Sacramento State University professor’s ’microsummits’ reverse academic brain drain

Sick of conferences, education leaders from around the world meet to talk about real ideas

Elisa Garzitto-Michals was burned out.

The Sacramento State University education professor had been through the academia-spawned meat grinder once too often: Submit a paper, score a positive peer review, present said paper, then fly home with another box checked off on your curriculum vitae.

The vaunted academic conference—intended as a platform to present thrilling new breakthroughs in research—had grown as stale as hotel-chain toast.

“Super frustrating” is how Garzitto-Michals put it.

“It’s a great moneymaker for conference folks, but it doesn’t necessarily produce something that you’re proud of,” she told SN&R. “I found the best conversations were taking place in the margins.”

Garzitto-Michals started looking to widen those margins.

Fast-forward to last week inside one of the Midtown “unoffices” at The Urban Hive: Garzitto-Michals and seven fellow disenchanted conference vets debated the future of education during an international “microsummit.”

She billed this first-ever meeting of like minds as a smaller, more interactive version of academic gatherings, one where bright men and women aren’t simply regurgitating research data to bleary-eyed academics with no real influence over policy. In preparation, she researched other summits and think tanks, and cast a wide net—this summit’s attendees hail from New York, Brazil, Canada, Africa and the United Kingdom—for educators who shared her frustration and goals.

One of those individuals is Tony Reeves. An online-learning educator and technologist at the University for the Creative Arts in the United Kingdom, Reeves bumped into Garzitto-Michals at an intersection on his way to a London conference in January. The two began chatting and bonded over their shared dissatisfaction for what Reeves termed the “broadcast model” of conferences, where the audience sits quietly and receives information but isn’t necessarily engaged by it.

At the four-day microsummit organized by Garzitto-Michals and education researcher Patrick Blessinger, however, Reeves said the group engaged in spirited debates about what future summits should look like and how to break down the silos that separate academia from government and business.

“This has been the most productive conference, if you can call it that, that I’ve been to,” Reeves told SN&R.

The summit, which wrapped up June 22, had two basic purposes: to find an international sustainability project for participants to collaborate on, and to make darn sure each attendee organizes their own summit in the near future.

Think of it like a pyramid scheme for brainiacs. But with the guiding principle of creating sustainable communities.

As of now, the first of these projects involves building libraries in rural Ghana, from where one of the attendees hails. But Garzitto-Michals was quick to note that it’s not all about Western nations helping out poor, old Africa. It’s about exchanging good ideas, and creating the online infrastructure to do so.

“Their [environmental] footprint is smaller than ours,” Garzitto-Michals noted. “We can learn from them.”

Learning from others looks to be a central part of the budding microsummit process. On June 19, the group of eight toured the state Capitol, and two days later, the group caravanned to Palo Alto for meetings at Hewlett Packard and the Google campus.

Patricia Lychak, academic manager of online learning at the Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada, hoped summiters would come away with partnership opportunities. “We’re becoming our own resource group,” she told SN&R. “We’ve become a global community of learners.”

Each attendee is supposed to go home and organize his or her own microsummit, and the participants at those summits are supposed to do the same. And on and on.

It’s too early to say whether the idea catches on like Garzitto-Michals hopes, or whether this same small band of mostly online educators ends up rotating summit-hosting duties.

“It’s kind of like an Italian dinner table, where we all bring our strengths,” Garzitto-Michals explained. “And how much we decide to eat of each piece is up to us.”