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Online Conference Conundrums

I’ve had a few days rest from the 2 day marathon of our NMC Online Conference on Convergence of Web Culture and Video — which had some phenomenal moments but also are leading me to some un-answered ponderings about these kids of events.

Participation. First of all, I attended every session, but that’s because I am working it. I have some serious doubts about the ability for those who participate in an online conference from their workplace being really able to focus on the sessions completely. It’s not like being physically ‘trapped’ in a distance city- so the call of email, colleagues, meetings, projects, NCAA brackets, all compete for attention. Then again, should an online conference assume all are really fully present?

Mode. Next, like most F2F conferences, the primary mode of activity is the “expert” led presentation session. One person talking and showing screens, and a room, group “consuming” them. (the quotes are not to question anyone’s expertise, just that its more or less the same set up of expectations as a classroom with a single lecturer. So in essence, many online conferences, replicate the F2F modes, which emulate the lecture. How far have we gone?

Presenting. I have been mulling more and more that presenting is a performance, and like theater, or a good film, needs a plot, an arc, a storyline, and an ending. There’s more to it than screens, or being able to grab the mike and talk. There is pacing. Intonation. Perhaps doses of humor. Surprise. Punch lines. And an end-goal. And all of this takes prep, and honestly, if you are walking in w/o prep and shooting from the hip in a presentation, you are not fooling anyone but yourselves. Now before the reach for their defensive trigger- I am not talking to you my Canadian/Virginian colleagues who put on a masterful, break the mold style of session with the Online Film Educational Web 2.0 festival. That was a model to copy, not to trash.

In that category from our conference was also our keynoters, who were loose, interesting, a bit provacative, but not winging it. And Jared Bendis from Case has this done to an art. He just mainly talked for a blitz like 35 minutes, had visually interesting slides, and challenges the audience.

Love/Hate the Backchannel. I am certainly in the former category of loving a good flow of audience backchannel, something an online conference should afford. I know others in attendance find it distracting, but when it works it adds layers of meaning, tangents, context. It brings it alive. I’d be worried if I was yammering away and there was no back channel activity. I’d rather have them throwing darts at my ideas than not even inspired to chat. But what can we do with that energy? How can it be harnessed?

Format. So I’m trying to get at what is a good format for a conference that makes it worth people’s time to do among their normal schedules. We had a pretty sprint-based format of 50 minute sessions bam bam bam, some interspersion with a happy hour in Second Life. But I’m curious more about what other formats of interaction, sharing, can be successful in an online conference? More like a BarCamp? an Unconference? Can people actually construct some content, flesh out an ideas, actually do something at an online conference? Probably the readers who might even respond here are the gung ho type that would like something more unconventional, but how to design an online conference that can bring more people into the fold?

I guess I’m just a bit bored with the presentation song and dance show– many are fine in the moment, but what is the longer term impact? What do people come back to? Or what can they walk away with?

So in the end I always end up with more questions than answers. But I can repeat myself, that the format of our professional gatherings, be it F2F or online, has really not moved much beyond the very first ed tech conference I attended some 15 years ago. And I am not sure I am happy waiting on a geological time scale to see some change.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at 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.


  1. Alan, what about the Swapmeet style of TALO colleagues? I was only able to participate a little with them )Leigh, Sean, Jo, Alex and others) but they had a good shot at blending onground and online ‘unconference’ style. I would really love to see NMC do something like this all online, using multiple spaces.

  2. This is a great post, Alan -and it really gets at the heart of many of my own questions about the nature of such a conference format. I found that I had my head in the game for a few presentations, but found that I was dragged away on Thursday morning for work related issues. It became a bit strange to feel the adrenaline from presenting with three amazing folks (whose preparation and vision saved my own lack thereof), only to find myself back in the office cut off from that generative energy. I personally thrive on the built environment I work within and immerse myself in the spirit of things entirely. Now a ‘built environment,’ as I am using it above, does n’t necessarily have to be physical, but a video conference space like Illuminate (with all its strengths) doesn’t really capture the interstitial conversations and spaces for more intimate discussions amongst and between participants. It felt a bit like a BlackBoard for video conferencing –without much of the video as well!

    A series of slides with a lecture-like narration, no matter how gifted the speaker, doesn’t really suit this “live, online” given that podcasts and vodcasts are ubiquitous. Why not just line up the podcasts once the conference is over and work through them at your leisure? What does this kind of environment offer that a similar set of lectures that you listen to and then blog about afterwards fails to provide?

    I think that the idea of leaving behind an online, dynamic, and participatory resource, as Brian Lamb framed as part of the raison d’être of our session, really begins to suggest the power of an event like this conference. It affords an occasion for folks to develop and design something for others to think about and participate in around a focused theme. What I got from that presentation was that a few things need to happen: 1) You need to conceptualize something unique (the hardest part), 2) engage others throughout the blogosphere to flesh it out, 3) capture that process, and, finally, 4) reflect upon it leaving a resource for others to contribute to, return to, and remix for themselves.

    Now that is a style of presentation that actually mirrors the shifting notions of mashing up education with the various technological tools we all have so much fun talking about. The presentation is a conversation about the process, maybe not well rehearsed or polished, but an iteration of a conceptual model to somehow reflecting the processes by which many of these online communities are engaged in an ongoing process of sharing, collaborating, teaching, and learning.

