Skipping the Big Edu Cons

I am not trying to start a boycott, but am making my own pointless statement about my fatigue with the format and limited outcomes of attending the large educational technology conferences. I’ve barked and moaned previously (see “I’m Bored As Hell And I’m Not Gonna… zzzzz”) about the staleness and sad irony of the 50 minute lecture to a passive audience being the primary mode of information sharing at professional gatherings and the minimal information density of conference presentations.

This past year I attended both the mammoth EDUCAUSE 2004 conference (Denver, 6000? attendees) and the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovations 2005 conference (New York City, 3000+ attendees). Beyond meeting up between sessions with colleagues and doing fun stuff away from the site, I am hard pressed to list much as a take away. I get little out of listening to people read me their powerpoints, or spending 75% of their time giving background rather than starting with the demo. The agendas are so jam packed at the mega-cans that there is no room or time to breathe or decompress (the League conference lacked any seating in the hallways, now that is great design), just shuffle off numbly to the next lecture.

And isn’t there irony that we travel thousands of miles, dumping travel dollars in hotels, and the conference centers are jammed full of folks reading email??? I watch folks in sessions, oblivious to the blabbering presenter, checking their email, fixing their websites, blogging about their boredom (oh wait a minute, that was me). Is this really sensible? Rational? or am I just suffering from a lack of oxygen?

Not being in a purchasing capacity, I have zero interest in the silly hawking of the vendor halls (I will enter long enough to pilfer the free drinks and food), where I can get more info about a product by Googling and reading message boards from actual users as opposed to the smiling booth people.

So for 2005-2006, I am passing on the big mega conferences. I’ll be at home, reading blogs, maybe listening to podcasts, but if I participate this year anything, I am search of the smaller sized meetings where there appears to be genuine exchange. Or an interesting format.

I’m already committed to the August 7-10 SAC conference (~300 attendees) and a must-go for me every year is the New Media Consortium Summer Conference (300-400 attendees). I’ll keep my eyeballs out for other interesting regional events– I’d really like to go to the Open Education Conference at Utah State University, but the timing is not looking good with other events at home in Maricopa (and a planned get-away to Rocky Point in Mexico). I’ll be doing the April TCC Online conference and hope to coordinate timing with my colleagues in Australia for their online conferences.

This happened to me before almost 10 years ago, pretty much pre-web, when I decided to forgo my conference travel money and used the funds to visit a number of colleges in the Pacific Northwest. I got much more in terms of ideas, contacts, from pretty much informal meetups set up with the technology du jour then (email listservs).

So is it just me that thinks the big conference formats are as stale as that forgotten, unidentifiable vegetable rotting in the back of my fridge? Some fool has to call the conference king naked. For 2005-2006, I am not attending the big cons and looking for the medium to little cons, the online cons…

And before any comments come raining in, I must admit that beyond my complaining, I do not have better ideas how to run a mega conference. The largest events I have been responsible for are in the 200-250 range, and I know it is a challenge to cook up an agenda that works for a good chunk of them. But I do know there is something better we can do with our time together than plenary + 20 simultaneous 50 minute lectures + plenary + …. I would use the collaborative tools of communication before, during, and after. I would follow the idea of hybrid/blended learning, and use the face to face time for what is best achieved in that format (dialogue, debate, exchange, social action) and use the technology to offline to movement of static content (papers and presentations). And people have to go with something of personal/professional value, not just t-shirts, goofy pens, and ugly conference tote bags.

Is there any gathering out there that really pushes the conference format beyond a compressed series of lectures?

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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. Yeah… It really hit me at NMC this year – normally an awesome conference, but I spent the whole thing either presenting or in project meetings… There has to be a more effective/efficient way to share information than flying everyone half way around the globe to lock them in a room to talk.

  2. I have to agree, Alan. I, too, am tired of the preaching of good instructional design and pedagogy when there is such an obvious lack of engaging presentations out there. I sm so tired of hearing people talk about good instruction in the middle of a lame PowerPoint presentation. Please do post of interesting online conferences you happen to find. I, too, may be leaving the large conferences to others.

  3. Thanks for commenting by Raymond (I am a long time fan of your work)…. unfortunately that conference is close to or even overlaps with the online Teaching in the Community Colleges online Conference http://tcc.kcc.hawaii.edu/

    I’m still mixed on the value of online conferences that more or less try to do the same things (keynotes, sessions, breakouts) in the online space. It is an interesting experience, but there is a huge social challenge of really finding sufficient time to give the virtual con your full attention when you have so many other distractions. And I’ve been to a lot where the audiences are in the single digits

    In fact, I am tihnking it is not the format that matters as much as having a very compelling reason to focus time on an event and the right mix and number of participants in the same mindset.

    But i am curious to hear what your experience is.

  4. Hey Alan — I think that you’re right on about the challenges of online conferences. I’ve had that problem when there is a conference happening on my own campus, in which case I’m not fully present because I’m so close to all my regular commitments (and distractions!)

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