On Conferencing

My current report card might read, “Alan needs to improve his attention and focus at professional conferences, and perhaps work on a more positive attitude”

On the heels of the 2008 ELI EDUCAUSE annual conference in San Antonio, it’s time to reflect once again on the conference experience. Be reminded, this is my own take, and should be taken with a house sized grain of salt (or on the rocks, with lots of tequila).

bored My most long standing barking threads has been the staleness of the professional conference format. This goes way back to the 1990s with all those sessions with an expert standing at a lectern, speaking to a passive audience constrained in rows of seats, that we need to MAKE A CHANGE in education, and the horribly trite phrase of “the sage on the stage becomes the guide on the side”.

(Flickr photo by AndiH)

The audience would nod in anticipation of hearing how this might happen.

Then, Dr Expert would ask for the lights to be dimmed as he moved into reading his slides to us.

Captivating, indeed.

This happened to me many times.

Flickr photo by Pete Lambert

This was before the audience had access to the net for allowing them to at leas do something engaging or constructive or just mind soothing during the infliction of the lecture. Then, at some big conferences, I could just not figure out why thousands of people would fly to Denver, lodge in some generic gold and yellow hotel, suffer conference chicken— to sit in a crowded hallway and read email? I was stymied.

It was torture and nothing much really changed.

Yes, we do have a few unconferences happening, we have online conferences, we have ______ camps. But these are, in sum, small outliers- the bulk of our professional gatherings are still constructed on the old reliable foundation of a series of 50 minute lectures. Has there been a large scale eduCamp? I am sure a few… but out of the total of all gatherings?

And hopefully there is a query from the back of the blog, “Well Mr Complainer, if you dislike it so much, what is your idea how to do this better?”

And I shrug and continue to say, “That is an excellent question! I am so glad you asked it, because I am still ruminating and doing some experimentation on this, and will report on it next year.” e.g. I have no freakin idea.

So with that, I do want to flip on my positive attitude and commend the folks at EDUCAUSE for continuing to try new approaches on the edges of the traditional conference. First of all, the wireless connectivity they provided was outstanding, never went down (obviously it did not originate from the Hyatt, who according to Alexander’s Law of Worsening Net Connectivity Correlating With Increasing Hotel Rates… was sucky.

EDUCAUSE has gone to online session evaluations, a drum I have been banging myself with NMC. When you get this paper ones at the end of the session, we all feel obliged to circle a few numbers, and scribble a “great session” in unreadable text. People are to rushed at the end of a session to provide much meaningful feedback, and we do it only because it means we can say we do evaluation. I think the stuff you get back from this is a waste of paper. But then again, I realize that fewer will take the effort to do this later (I am one) so its still a losing battle or a bunch of time graphing meaningless numbers.

They also set up the “Learning Circle” sessions which are small group discussions- I roamed, and it each room, at the end of a long Tuesday, I saw something like 4 groups of 10-15 people in discussion. There was note taking posted right to wikis or google docs.

And another plus is that EDUCAUSE sprints to post the session audio as podcasts in 24 hours, and had live streaming audio and archives posted from the main sessions in an amazingly short time frame.

So I want to say to EDUCAUSE, Yay for trying.

This conference was a challenge as there were often 3 sessions at a time fighting for my attention. I told a few people maybe we should just have a conference with all keynotes, but that too is not very workable.

The biggest, and most exciting component of this conference was a fantastic flow of conference twittering, and it was more rich than any set of chat backchannels because it crossed many streams at the same time– one could get a sense as to what was happening, important in the sessions you were NOT in (and make for some self criticism for ,”why did I choose THIS session??)

So it was very active among people who were at the conference, but there was this wonderful secondary interaction of connecting with colleagues from afar- most telling when Nick Noakes in Hong Kong was listening in via audio provided by Cyprien Lomas broadcasting the audio through a Skype connection. This is the spontaneous form of action I found more exciting than a comfy Herman Miller chair.


And ELI had setup a twitter event account, following to those at the conference who were twittering, and had this displayed on a big wide screen. I witnessed many attendees seeing this for the first time, asking about it, signing up for new accounts. So the twittersphere just get more broad (though it seems strained with a series of outages and those confounded, “Something is technically wrong” screens).

In spite of this, I think we always need more conference blogging, but not necessarily the live note taking one conjures when I say this. No, I am looking for the more reflective and summary type writing (the kind, I have yet to do) that makes for a more permanent record that twitter.

