By Eric Booth, Founder, ITAC Collaborative
Every once in a while, you can feel the future breaking through the crust of the present. That’s what ITAC5 felt like—the Fifth International Teaching Artist Conference, designed in and led by South Korea. The host was KACES (Korea Arts & Culture Education Service), the same government agency that runs the Korean El Sistema program The Orchestra of Dream, which is one of the world’s largest national El Sistema programs outside of Latin America.
The four previous ITAC conferences (Oslo 2012, Brisbane 2014, Edinburgh 2016, New York/Carnegie Hall 2018) had established high expectations for creative design and high engagement. Their momentum led to the 2018 launch of the year-round ITAC Collaborative, which is building the world’s first network of artists who work in communities and schools. (Please join!)
For the 2020 conference, the Korean team spent two years preparing for hundreds of ITAC5 delegates to arrive in Seoul for the live conference on September 15–17. But when the extent of the pandemic became clear last May, they made the radical switch to become the first virtual ITAC. They faced the challenge of reimagining a complex and intensive conference that was beloved for the intimacy and hands-on practice that led to success in building global connections. The field of teaching artistry, as all music for social change practitioners know, is built on person-to-person connections. How could they possibly approximate that vibrant physical connectedness with delegates confined to hundreds of tiny rectangular boxes on a Zoom screen?
Somehow, they arrived at solutions. They created a lively, joyful, highly engaging three days of action that accomplished the goal of sparking connections across languages, disciplines, and nations. Their success sprang partly from their planning committee of experienced teaching artists, who brought to the process an informed sense of what’s engaging; good teaching artists understand how to maximize the quality of engagement, even in a virtual medium.
And the Internet itself, so limiting in some areas, helped with achieving success in others. One obvious area was attendance. The conference always allows a maximum of 350 full delegates (to encourage personal connecting) and is always sold out. This year, by going virtual, the hosts were able to include an additional thousand live-streaming observers from 44 countries; an additional 6,000-plus people watched parts of the conference on YouTube. Thank you, Internet, for enabling this dramatic increase in visibility.
Another area where the Internet was beneficial was the recording of all sessions, so everyone could view sessions they weren’t able to attend in real time.
Here are nine features of their design—you may want to borrow from their experimentation.
Presenter and delegate bios. There were warm personal videos and/or introductory materials about every delegate and presenter, including samples of their art and statements about their interests and experience. This background information was richer and handier than the usual equivalents one finds at in-person gatherings.
Themes. The overall theme of ITAC5 was “Boundaries Into New Pathways,” and the switch to a virtual conference made the theme all the more pertinent. Each of the three days of the conference had a main focus. Day 1 was about “Unlearning”: What do teaching artists need to unlearn to have greater impact, and how do we manage this unlearning? Day 2 focused on “Local and Nomadic Practices”: What work is particular to settled communities, and what work can travel and be effective everywhere? Day 3 examined “Peace and Reconciliation”: How do teaching artists create peace in a troubled world?
Workshops. When the decision was made to go virtual, the hosts reached out to each presenter, encouraging them to boldly reimagine how they might actively engage online participants—i.e., to think of their session as an experiment in online teaching artistry. Hosting staff members had one-on-one coaching sessions and tech sessions with every presenter.
Collectives. Delegates were invited to join one of eighteen offered “Collectives,” focusing on particular topics and perspectives and hosted by master teaching artists. Topics ranged from “Implications for the future of teaching artistry” to “Are we having fun?” The Collectives became hangouts, where people could make personal connections and go deeper about one another’s work.
Meeting Rooms and Lounges. Delegates could schedule private meetings whenever they liked, and there were lounges that worked like coffee areas, where you could hang out and see who showed up.
Contact a Stranger. All delegates were given five juicy questions and requested to select delegates they don’t know and email a question to each, to jump-start conversations the way things might happen in a lunch buffet line. Here was one of the recommended questions: “Is there something you have discovered in your work, and then wondered if the same is also true for your colleagues in other cultures?”
Debates. For each of the three main themes (see above), a provocative question was posed, and discussions pro and con unfolded during the conference. One debate, for example, involved this question: “Do teaching artists have to reconcile with technology to make an impact on society?”
Art Project. One Korean teaching artist devised a clever drawing activity. Five descriptors were posted from young people’s observations of another young person’s drawing (not revealing the drawings until the last session), and delegates submitted their own drawings based on the descriptors. In the closing day’s session, the TA revealed the original artwork, and explored with others the acts of interpreting the prompts.
Satellite Groups. Most of the action happened during the Korean daytime and early evening, and this made for challenging hours to participate live from Europe, Africa, and the Americas. So two satellite groups met during hours convenient to Europe/Africa and the Americas, to talk and share learning and recommend recorded sessions to view.
Finally, acclaim goes to the all-Korean tech team that partnered with KACES. They worked invisibly and tirelessly, responding quickly to people’s tech challenges and sitting in on sessions to make sure all went smoothly.
The overwhelming impression of this first virtual ITAC was that it provided far more intimacy, opportunity, depth of material, and warmth than we had ever imagined was possible online. And there was one remarkable outcome: South Korea’s Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, who offered welcoming remarks at the Opening Ceremony, was so impressed by the activity of ITAC5 that he proclaimed an ongoing extension the government’s commitment to teaching artistry—to make Korea an ongoing partner with the ITAC Collaborative, and to continue networking between Korean teaching artists and those across Asia and beyond. The ITAC Collaborative is now looking for other regional hubs around the world, to make this global workforce more visible, more powerful, and better funded.
The ITAC5 example created by KACES in Korea broke through the expectations of what virtual learning can be, to show it can create community and impact—if you take a great deal of time and care, and place teaching artist thinking at the heart of your design.