When this blog was young and it’s author attended a conference, it hardly took any time to write a post about the experience. Heck, there were usually several done while on site.

insert pithy image representing that was then this is now

Rambling Pile of Blogcuses

But still a month… er two months later, a draft post about the OE Global 2020 Conference has rattled around my head. Gotta shake it loose.

I have come close to deleting this draft thrice. I always wanted to use the word “thrice” so check that one off.

And as is, my rear view looking memory is always suspect. But I find myself unsettled as I am thrust again into planning cycles for conferences and conference-like events (I volunteered to be part of OER21xDomains). Unsettled as I wonder when/if we might break out of the standard thinking of what a conference is. Unsettled on if/how gatherings can work if not in time and place. Unsettled on how events can work when participants are not captively immersed in being there.

Unsettled.

Looking Back to OE Global 2020 Conference

I had no idea what to expect for the week of the conference in November (itself following the previous weeks of Creative Commons, Open Ed, and a slew of others), and my family planned for me to be a useless zombie after 20+ hour days… but actually the schedule was not nearly that intense and we had the support load well covered.

The real unknowns too were how well the live sessions would go, whether we would deal with bad connectivity or bombers. The platform part, the zooming, performed beyond my positive hopes.

And also unknown was how much engagement we might sustain for asynchronous sessions and the non-standard environment we crafted to host the conference.

All of this comes back into play as we are looking at our future events- last week was the first meeting for the October 2021 OE Global conference, and as most have said– all of the planning for what we do going forward is, and should be, forever changed.

Yet, I feel this wave of uncertainty, this pullibg between what we know of conferences before and what they might be ahead. Heck, I am not even sure of “conference” is the right word.

Idealized Hopes

From my perspective the bulk of conferences spun online where still very much “presentationally focused”. A few days before OE Global 2020 I described the thinking behind our approach to try and make the focus on conversation, and having it within our community site OEG Connect.

This was a snapshot before the launch of the conference and covered how my colleagues and I made the open source community platform discourse the conference venue with live sessions hosted in this platform you may have heard of called “Zoom.”

There are quite a few more parts to the system already described by the architect, my colleague Jure Culachev (conference proposal review, registration, payment, and a slew of magical scripts shuttling information from various Google spreadsheets). We had a crew of volunteer session facilitators and tech support spread over the three regional host locations (Taiwan, Central Europe, and North America).

Yet we had a lot of sessions, like over 150 of them. Yes, they were spread around a distributed time schedule. And the formats were the familiar- keynotes, panel sessions, one hour talks, 20 minute talks, lightning talks (10 minute), workshops, posters.

I think there were too many, and too many synchronous presentation style sessions.

OEG Connect

Earlier in the planning we had the idea that the conference venue in OEG Connect would be open only to registered participants, managed by inviting them to create accounts with a link that adds them to the conference group.

Jure’s scripts made it so the links for joining the sessions would be visible only for registered conference members. This meant that we did not have to “hide” the conference areas, so all discussions, activities, and the posted archives were out in the open.

“Groups” in discourse are used to set permissions, but a useful side effect was having a link registered participants could use as a conference directory, e.g. to find other participants. Clicking on a user reveals their “card” with information provided from account setup, but more useful, a means to send private messages.

The conference group works as a directory, “dogbot” is my test account!

We did set up a help area in the conference area, and the notifications settings in discourse made it handy for support staff to respond quickly:

Conference help desk

Everywhere we had contact information, we linked to the help desk, but we also provided an email address to contact us with questions. There has been some discussion on our team that a ticket system would be more “efficient” for managing help requests.

But I deal with these things all the times when trying yo get answers from company, and they mostly leave me cold. So while our system of having a generic email address that went to a group of our time might be messy, I think there is a lot of value in getting a human response. it creates small moments of human connection, and after so much correspondence coming from automated algorithms, I can tell from the responses to our responses that our participants appreciate knowing they are talking to a person,

The help desk was also a place we posted resources, like the presenters guide. Again, as this is in a community space, every place there is information, people can ask questions.

