This past week I attended the SLOAN-C / MERLOT / MoodleMoot joint conference in San Jose, CA, and while I have many, MANY thoughts yet to process (check the conference hashtag archive for a preview, if you dare), I’d like to start by considering our broken, outdated conference model more generally.
To be clear: I’m not taking aim at the organizers of this particular conference, who I think deserve a hearty round of applause for all the incredibly hard work that went into making this event possible. My thanks and appreciation go to all involved, including presenters and my fellow attendees. I do think, however, that although some really wonderful alternatives have emerged in the last few years, we continue to use the same lecture-driven system that we’re trying to abolish from our classrooms. And I don’t get it.
Why can’t we create the same kinds of learning environments for ourselves that we strive to create for our students? We can, and should, do better, as educators, as technologists, as people who have a basic level of respect for each other.
Abolish keynotes. I understand the idea of a keynote is to focus attendees onto a single point of reference, or theme, in a way that doesn’t happen once everyone scatters to different meeting rooms. I also recognize that having a big name can draw additional registrants and help make a conference financially viable. However, keynotes set a really poor example; they encourage passive thought (“I will sit here and ingest my caffeine and wait for my brain to respond”) on the part of the audience, and sound bites that lack context or substance (“I need to give them something easy to remember for the next 2-3 days!”) on the part of the speaker.
Even when you find someone who can deliver a timely, engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking keynote (and they do exist — I am humbled to share this space with at least one person who can and routinely does), the format, with one person onstage and hundreds of audience members listening, creates an imbalance of preparation (“readiness,” if you must). By the time a keynote speaker steps on stage to begin, they have already written the abstract for the conference program, prepared and fleshed out an outline for the topics they want to cover, and put together a slideshow or other presentation to display to the audience. Experienced keynoters who have given similar presentations in the past can sometimes do this in an hour or two; others who have major revisions to make, or are nervous or inexperienced, can easily spend dozens of hours planning and writing.
Contrast this with the audience member, whose only advance interaction with the presentation is reading the title and description, a 250-word summary that often fails to accurately frame the topic, especially considering how far in advance it must be submitted. As the keynoter proceeds, their thoughts whiz by so quickly that many audience members (including yours truly) find it difficult to engage with or fully process them, and even harder to take the next step and formulate thoughtful questions during the 5 or 10 minutes available for Q&A, if the audience is lucky.
If we recognize that this model doesn’t work in the classroom, why are we so intent on replicating it during the few and far-between opportunities we have to gather in person, en masse?
Bring the backchannel to the forefront. SLOAN-C organized contests involving Twitter: follow the conference’s official Twitter account, send at least one tweet using the designated conference hashtag, and get yourself a chance to win prizes (including memberships to sponsoring organizations, free registrations to upcoming events, and other swag). In addition, at each session, a moderator was responsible for bringing comments and questions submitted from the virtual audience watching via the web, and also from those attending in-person and using the Twitter hashtag, into the general discussion in the room. This was BRILLIANT: it helped the backchannel organize quickly (no jostling over what the hashtag should be), let people who may not have realized otherwise that there WAS a backchannel that was open to all, and it helped those who chose to engage in the backchannel and the virtual proceedings to participate more fully (as opposed to coasting along in a parallel universe).
The best part of how this particular conference handled the backchannel, however, was that they did so in a respctful way to everyone involved. We weren’t directed into a closed “social networking” space designed to exist only for the length of the conference. Instead, they figured out where we were likely to be anyway and made a concerted effort to engage us while encouraging us to use the tools we felt comfortable with already. At every step, we had choices: if we wanted to fly under the radar we could simply opt not to use the hashtag, or we could make our tweets viewable only to those we had authorized. If we wanted to participate, all we had to do was make our tweets public, and use the hashtag. At the same time, we weren’t given privilege over the presenters, which can lead to really unfortunate consequences even when the presenter is experienced with and knowledgeable about how backchannels work. The point here is to level the playing field and to make it easier for all involved to participate in the way that makes the most sense for them.
Make session evaluations meaningful — for everyone. I’m willing to accept that my total lack of patience for the standard set of evaluation questions (e.g. “Please rate how well this session’s learning objectives were met”) is a personality flaw … but given the number of people I see either failing to complete the evaluation forms, or just giving every presenter top scores and not responding to any open-ended questions, I don’t think it’s just me. Part of the problem with session evaluations is that most conferences only provide a few minutes in between sessions, time in which attendees must also find and use the restroom, grab more caffeine, and navigate their way to the next session, which could be in another building, or on the other side of the hotel.
A larger part of the problem is that, although we know that evaluation forms could theoretically be really useful to the presenter, especially if they’re new to presenting, or are being reviewed for tenure / a promotion, they’re neither interesting to fill out, nor do we as attendees have any real stake in doing so. Even if we do forgo the bathroom stop or networking opportunity to write down some meaningful comments, off they go into a manila envelope, and we have no idea if they ever see the light of day again.
Why not raise the stakes a bit, while also making things fun? Pass out BINGO cards at the beginning of each session, and encourage attendees to both keep track of unnecessary jargon, and also to (respectfully!) ask the presenter to clarify when it does pop up. Include one or two free-response questions on the back, to be chosen by the presenter, so they can get the feedback most useful to them. Set up a series of “People’s Choice” awards (including some fun categories, like “Most Edupunk,” in addition to more traditional categories, like “Most Promising Research”) to be decided by attendees and awarded to presenters at the closing party — but make it so that you don’t get your ticket to the closing party unless / until you register your votes. Basically: give attendees a reason to evaluate presenters, make sure presenters get the feedback that actually matters to them, and most of all, do something to make the whole process less boring for everyone involved.
Other ideas? What do YOU think needs to be changed about the way conferences work? If we come up with good ideas and concrete ways to implement them, we might even be able to convince IALLT ’11 host @judifranz to use some of them. Contribute to the underconference wiki set up by friend of LLU and fellow troublemaker, @tripst3r, or leave a comment below!