Let’s just do some arithmetic.

Let’s say the average cost of attending a big conference is say, $1500 (~$400 airfare / travel related, ~$400 registration, ~ $400 hotel, ~$200 food, etc all subject to question where these came from). At a conference say the size of EDUCAUSE, where 7000 people attend, that is over $10 million spent.

That is but a number.

It’s just math, not a judgement, or a criticism. That money spent does have some ripple effect for local businesses. And there is (likely) value in the conferring.

But it is $10 million clams.

I’ve done my own share of whinging about how bad conferences can be.

“Conferences suck!” … “It’s all lecture” … “I never got any valuable wisdom from a keynote” … “Death by powerpoint”

Can we judge all conferences and millions of individual experiences as generalized extensions of our own?

That got me thinking about chicken.

No, not that kind.

If you grew up on the east coast as I did in the 1970s, you should recognize this guy.

perdue

Frank Perdue rode the success of quirky advertising, which, as I read Wikipedia, says he was one the first CEOs to be his own commercial spokesperson with that “tough man / tender chicken” line.

He was quirky, with the down home “just a chicken farmer” twang. Just looking at him made you have weird, non family table conversation, ideas about how he bred his chickens.

The man and his company were based in Salisbury, Maryland. What I know of Salisbury was seen out the car window on our annual summer vacations to Ocean City, Maryland. The landscape, vibe of Maryland’s Eastern Shore places it hundreds of miles deeper in the South than just across the bay from Baltimore.

I actually was thinking of the wrong slogan when I went down the Frank Perdue memory lane. There is a reason for this. I hope.

I was thinking of another chicken slogan of the era

Parts is parts.

Our experiences are not chicken parts and conferences are not chickens. You might get chicken at a conference, but…

Not all conference experiences are the same. So how to but value on them?

More importantly, where has my train of thought gone here?

Mostly I liked attending conferences; the travel part was something I dug, and getting to meet new folks. Sessions and vendor halls, meh. But when I first started working in 1992, when I was told they would pay me to travel and hang out in another city, I was like… “Are you serious? this is AWESOME!” (I was only 27).

If your employer offers you the opportunity to attend a conference, you might choose a conference because of an amenable location, proximity to friends/colleagues or just because you have to spend your travel budget before it disappears. These are some costs:

  • Your Time It is time away from home and family. This might be a negative, a positive, or a wash.
  • Travel and Expenses Your employer covers the cost of transportation (plane, train, cab, shuttles), lodging (conference hotel anywhere from mundane to plush), registration fees (anywhere from ~$150 to ?? well over $1000), and often your food (per diem might keep you snacking on the crackers). You might end up out of pocket putting at $50-$200 for extra-curricular activities, t-shirts and gifts for folks at home. But mostly, you are not out of pocket. And if you are fortunate, your employer pays it directly so you are not fronting costs on your credit card and dealing with processing reimbursements. Your costs are nil.
  • Your Work You may miss a bunch of meetings. And given most of our work happens in email and online, you likely spend a good chunk of your time whittling the inbox and attending to stuff back on the job (I’ll ignore the question why people travel long distances to read email). If you teach, you have to deal with finding substitutes or other activities for your class. Your likely do not suffer much loss of “productivity” and YOU ARE GETTING PAID A SALARY while there.

That’s a sweet deal. And I loved having the deal. I maybe had 50+ of these in my career.

But let’s say your employer does not have budget for this. You might be an adjunct. You would then choose a conference because it offers something worth you investing your own funds to be a part of it. The costs shift now.

  • Your Time It’s still time away from home and family.
  • Travel and Expenses This is on you. You are scouring for cheap flights, and you may end up crashing on a colleague’s spare couch in their employer paid hotel room, or you may lean on friends who live in the conference town. Or you find the budget place that is a lot farther away from the conference venue. You likely scrimp on food, scooping up the break time snacks, or just skipping meals. What you spend comes right out of your savings
  • Your Work These are the same; it’s likely you have to pay more attention to things “back there” because you have to pay for this trip somehow. Most likely you are not getting paid for your time away.

