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I don’t usually order pancakes (team waffle all the way) but the allure of “duck gravy-smothered” anything was too strong to pass up. The pancakes arrived along with a glass of OJ, and honestly, I think the term “smothered” was a little too conservative. It was 9:45ish am PT, and I was sitting in a booth surrounded by current strangers and soon-to-be conference friends. We were here for the Atlanta meetup for XOXO Festival and Conference in Portland, Oregon.

The founders of XOXO describe it as “an experimental festival for independent artists who live and work online.” One of the unique aspects of their programming, and one of my favorite parts is that the first day is all meetups. Plenty of conferences have social events to kick off their programming, but the key difference here is that all the meetups are attendee driven. There are dozens of meetups that the attendees coordinate and plan over the conference Slack channel before the conference starts. These meetups are based on interests or communities such as civic tech (one of my favs), design, language, sewing, and tons of others.

The positive impacts of these attendee organized and run meetups are many:

  • I find it much easier to actually meet people and then make connections because we’re in smaller groups
  • It is easier to engage with people because I know what our shared interest/connection is
  • The initial connections formed at these meetups are in my experience genuine and not generic “networking” connections (I hate networking more than I love waffles).
  • Since the meetups are scheduled before the planned programming, I have a network of acquaintances that I can lean on throughout the conference which, in turn, builds a sense of community where connections can grow deeper and broader.

Conference kickoff post pancake breakfast

At this point I should probably explain why I’m raving about my awesome breakfast and conference experience. Academic courses can be afforded the same benefits of blurring the line between formal and informal experiences and allowing attendees (students) to co-design the experience. Student-designed courses are not a new idea, but this sort of approach is still less common than I think it should be considering the benefits it provides. This point is magnified when I think of online courses. The benefits from the attendee designed portion of the conference are all things faculty I work with would love to see in their courses as many of them are concerned about the disconnect that can happen when teaching online. Shifting to online can seem daunting because you’re not seeing students in person or maybe at all! Creating a learning experience that is engaging for your students in this type of environment can seem like a lot of work . But why shoulder that load all alone? Co-designing with students can provide them with meaningful ways to contribute and engage with the course. Engaging with the course isn’t limited to the course content but includes the students and even the faculty. The specifics of implementing this depend a lot on the specific course, and a designer can help identify appropriate ways to include this in your curriculum by helping you answer questions like:

  • What would this even look like for my course?
  • How much and what kind of work does this add for me?
  • Is this something that impacts how grading is done?
  • How much involvement should the students have?
    If you’d like to explore how this could work in your course and what it would take to implement (or you want to talk more about breakfast) contact the Course and Program Design Team and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and learning.




Taylor spends his time at CETL designing learning experiences and eating assorted breads