Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Speaker-free conference

Cathy Telling Stories About Storytelling by mikecogh, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  mikecogh 

Academic conferences follow a time-honoured tradition with a very predictable format and few radical innovations. Keynote speakers, break-out sessions, panel discussions and debates are the order of the day and even if we now add in Twitter feeds and other social networking tools there's often the feeling at the end that the best part of it all were the coffee breaks and the evening mingle.

I wonder if we can organise speaker-free conferences or at least 50% speaker-free. Think of those giant LAN-gatherings where kids gather in their thousands to play collaborative games; what concentrated and dynamic commitment! My dream is an academic conference that manages to generate some of that power and commitment. All the participants at academic conferences are experts in their own area and have a lot to say. How can we get everyone involved and make it a valuable and stimulating experience? How can we integrate the online participants?

The concept of unconferencing already exists and there are plenty of methods available to activate dynamic discussion groups with or without technology. The virtual world of Second Life is also used for conferences with varying degrees of success but is often confined to participants who are already comfortable with the virtual environment.

The problem is that mainstream conferences seldom consider any radical departures from the traditional format. Presenting a paper is of course an academic merit and the conference is a showcase for researchers. However I feel that many conferences try too hard to cram in as many presentations as possible, often allowing only 15-20 minutes per speaker with the result that most delegates feel punch-drunk at the end of the day. I've been involved in conference organisation myself and know how difficult it is to step out of the comfort zone.

Let's have more free discussion sessions without demands for someone to summarize in front of the whole class afterwards (often a rather dull ritual to show that we've all been working hard). Let's find more ways of involving the online community in the conference proceedings with new ways of using technology constructively - for collective brainstorming for example. Imagine delegates leaving the conference exhausted but elated after having really contributed to a meaningful dialogue like the kids after a LAN.

I know that many are already doing this but let's try and make it mainstream. I don't mean we should sweep away the best points of an academic conference, just that we question some of the traditions and try new ways of getting people really involved.

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