And at the extreme end is where I am at, as a freelancer there is no paid for attendance at a conference unless you re hired to give a talk / presentation. That’s a slightly different scenario, I’m thinking of how selective has to be if their are self employed. My conference attendance at events I have not been invited is down to 1 or less per year. The costs here are

  • Your Time It’s still time away from home and family. But it’s also time away from making money (see below). That said, because your time is your own, you can be more flexible in planning trips ahead of time, or combining things to take advantage of the travel.
  • Travel and Expenses This is still all on you. Again, like above you are scouring for cheap flights, and you may end up crashing on a colleague’s spare couch in their employer paid hotel room, or you may lean on friends who live in the conference town. Or you find the budget place that is a lot farther away from the conference venue. You likely scrimp on food, scooping up the break time snacks, or just skipping meals. What you spend comes right out of your bottom line.
  • Your Work You pretty much have to attend to it all the time. In some cases, you have to keep an appearance that you are not out and about. Or you are doing online meetings at 2am because of time zone differences. Time not spent working is time you are dipping into your cash reserves.

This is by no means a bout of bitterness towards those who get their conference attendance paid for. I got sent to Vancouver, New York City, Hawaii, Austin… on someone else’s dimes. I soaked that benny up for years. It’s a good thing.

But savor it because it is maybe a huger perk than you think it is.

And with all the budget slashing in higher education, it may be a future relict.

But you can always say… I remember when there was Conference Chicken.

And you will sigh and think, “Damn that chicken tasted good.”

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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. My use of experiment is more the try “to learn something” in the definition than a well-designed test “done in order to learn something or to discover if something works or is true.”

    This is also framed in my ongoing wrestling with the conference experience that is (to quote myself) overly “presentationally oriented.” Compound this by a tendency to organize online conferences as replicating in-person ones without consideration of what Dominik Lukes described as the “affordances” of spaces. This is not simply fixed by online platforms where you move an avatar around a graphic of a conference hall. And usually overlooked is our focus and time- when participating in an online conference we do not devote 3 days to be fully locked in. We. Do. Other. Stuff.

    I have no solutions to offer. Anne Gagné asks directly who is complicit in the conference game, and I here to write “not me.” While her focus is on exclusion of participation, my primary goal has been to explore ways to break down the dichotomy of in-person versus online conferencing.

    In the end, I might only have a clever name.

    Here we go, where I try to explain the “AND Conference” format I welded into the OE Global 2022 Conference.

    The 2020 and 2021 OE Global Conferences

    I may not have been writing a ton here about my work with OE Global, but I began some part time consulting in March 2020 invited by Executive Director Paul Stacey to bring in some community building new ideas. Other “things” in the world happened that month, so I was also asked to help plan their November 2020 Conference that originally was going to be hosted in Taipei but had to move online.

    Well golly gee, I do have a blog post about that effort.

    In the Rear View Mirror: OE Global Conference 2020

    A part of this thinking I hold on to still is Conferences as Conversations.

    One key influence was noting the registration for the 2020 conference was something like 4 times the count as an in person conference, and a significant response in the follow-up survey was many people noting that outside of a world-wide pandemic, they still would not have the capability to fund and travel for an in person conference.

    Flip the calendar ahead a year to 2021, and the conference that was planned to be in Nantes, France was not viable for pandemical reasons. We at OEGlobal (and me now working full time as of June 2021) organized an online conference at the end of September 2021 that made use of the same discourse platform as the year before. For a while in the 5 months earlier planning, there was some hope they could have the in-person conference piggy back right after the online, but again, ****ing pandemic.

    So the in-person conference was bumped out to May 35-25 this year, but it would continue the theme of the online conference around the UNESCO OER Recommendation. There was a desire for some kind of “bridging events” in the time between, but that did not materialize fully outside of efforts to engage the community in an annotation effort of the UNESCO OER Recommendation, ideally to attach examples, discussions, findings from he conferences directly to the wording it was related to.

    I thought this would have a lot of resonance, and it’s not an onerous task to add a Hypothes.is note to a web page, but I did not really see a good amount of traction. At least I made a nifty remix, meet Rosa the Annotator.

    My remix of Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image used in a call to annotation action.

    By maybe February of 2022, the green light was flashed in the sky for a GO for the in person conference in Nantes.

    So free trip to France, right? Who would not grab that?

    Me.

    Go or Not?

