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Conferences, Sharks, Gems, Flow

I’m one of the people frequently lamenting the stale, presenter-centric structure at atmosphere of most academic conferences – that said, it has been well over a year since I went to one of the bigger shindigs, maybe they have changed dramatically. And the THATCamps (which I have not seen but read about and know people who attend) are among the more intriguing models.

My usual counter experience is Northern Voice, which I have attended most since 2006, and as a conference with a few years under its belt of course can and ought to be evolving. My primary reason to go is for the colleagues that also go, and for the opportunities to extend that circle.

A few friends lamented the change of the experience from the heady first years, and while I nod to some degree of agreement, I am not ready to say this event has gone shark jumping.

It’s a two way street on an experience- its what the conference brings to you and what you bring to the conference. What I found remarkable from my first northern voice was the mix of people that is broader than typical education conference, the entrepreneur startup folks and social activists.

From my fortuitous opportunity to collaborate with Nancy White and Rob Cottingham doing what might have been my most fun session on improv (I leave you to Nancy’s notes), I hope to try for any session I do have people getting out of their chairs and doing something.

We had a packed little room for this session (after leading half of the audience off track by ascending the wrong stair case), and I had noticed one lady in the front with a camera who seemed locked into the action:

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

She came up to me and thanked me for my session last year on photography (Looking Through the Lens) that it inspired her to do more with her photography. I sensed there was a story there and asked to chat after the session, which we did…

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

And so I had a 10 minute gem time listening to Cathy Browne‘s story which I thought I had recorded on my phone but managed to not save the file. Oh well. But photography was an avenue she used to deal with grief and loss, and the way she talked about seeing through the camera filled me with inspiration being that she is legally blind. So she aims, and composes, and pretty much let’s her Nikon DSLR do the art; she does very little in post.

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by Cathy Browne

Her photos show a keen sense of perspective, detail, and humanity, but the thing I connect most with is a similar sense that for her, the mere act of photography, of observing, of being with the scene, is what motivates us- not the products at the end (although getting good photos out of an experience is a virtuous cycle of reward).

This was one gem from my time at Northern Voice. Yes, the sessions matter not quite as much to me as when I was an young ed-tech pup, when I was trying to actively blog and record the whole experience. Yes, the way I go about these events is much different.

And thus we evolve as participants and events evolve too, they cannot be the same every year. I salute Northern Voice for changing up the locale this year, and going for a smaller conference size to increase the personal feel of meeting new people. Maybe it needs a new format, maybe not- it all changes and should.

I’m a;ready feeling professionally in an in-between place of where I have been and where I am going, waiting for the latter to materialize, so I feel akin to this conference, but I’m not ready to be strapping on the water skis (or maybe I have already jumped over myself).

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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. I was the one who made the shark jumping crack on twitter, which wasn’t even fair since I chose not to attend this year. One thing for sure, having Nancy (and others) step up to keep Moosecamp going (and evolving) had to be a good thing – her joy is infectious and joy is a lot of what I recall being good about NV. Indeed, revisiting my early snark, it’s not NV that jumped the shark, it’s me. Though come to think of it, I’m not even sure I successfully made the jump…

  2. Alan,

    You have a long way to go before you even reach the ramp. Every time I turn around you are making new magic happen. Enjoy your time in Northern Virginia. I envy you there. The brain stew must be amazing. I missed seeing you in Boston but it was, after all, a big conference. :-)

    Keep up the fight. We all change the world in our own ways and you certainly do your part.


  3. The reason any conference works is because of the people, the format and structure can be useful but it’s the people.

    That’s why you dig Northern Voice. The problem is, just like schools and other communities is that the larger you get, the more disperse your ideas and opportunities to connect.

    And yet as I write this from the largest edtech gathering on the planet, I continue to see it from the perspective of the “newbie”. The person who attends one conference every 3 years and has never been to anything like this one. I’m not sure they’d be ready for something so intimate and conversational. I hope they find a niche, an idea and some people over the course of a few days. Certainly there are sects and cliques that will have a very different experience but that’s still a small percentage. They create their own “Northern Voice” inside this space. I think the large conferences need to be more attentive to designing spaces and opportunities for people to find their community and comfort.

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