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Conference Hangover: Low Information Density in Conference Presentations

Actually, my vacation time in Colorado did wonders to revive my spirits after 4 days at the EDUCAUSE 2004 conference. I’ve grumbled before about the sour irony that the dominant mode of communication in our field of instructional technology (or pretty much all other conference gatherings) is the very unwired, tired…. 50 minute lecture to a passive audience. I have reached my saturation point with the format.

<disclaimer>This is not to say I have any brilliant alternative ideas hanging around nor that I could better plan a professional gathering for 8000 people </disclaimer>, But to watch during the breaks about 7000 of them huddled around their laptops, cell phones, PDAs (that includes me) sure says something is not so exciting if we cannot tear ourselves away from email. And do not even get me started with the silly circus of the vendor hall. Yikes.

Also, wouldn’t you think at a high tech conference they might use some technology for session evaluations? We were constantly reminded to fill in our bubble scan-tron sheets (vintage 1970s technology) and really we rated each session and speaker on a 5 point scale that basically offers little more than “I liked the presentation, the speaker spoke clearly, and the visuals were nice”.

But I digress from the title….

I get fidgity in conference presentations (especially when the wireless is NOT available in the session rooms).

Have you ever noticed that downloading someone’s PowerPoint file from a presentation you missed really does not have much substance without the speaker? What do you really get out of reading someone’s bullet points? Maybe a URL or two if you are lucky. But the information to download kilobyte percentage is pretty puny. As the grand Edward Tufte has written numerous times, there is a very low density of information in PowerPoint.

But I have unscientifically noticed that even with a person speaking to a group in one of those 50 minute sessions, the amount of information I can glean from most presentations is not much higher, compared to the volume of info I get via my daily RSS readings. Worse, as noted in my previous posts, most presenters really avoid Tufte’s Tips for Successful Presentation:

When presenting complicated material, follow PGP (particular/general/particular).

as most presentations start with a whole bunch of GENERAL background, rationale, institutional contexts, long before getting to a rushed demo or a scant handful of screen shots of the PARTICULARS. I could easily digest this info by bookmarking a web site, or reading it before a session.

Some conferences I have been to do somewhat a better (in my mind) job by having 75 – 90 minute sessions and longer, social breaks between sessions. If I had it my way, I would prefer that perhaps all presentation materials were available ahead of time, syndicated with RSS, made searchable… As a participant I could get all the background info by say doing all the reviews during a 2 hour morning block, and then the “sessions” would be more of the active discussions that went on at EDUCAUSE in the poster sessions or the topical roundtable discussions.

There’s gotta be a better way than the lecture mode that makes up 90% of all conferences.

Don;t get me wrong. I made the best of my time by talking to key people, hitting some key meetings, etc. But I submit that the amount of information transmitted in a conference sessions feels pretty low.

What I came home with from the conference, besides a Blackboard pen? Brian and I led an active workshop that had some good buzz. Croquet is very cool.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

Comments

  1. Your comments on presentation modes at conferences – and I agree that the lecture style does dominate – sparked the thought that when faculty (most at any rate) use PowerPoint they tend to do the same thing. I’m not entirely sure if the conference style has infiltrated the classroom or vice versa. Any thoughts?

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