    As a credit to Paul Stacey’s leadership style of operating as a “culture of care” he offered to his staff the option to not travel if any of us felt it was unsafe. While I was vaccinated and witnessing precautions fraying like a mask left by the roadside, as a Type 1 diabetic looking at varying variants, I questioned the need to go. Especially as at the time I had not had COVID (I got bit in April and it was a doozy).

    But it was more than pandemic worry. I had/have misgivings that the way forward out of this unevenly distributed now being a return to doing what we did before. I was thinking too of all the people who had participated in the online conferences (like over 800 in 2020 and more than 600 in 2021) who again would have no shred of participation in a conference.

    In my years at working at Maricopa and at NMC, I was fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to go to a (as a colleague nearby says) “wacksack” of conferences, around the globe.

    This shifted much starting in 2012 as being self employed meaning that outside of a few invites, going to a conference was not only a “pay for everything yourself” ordeal, but also compounded by being salaryless “you earn no money while not working”–see Conferences by the Numbers. And Chickens. And I recall hearing of colleagues working at institutions having the opportunity to go to Bali, Cape Town, Milan for OE Global conferences. That was way out of my self funded ability. Oh well…

    By opting out I was missing the chance to meet colleagues I have known for two years only through screens. At the same time, I did not feel like the chance to go on a plane to a neat place was enough to justify a risk to my health.

    And it put me in the same place as others who could go to this in person conference, for all kinds of reasons. It seems like the person supporting a part of the conference open to participants not there in person should be operating the same way.

    Presentation Mindsets

    After proposals for the Nantes event were accepted in March, presenters were asked to confirm their plans to be there (and also they need to register).

    We started seeing messages from a number of presenters who had planned to travel for the conference, but for an array of reasons- health, family, financial, etc could not. When told we were planning some online components, the first question was, “Can I do my presentation online?”

    The idea that I was hatching was that the online components would be everything but presentations, it was not to be an online conference at all e.g. the OER22 Conference did a stellar job at being a “hybrid” conference of both in-person and online. But this is the modality for either state.

    I’ve seen examples of pre-recorded presentations that just do not get much traction. I don’t watch to many myself. I aimed to design something counter-presentational. How would that fly?

    The AND Conference Idea

    I had leanings more towards an un-conference mode where those who wanted to share their work could do so, but not in the scheduled presentation mode, but more of discussions/activities that were asynchronous, again using out Discourse powered OEG Connect platform. The emerging idea was not to try and have this “in-person” vs “online” dichotomy, but more aim for ways of interacting that would bridge both, and offer something for both. I started with some playful naming of things do for hose “In Nantes” and those “Not in Nantes”.

    Thus I started framing my concept to my colleagues not as an “Un-Conference” but and “AND conference”:

    After two years as an online format the OE Global conference returns May 23-25, 2022 as an in-person event with the Congress in Nantes. This event continues the 2021 online conference theme of furthering the implementation of the UNESCO Recommendation on OER.Recognizing that many educators who participated previously in the online mode are not able to travel to Nantes, we are aiming to organize modes of participation for those “Not in Nantes.” This is not a presentation-based online conference or even a hybrid conference format; we seek a variety of connective channels of participation from wherever you are during the conference. Not an opposite to in-person, we suggest a mode of Unconference design as something added to the Nantes Program for all. The OEGlobal 2022 “And Conference” is a variation inspired by the Yes, and concept, hence our naming of this as an “AND” conference.All of this will be based in the OEG Connect community space, and requires no fee to participate. Learn how to be part of the “AND” Conference at https://connect.oeglobal.org/c/oeg-2022 We hope to see you there.Alan’s concept pitch

    A bonus attraction for this was the conference hosts Nantes Université offered to produce live video streams for the two larger conference halls, meaning three keynotes, and 50 some sessions would be made available.

    Also, we were not soliciting fees or registration for participating online. Free as in $0.

    Having supported the previous two OEGlobal conferences as fully online in OEG Connect meant familiarity with setting up this iteration. Since this part was open, no access restrictions needed to be put into play. The structure was 4 fold- an area for the daily schedule, then all the in-person conference sessions (“In Nantes Conference Sessions”, plus the “Not in Nantes Unconference Sessions” (really just topic threads). Then between them was the Interaction Zone, aimed at being the activities that were available to those In Nantes and those Not in Nantes (see, the “and”?).

