc.

I am extremely stoked and excited for this year’s event, it will be a blockbuster.

We are holding it at one of our colleges, where a new Performing Arts Center provides a 300 seat venue for the opening keynote. Our theme this year of “Lost in Technology” arose after some meetings and discussions in early January where this arose as something everyone deals with. I got the idea of using a GPS metaphor and a really interesting strategy evolved form there. So far we have aboit 190 people registered, and I am expecting us to hit 250 before next week.

Firstly, since I moan and grown about the lecture style format of conferences, we are trying to steer clear of that. We are keeping the opening keynote to one hour, and we are excited to bring in Richard Baraniuk from Rice University, the driving force behind the Rice’s Connexions project, speaking on “Open-Access Publishing in Education – Building Communities and Sharing Knowledge”.

I’ve been a fan, though not deeply involved, of Connexions for quite some time, and I think of it as one of the few projects related to so called “learning objects” that actually provides a system for people to create interesting content out of the little nuggets.

The main sessions are set up as overlapping “open demos”, more or less poster sessions without the posters held on an open computing lab. We put out a call for presenters in Maricopa back in March for people to submit a presentation title and description. We want most of these in this open demo format, as it allows a way for many people to see many projects at once. There is also a track of one hour concurrent sessions in computer classrooms, which we reserved for topics that would be more hands on than demo. You’ll get a full taste from the topics in the agenda. We have a class demo of wireless projection, Richard B will do a hands on session with Connexions, we have some online teaching strategies, and more. The open demos include RSS, use of StudyMate software for creating interactive flash apps, digital video, eportfolios, hybrid courses and more.

Over lunch, we are fortunate also to have Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium (NMC) who will provide highlights of NMC projects and ways our folks can participate.

The afternoon is another round of the morning format, with some open demos and some classroom sessions. All told, we have more than 50 different presenters/topics. The fun part has been through some connections we also have a few presenters from our local K-12 school district, and also a colleague from University of Phoenix who will demo some of their simulations that got some good buzz this year across edublogs.

Okay, so this is our clever twist with the GPS theme. Every participant gets in their packet, a low tech GPS device (a pad of paper with a graphic of a GPS). We are asking participants to fill one out for every session they see or demo they look at. On the GPS form is a place for them to enter their “ID” number (printed on their badges) and the ID3 for the session. Since all registration and presentation submissions were done online, this is all connected to a database, saving them from writing their name on every sheet.

We ask them to respond to 3 basic questions:
(1) What is your level of interest in this technology (1 to 5 rating)?
(2) What questions do you have about this technology?
(3) What would you need to use this technology?

During the day we will be collecting these forms (the incentive is that each one counts in a prize drawing at the end that includes a real GPS device, a 20 Gb iPod (thanks Apple!), and some USB key drives. Door prizes are so effective!

In June we will have our staff compiled this data so we can slide it in our database. Our team of faculty Ocotillo co-chairs will work with us over the summer to provide each participant specific suggestions or resources that will respond to the questions or ideas they submitted. This will be made available to all participants by late August, as a personal “map” of the technology terrain.

So participants get individualized feedback. The data will also provide feedback to our presenters, and over all we will hopefully have a good grasp on what technology issues are important (and not). We’ll be swimming in valuable data.

The whole retreat event rests on our web databases. I am just loving, even more than my iPod, what we can do with database. All participants registration goes in, so we can tie their details to a generated ID number. All presentation proposals were collected in another table, along with their preferred presentation tim and technical needs. We are able to generate individual emails to presenters to remind them of where they are setting up, and how their tech needs are being addressed, or we can send RSVP reminders to all registered participants.

But wait, there is more.

All of the demos where automatically copies into the Maricopa Learning eXchange, actually collected in a MLX Special Collection. Our email notification to presenters provided them instructions for logging into the MLX, where we asked them to finalize their session descriptions and to upload attachments and add URLs to their MLX packages.

This means that the URLs that generate our agenda and links to session descriptions, such as “Learning with Alex Trabeck and Vanna White” is actually pulling the title and location form our Ocotillo database, but pulling the session description from the MLX, and provides the MLX link for all the extra goodies.

Well that is a lot of description and links, but the exciting part is we are pulling together 200+ people in our system to spend a day sharing technologies and practices, we will collect some useful data, and we will be able to give back some useful ideas to each individual who turns in their GPS forms.

I think this is going to be the best one of these Retreats we cooked up… well until next year.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.