And it was my hope that this idea of every part of the conference was a topic in a community space, that everything– the welcome message from the host, an entry for a keynote, an announcement to a special area for a sponsor— would carry this sensibility that the thread of our space was conversations.

While I wish there was a lot more conversation, I have to say it did quite better again than I might have hoped. Now comes the interlude of stats and charts and graphs…

Consolidated Page Views for the week of the OE Global 2020 conference

The dark blue represents mostly of our logged in conference attendees, light below would be peekers from outside (it was open after all), and of course you get red bots and crawlers. Of course much of this activity was people going to sessions, as each conference session was a discourse topic, with its description, and a zoom link available for logged in registration conference attendees.

Activity definitely peaked on the first day. Is 20,000 page views significant? Well with 600+ registered attendees maybe going to a few different sessions and clicking around, that is reasonable. Here are the numbers for logged in (conference attendees)

Data for logged in user page views, almost 20,000 on November 16, then 10,700 on the 17th, 11,000 on the 18th, 6,000 on the 19th, and 4600 on the 20th.

And one more, here is a look from external referrers, so a sense of what sessions caught the eyes from outside the conference

My hope was also that with each session’s entry being a conversation, that there would be follow up and discussion after, as well as a place for presenters to post any materials from their presentation. There were a few good exchanges, and I saw connections made, but it was not… well in great volume.

Perhaps that as an expectation was a bit much.

The Collab and Convo

What we called Collaboration and Conversation was meant to be all of the stuff outside of sessions, hallway conversations, chance meetups, impromptu activities. The grand idea was that we would seed a few of them, but then offer conference attendees to create any kind of area or activity they might want to do between the sessions.

As usual I had brainstorm list that went on for pages. And it was interesting that a few here were the ones that had the most activity for asynchronous action. Some hits and misses.

  • Open Recipes (500+ views, 49 replies). Hey I have a cooking metaphor happening elsewhere, but I felt this would get traction in asking people to share pictures and recipes, especially ones that represent regions of the world. There was the hope was well that others might see a recipe and try it out (it did happen).
  • Pets of OE Global (495 views, 65+ replies). Credit to my OEG colleague Liz Yata for starting this one, maybe the most active of all. You cannot go wrong asking people to share pet photos, it’s a global phenomena.
  • OEG Postcard Remixer: Share a Local Streetview (656 views, 58 replies) Thanks to Bryan Mathers who we engaged to create one of his amazing Visual Thinkery Fabulous Remixing Machines for us – it was a postcard that we planned to roll out a few times during the week for people to easily create a piece of media by uploading a photo, editing a bit of text, and quick publishing to the web. All of them begin from the base version, and I tried publishing a new one a few times in separate Collab and Convo topic areas. The first one went the most active, where we asked participants to show us a favorite local scene through a photo. The second one was less active- I loved the idea of asking people to show where they went locally for a break from the screen. It had maybe 5 takers. The post conference one that I hoped would be a way to curate favorite sessions… well it got one spin off if the launch. Maybe the novelty wore off, but the first one had a nice spin out into twitter.

There’s more I could pull here, but now that I look back here, there;s more activity than I first assumed, and quite a few of these were instigated by conference participants, for example, OER Metadata – what are you using? how is it working? can we work together?, I am the Wikipedian – do you want to know how to deal with such hobby? , Opportunities for collaboration among OE professional development initiatives,

One that I had fun with was setting up an open Zencastr recording booth, and hosting some drop in audio chat. I found it, and hope others would too, a refreshing change from the many hours of staring at the grid view of zoom. Isn’t this more or less hallway chat? I published these as an episode of our OEG Voices podcast

What also worked well was the open meet and greet area, what one might be tempted to equate as the conference lobby. It was included as a primary destination when participants created their accounts, so the introduction thread was very active (949 views, 97 replies).

