In May this year University College Dublin Access and Lifelong Learning hosted the European Access Network (EAN) Conference. Not just any annual conference, this was the Jubilee year of the European Network and was to celebrate all the achievements of the previous twenty five years as well as projecting some new ambitions onto the next. The Access team put together a three-day event filled with academic papers, diverse keynotes and plenty of social and creative strands woven into the packed schedule. They wanted the experience to be engaging, innovative and memorable.
In February I was approached to propose some ways of creatively harvesting the learning from the conference. After our initial conversations we agreed to create a participatory harvest that would be primarily visual but would also include non-visual ways of harvesting the learning. We would also work with the Access team to create a crowd-sourced illustrated Proclamation for the EAN’s next twenty five years over the three days. And it would all be digital! I had done a few one-day digital graphic harvests already so I was confident that with some extra preparation and a second person to help me this would be just an extra-long version of those events. In some ways it was but it was also so much more. It was a HUGE learning curve. Here are some of the images of the process and the end result.
I knew I would need help to complete this and I put out a call on twitter to see who would answer. Davy MacDonald answered and we met in Dublin in April to discuss the collaboration. Davy is a graphic artist and photographer based in Belfast and had all the skills and gadgets- plus the open-hearted enthusiasm needed for the job! You can read his own blog on this project here. Davy focused on the core output for the job- a digital graphic harvest of the 3 days, including many many speaker portraits.
Then, the Access team put out a call for volunteers and we recruited 14 wonderful, enthusiastic people. I ran an afternoon "Harvesting" workshop in advance of the conference. I invited the volunteers to contribute their skills whatever they may be in the service of capturing learning and making it visible/ accessible to the whole system. The very efficient Access team then created a detailed roster to have at least 2 volunteers at every keynote and parallel session over the 3 days- this was quite a long document! I really felt that the Access staff were willing to be creative and take risks- which is just as well! I myself wasn't sure what would emerge or how I would pull it all together. But I knew from years of facilitation experience that you have to trust people and give them the tools to make meaning. I think they trusted that their contributions would be used and would be important.
Over the three days I got to chat with many of the volunteer students and their willingness to get stuck in and try new things was key to the success of the event. The highlight for me was nothing to do with visuals, digital or otherwise. 2 students took it upon themselves on the final day to go through the (many) notes they had collected from paper presentations and keynotes. They transformed this into a song, put it to the tune of a well-known pop song and then (!) performed it for the closing plenary. I had been able to quickly type up their lyrics on a Word document and projected it behind the girls as they sang to the audience to join in. And they did! The President of UCD remarked that he had never seen a conference closed this way in his life. I was delighted because the student volunteers who gave this gift back to the conference, were the students who benefit from the work they do so it was meaningful on many levels. I can't take credit for all this by the way- I think I was lucky to tap into a pre-existing culture in this part of UCD, no doubt built on years of hard work and constant engagement with students.
The final outputs were one 48-page digital graphic harvest, one illustrated Proclamation and a short video comprising photos and audio of the 3 days. I could say a lot more about this experience and what I learned from it- and what I would love to have done better. But I'll let the pictures do the talking.