But I still maintain we need some more alternative formats to our mid and large sized professional gatherings than concurrent lectures. If I am listening, in person, to something I can read or hear online, what is the value? So maybe it is not even the format that needs a shakeup, but what we *do* in those sessions. A most elegant form was by the team of Laura Blankenship, Martha Burtis, Barbara Ganley, Leslie Madsen-Brooks, and Barbara Sawhill on session on Fear 2.0 where we had some powerful videos, small group discussion (with low tech sticky notes) and the whole energy of the room gets up-ended and moves it above the flatline I feel in most sessions.

Bottom line, if you are telling me stuff I can on the web or from an electronic resource, we are wasting both of our time and energies. It is time… do be different in our professional communication. Maybe rather than just talking about things, we can create something. Get out of the academic power talk mode, and get your audiences involved. Or be provocative and stir up dissent or counter talk.

Stir up the stew.

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.


  1. You’re right on the money with this one. I feel the same way about conferences in general, but luckily I’m also involved in the planning of an annual ed tech conference and your complaints and ideas inspired me to explore how we might explore new ways of conferencing this year. Read my response here if you like.

  2. So I work at a halfway large (k-8 close to 1,000 students) and new school (the building is 3 yrs old) down the road from you a bit. Why don’t I talk to my principal about letting you host a conference there? ;)

  3. Hi, great post – would love to see much more untraditional approaches to conferencing, I was at a London one yesterday and think there is some merit in just going out in the street and grabbing random members of the public’s thoughts on technology and vlogging these back in (or doing live if possible) So much of it is all ‘packaged’

  4. I have a love/hate relationship with conferences. On the one hand, I love the opportunity to travel, to drink, to meet new people, to talk to old friends, and to perhaps hear a few new ideas. On the other hand, I’m finding fewer new ideas at these conferences. What I’ve enjoyed most is the chatting between sessions, the twittering, flickring, and long talks over dinner that shift from technology to kids to patriotism.

    I like going to conferences where I’m way out of my field. I went to SXSW a couple of years ago and that kind of blew my mind. The sessions were different, the chatter in the hallway was way different, and the alcohol was free. :) Problem is, I have to convince my employers that these conferences have merit. I really shouldn’t. Shouldn’t everything be related to education? If we’re preparing our students for the world, shouldn’t we see a lot of it, from a lot of different angles?

    I have yet to go to an unconference, but I’m thinking of running one. I love the idea of showing up, posting what I want to learn about, what I want to teach, and then just talking to some smart people and hearing what they have to say. As someone said on my blog, though, there are a lot of people not on the bleeding edge of things who do actually get something out of these things. But I keep thinking, just because there are those people, does that mean I have to pander to them or be like them? I wouldn’t ask a physics professor to retake Physics 101. Why should I have to take Web 2.0 101? And doesn’t the Physics professor acknowledge that her Physics 101 students are at the bottom of a curve? Why can’t I acknowledge the same thing of some folks at my school and in the audience of these conferences? I’m not being condescending. I’m acknowledging a reality.

    I kind of hinted at the conference that it would be nice to have an “advanced” track, something where we could really talk and play with stuff that’s pretty far out there. Why couldn’t Apple or Microsoft or Google bring the really new stuff to these conferences instead of iLife and tablets and Google maps which may be new to some, but old hat to many of us? And like you said, maybe we could build something together, the tools that no one else has yet created. But yeah, let’s make it fun!

  5. Cogdog…

    I agree with Laura… going to conferences that are –out– of your comfort zone and/or area of expertise can be really great. The problem is, at least in Academia, you need to do a hard sell to justify, for example, why I, “the languagelablady,” would need to go to something as big (and expensive!) as ELI. Even more if I were to try and attend something as —totally– outrageous as a NMC conference. ;-)

    I started blogging/webcasting specifically because I had very few funds to go to conferences and even fewer funds to go to the really cool conferences either inside or outside of my field. Sometimes I am clever and am able to contact the folks who present at these mega-conferences and convince them to come and yabber on LLU. I feel like I have beaten the whole “omg- you-paid-how-much-to-go-that-meeting?” system when that happens. But then I miss, as Laura mentions above, the collegiality and the connections that can happen during the Yahootinis.

    Blogging, twittering and the informal learning spaces we create as professionals (professional learners?) with these tools can fill the void in the interim. Out here in the cold cornfields they become my lifeline. But alas, they are no replacement for the opportunity to actually meet the people whose words you have come to know and respect and follow over time and over the web.



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