But also encouraging was the action in the First Time Attendees topic created by my colleague Susan Huggins (826 views, 78 replies).

Not Quite Netflix: The Video Archive

We recorded all of the sessions where presenters okayed recording, even adding a few workshops that requested them as well. Our tag team of Jure and Mario were uploading archives to our YouTube channel in a manner of hours.

There are actually 122 archived views (a few added after this tweet) offering more than 2 days of binge watching

This sounds great, though peeking at the YouTube stats it peaked right around conference time, with a few blips of a heartbeat the weeks after, and then, well flatlined.

I will be honest in that its rare to never that I go back at watch recorded presentations. But there they are, open resources sitting out there.

Don;t get me wrong, this is totally worth doing, and I would gladly have an archive with little views than no archive.

Some Tech Experiments

A positive thing about being behind the scenes for me is getting a chance to figure our new tools, tricks, and sleight of hands.

Whether it was smart to wait until the night before a conference to finally try The Tool Everyone Else Has Done, but my little experiment with running a countdown clock script in OBS was quite successful

In sessions I was host, it meant the timer clock was always in view of presenters and audience. This is the craptastic part of a product like zoom- it’s not like there’s an ecosystem of plugins that can extend its functionality. There are only hacks. Look for more details:

Another thing I figured out was a way to generate title slides for all sessions generated dynamically from our session planning Google Sheet, and published as a set of Google Slides. I thought it would be useful for our session facilitators to have up between sessions, but for most, it was really too much screen share swapping. Even my approach to push it out through OBS was not great as the slide text was tiny.

But it was worthy to figure out the method for this:

There was a side benefit as Jure was able to deploy this to generate the certificates of attendance that participants requested.

The last bit, and did not quite fully pan out, was an attempt to create a dynamic table of all sessions, to make it easier to find them (by keyword/category filter) along with links to their session in OEG Connect and YouTube archive (if there). This all again comes from a set of our Google Sheets used to plan the schedule.

I went from trying this in Awesome Table (which has limits on free versions) then as a suggestion tried to do this in Google Data Studio (but failed after even getting some twitter help from gurus), so I went back to Awesome Table. I like having a single interface to access 194 conference sessions.

Going Forward

Conferences are happening and are being somewhat reinvented. The experiences for OE Global at doing it’s first fully online conference are shaping the thinking for the 2021 conference scheduled for first week in October. It may or may not take place in Nantes, France. But even in person conferences are getting a rethink.

I hope.

I cannot put aside some of the advantages in our online conference format. We have easily 4 times the number of participants who could attend because travel expense was not a limiting factor. And from our follow-up surveys, more than 70% were first time OE Global conference attendees (that includes me!).

The comments praise the access and the flexibility, but also carry for many, the conviction that the kind of connections and networking that happen at an in person conference are impossible online.

I see it as a challenge, but far from impossible.

Hey, I might actually publish this post! It’s almost done. I will close with a nod to what was such a pivotal and key part of my thinking back in April, this series from Dominick Lukes: Moving events online: Platforms, strategies and challenges especially his framing of the affordances of on site events, things we barely even take notice of anymore.

I’d also like to share an outstanding resource that is likely not on the radar. Creating Copresence in Academic Online Conferences was created by Antonia Sladek as part of her Masters research at Humbolt University Berlin.

Published as an elegant presentation format, with Antonia’s original graphics, in StoryMapJS (I did not know this was possible!), it provide as a summary a Checklist for Conference Organizers:

In this presentation the author outlines what she considers key aspects for creating copresence despite physical distance: The visibility of audiences and individuals, the temporal coordination regarding time difference and everyday duties, and the navigation through multiple media infrastructures.

Grab the PDF version as well… if you want to dive deeper into conference rethinking.

What’s on your mind for conferencing- rearview mirror or forward?


Feature Image: Pixabay image by Vijayanarasimha modified with overlay of the OE Global 2020 artwork created by Mario Badillo most likely licensed CC BY)

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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.

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