    The OEGlobal22 Conference in OEG Connect

    The In Person Conference Parts

    The Schedule and the In Nantes Conference Sessions were no different than what we did for the online conference. Each presentation is its own topic, we added a link to a live stream if it as available, and we ask presenters to share resources (perhaps more than slides) and pose questions.

    We ask participants to engage with the presenters. In keeping with my old idea, each presentation could/ought to be a conversation.

    Out of 101 sessions, 30 have at least one reply “here’s my slides”, some have 2, 3 4 replies, one has 11.

    So this did not generate much activity, but then again, this all came together maybe a month before the conference. The information about what we were doing gere went out bby social media and emails to participants.

    The Online Unconference Parts

    In the Looking at the Glass Partly Full Department, I was happy to see a few topics started in the Unconference area, three of them from presenters who had planned to be in Nantes but fate intervened. There were bursts of the kinds of exchanges I hoped for. The description for this area included:

    We are asking that you try to think around the usual idea of this as an online conference built around presenting online.

    We are urging you to think beyond the idea of a “presentation” as for this Unconference there is no fixed nor guaranteed audience, so yes, you can certainly present your work, research, project, but it can be more effective if you offer something for a viewer to do, respond, or contribute in this asynchronous environment.https://connect.oeglobal.org/t/create-participate-in-unconference-sessions/3673

    I had tried to be clever in my Magritte Remix on the concept, that what we were doing was online but it was not making it an online conference.

    Remix in the the style of René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images 1 made by Alan Levine using Pixabay image by 200 Degrees

    I am not sure anyone noticed. But Werner Westermann’s topic on Artificial Intelligence and Open Education: indifference or unable to connect was exactly what I thought we could generate. To be this is more interesting, valuable than watching someone flip slides. Others of note include:

    Social Media Choices for Open Educators came from a question posted on CCCOER email list, by Amy Hofer I thought it was good fodder for conversation, though I was never successful in arm twisting Amy to join in. There was a good thread on the federated alternatives to twitter, and it is nudging me to look at setting up an OEGlobal Mastodon instance.Contributing to Our Roadmap was good call for response posted by Alex Enkerli to questions on a national OER planSurvey on where institutional policies interact with open educational practices a call again for responses by Leo Havemann who had presented in Nantes (a good example of doing the AND from the in person side)And a few more (see them all)

    As a proof of concept, I feel like these were successful. Again, the late notifying of this (because it was assembled a few weeks before the conference) was a factor. But at least we generated discussion type activities outside the usual online conference presenting mode.

    Interacting Together Stuff

    Again, I see a very good sign that the topics created in the Interaction Zone had the most activity. The idea here was to offer things to do, discuss, share that would be a bridge between the audiences, that could be done whether one was In Nantes or Not in Nantes, may have overplayed that bit of wording, but at least did not slide into making it a pair of acronyms.

    A few examples include:

    The View We Never See in Zoom was completely organic, as it came out of a different discussion where Judith Sebesta shared a photo of her desk where she would be participating from online. I struck me as interesting, because in zoom I always see the room behind participants, but never what they see. Remix and Share an OEGlobal 2022 Postcard again getting some fun mileage out of the Visual Thinkery remixable digital card that Bryan Mathers made for us for the first online conference.Shameless plug – please respond to my international OE Policy Survey was shared by in Nantes participant Leo Havemann who was active in asking for response to his survey, but here it generated quite a good thread of discussion on how individuals see institutional policy.How Far To/From Nantes? was a different approach to putting our locations on a map. We asked people to use a distance calculation tool to share either how far they were traveling to get to Nantes or how far away they were participating from. It’s small, but to me it is showing how you can make something viable for all participants to do.Attach Conference Sessions, Notes as Annotations to the OER Recommendation is at the bottom of the list by replies, with a resounding zero. After 7 months of trying everything to garner interest in the UNESCO OER Recommendation theme of both is conference and the September 2021 online conference something people would see value in annotating the source document, without me even noticing, thanks to the fantastic CROWDLAAERS dashboard I saw more than 60 new annotations added during the week of the conference in Nantes.And a few more (see all the interaction zone topics)

    Oh wait, maybe the most interesting/successful were the Hallway Conversations we held twice during the conference afternoon coffee breaks. I suggested having some sense of “live” action outside of the streamed presentations, and much inspired by the years of participating in Virtually Connecting experiences I suggested we try to arrange a way of allowing participants Not in Nantes to hear and talk to people on site.

