Friday, February 20, 2009

Better conferences

Last week (18-20 Feb) I took part in an online conference, Spaces of interaction - an online conversation on improving traditional conferences, the theme of which was how to make academic conferences more inclusive and interactive. The traditional conference format is hard to change despite all the social tools we have at our disposal today and even conferences that examine the forefront of net-based learning tend to consist of the time-honoured format of lectures, panel discussions and keynotes.

This conference lasted 3 days and consisted of a social network site (based on Ning) for discussion and networking as well as synchronous presentation sessions using Adobe Connect. The presentations I saw were well attended with around 80 participants. As ever there was plenty of discussion in the chat session which can be a bit of a distraction for those of us with limited multi-tasking skills. All the presentations were recorded and can be accessed by anyone (watch all the recorded sessions) and the advantage of watching the recordings is that you have a better chance of assimilating both the presenter's arguments and the sometimes intensive back channel debate in the chat session.

It's impossible to summarize such a conference since I've only really taken part in fragments. A further problem is finding time to check out some more of the sessions in between "regular" work and routines. The problem with online conferences is that it's difficult to concentrate on them for more than an hour or two and they tend to get drowned out by the noise of work. If you're actually at an event you have a certain licence to disconnect with normal routines and can concentrate on the conference.

Some of the themes I did pick up were:
  • Social tools can be effectively used as pre- and post-conference activities; encouraging delegates to introduce themselves and their interests, link up, start discussion threads, follow up conference themes etc.
  • Facilitate more networking and exchange of knowledge by using a variety of communication channels
  • How useful is back-channel communication? Chat sessions and Twitter are used increasingly to enable delegates to discuss during lecture sessions. Distractor or facilitator?
  • Let presenters record short video previews to post on the conference website to help delegates choose what to attend.
  • Can you charge fees for participating in online conferences?
  • Not all activities need to be interactive, there's still a place for a really stimulating presentation
  • Allow for more open and unplanned spaces in conferences where discussions can take place. Too easy to fill every hour with planned activities.
The question is, as ever, how to find the right balance. Too many bells and whistles may annoy many delegates just as others find the traditional format stifling. I also suspect that many of us quite like the traditional format as a way of stepping back from work for a couple of days and just going with the flow. We do like traditions and routines and don't like being shaken up too much. However, there's plenty scope for new ideas and I hope this initiative sparks further discussion among conference organisers.

For another person's view of the conference see Carole Turner's entry on the conference Ning.

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