  3. I’d really like to see more progress in making use of the backchannel. I’ve come to dislike conferences that don’t have them, but they certainly could be integrated more fully. The best backchannel experience I’ve had was when I had a person dedicated to bringing ideas, questions, and observations from the backchannel to the foreground *during* a presentation. I also had a dedicated google jockey who was, on a separate screen, pulling up resources and doing searches as I presented.

    I’ve also long had the idea of having an ambient device– an orb light, for example– that changed color depending on the mood of the backchannel. Even reading and using the old geek standby of + and – in the backchannel to convey the mood/tone in a way that the presenter is aware of but doesn’t take as much multi-tasking cognition as actually trying to read the backchannel conversation and talk at the same time.

    I’ve also experimented with having the backchannel displayed next to me while I’m talking, but I found it impossible not to engage with it :)

  4. NIck- great idea, I had only marginally followed Leigh’s blog posts about the swapmeet and did not exactly dig into what the process/format was.

    Jim- Thanks for such a thoughtful reply, one has to love a blog comment that has as much or more meat than the original post. The first generation of NMC online conferences were more like that; presentations were done as pre-recorded Breeze packages, available to all, and then the conference part was a bit more conversational. This created a nicer archive in terms of the presentation, but if I recall, there was not was much “activity” at discussion time, that the level of participation was not wide. I am not sure if enough people would be game enough to put together what the 4 of you did.

    Chris – I too would like some integration of that channel. Not sure of one needs a backchannel “facilitator” or someone who can summarize?? The mood hmm… often seems to be snarky!!

    Thanks all for some thought food.

  5. When Stephen, Brian and I did that “unkeynote” at the BCEdOnline 2006 conference, we had the back channel right up on the projected screen. It was a live, web-based chat channel, where participants could contribute to the conversation without having to step up to a microphone, and was a handy place for immediate feedback. It worked pretty well.

    I’ve left the chat app running, and just now realized it’s been infiltrated by spammers. dayum. they’ll infest anything…

  6. So I have a sense in which we are saying we want to solve a problem but are not sure what the problem is we are wanting to solve, other than not simply doing what we’ve done in the past. While it is possible that lots of interesting experiments come out of trying not to replicate the past, it seems kind of unsurprising to feel like the problem has not been solved when we don’t actually know what it is.

    What the heck is an “online conference” anyways? Conferences in the f2f world bring a lot of people from different places to the same place at the same time. Yet in the online world we are already “in the same place” and I thought the virtue of the technology was specifically not to have to be dictated by the tyranny of same timeness (e.g. ‘timeshifting’).

    The 3 or 4 days leading up to the video presentation, where Brian and colleagues called out for contributions, felt more like what I want from an online ‘event’ than the actual 1 hour presentation of the results (this is not a slag on the ‘presentation’ at all; I loved the wiki and the presentation, but I’m trying to get at the idea that process, granularity and conversation are the important thing here). There was an idea. A call for participation. I gave it some attention and contributed some things. I saw as we went what others were contributing, and saw a consversation unfold around that, and made connections with others based on what they had offered up. While the end result was probably important for spurring on the action, it was the action leading up to it that was the event for me.

    George Siemens pointed to an article about Ze Frank today ( and noted the term “conversational energy” as key to helping learning and connection to form. Rather than having scheduled “2 day online events” I would love it if an organization like NMC (or whoever) had me on the edge of my seat waiting for when the next “earth sandwich” (go read the article) “learning happening” was going to take place, where I could contribute my bit and learn from my co-contributors, make connections and friendships that would last longer than any 2 day extravaganza.

    It’s Monday morning. We ran out of coffee and I’m drinking instant. Please forgive the incoherence.

  7. I should add, post script, that I do not doubt in anyway that there are good, highly active online conferences that pretty much use the “old” form. e.g the recent >a href=””>Connectivism conference, which sadly I only got to peek by, had what seems to be a rather flowing conversation in its asynchronous discussion boards (hope to learn more later today when I get to meet George Siemens)

  8. There’s a lot to be said for context. I do think there is a problem to be solved, namely the general problem of catching more “cycles” of the continuous partial attention of the participants. I know that I look forward to the backchannels of conferences and, like hallway conversations, it is often a valuable point of contact. Depending on the nature of the presentations, much good material can be shared there which could be integrated into the main presentation (that’s what I mean by facilitation)…

    Backchannels often are snarky– the etech backchannel is crazily-so, for instance– but it is still valuable. It provides a social presence that then continues between sessions, at dinners, etc. I don’t think that the backchannel activity steals from the attention to the presentation just as I don’t believe that computers with web access steal from me in the classroom– if I’m not being engaging enough (and no one will be 100% of the time), why not channel some of that energy into a tangential forum in addition to all the disconnected activities (email, etc).

    I don’t know of the value of a backchannel in a wholly online event– seems like it is greatly lessened. I didn’t miss it at the Connectivism conference, for instance, because I knew that I would “only” be able to email or discuss with them asynchronously anyway.

    And transcripts, snarkiness and all, are incredibly valuable to the presenters for thinking about and assessing their own performance.

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