    Long ago and not so long ago people active with DS106 radio did things like this, but it requires someone with experience broadcasting on site, and then there is no remote participation without a lot of fancy audio rigging. And we could have done an audio only zoom, but haven’t we had enough zooming?

    I cannot recall who suggested it, but we ended up experimenting (successfully) with Twitter Spaces. Yes, it meant participants had to use twitter, and it only provides speaking capability on a mobile device, but it did mean people could listen from anywhere, and potentially speak too. My sum experience was being a listener to one during Open Education Week and an impromptu demo with my OEG colleagues.

    And because you can only pre-schedule one Space per account, I set up one via our OEGlobal account and one in my own twitter account. And thankfully Lori-Beth Larsen volunteered to be a roaming “mic” in Nantes, plus a few others joined in, and actually it did end up working fairly well. I set them up to be recorded, so at least the archive lives in the tweets:

    Live from Nantes at #oeglobal22 join hallway conversations at afternoon coffee break, hear what has happened at day 1 (3:30pm CEST) https://t.co/XRYDSRyur9— Open Education Global (@OpenEdGlobal) May 16, 2022

    and

    Because @OpenEdGlobal can only schedule 1 space a time I’m posting another here to join another live from Nantes coffee break conversation at #oeglobal22 https://t.co/GqRHlBgm4v— Alan Levine (@cogdog) May 16, 2022

    Getting an audio file of the recording is however is anything but simple. You actually have to request a download of your entire Twitter archive (mine is well over 1.5 Gb). Then rummage around to locate a .ts file, a format I never heard of, but is some MPEG-2 relict from DVD days. It was stored inside a spaces_media directory. I recommend as well saving a copy of the spaces_metadata.js file which can help you locate the proper archive if you have more than one (it also provides a count of participants).

    This part of Twitter Spaces makes it feel like the software was some high school kid’s special project. It is rather arcane to get your archives. Each time you want an archive, you have to download the whole boat, would it really be that hard to provide access to the one file you need?

    Anyhow, then you are left with some mystery format file — I used an online converter to make into an mp3 and I was then able to have something I could share and also edit into a new podcast episode of OEG Voices:

    OEG Voices 036: The Sounds of OEGlobal22

    I had a much longer list of ideas of interaction ideas, but just was not able to organize them all. Still, the response was very positive for the ones we did try (the cup is partly full, the cup is partly full, the cup is partly full…)

    Timing as Challenge

    I am pleased we were able to pull of these bits and put out there as a slightly different way to think about conferences, maybe to be less a dichotomy approach of online vs in person, and also to break down the idea of conferences as presentation-centric.

    The idea was developed late in the planning process, so it became more of an emergent experiment, but now is on the table for the 2023 OEGlobal conference that will take place in Edmonton. As that is a few hours driving distance for me, I will definitely be In Edmonton, but also dedicated to creating opportunities for those who will be Not in Edmonton (I am starting this now!).

    And beyond these efforts, we at OEGlobal were successful in person continuing the effort to create sessions where presenters could speak in their own language (see sessions offered in Spanish, French , and Arabic).

    On site was a first use of a different approach to multilingual sharing than attempts at live translation, see the Multilingual Interactive Display an AI application created by students of our conference chair, Colin de La Higuera. I captured a few bits of the Word Cloud view generated during the opening keynote:

    Expect this to be a design of future OEGlobal conference and events.

    Much on this AND Conference “thing” hinged on the support and interest of the on-site staff, participants. Thankfully, my colleagues had faith on my whacky ideas.

    I admit greatly over-estimating my own energy! I had grand plans of operating on Nantes Time, and after the first day being up from midnight until 9am, I collapsed. On day 2 I was not present live, even with some weird chills, and the original second Twitter spaces was rescheduled or day 3.

    Note to self, Alan: You are not 22 years old 😉me

    All in all, though, I am appreciative of having this opportunity to change up the usual conference game. And will continue doing so as long as I am breathing.

    Can conferences be as much places for open conversations as much as for presentations? You can guess my answer…

    Featured Image:


    2017/365/7 Joined Together flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

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