Conference as learning environment: we can do better.

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process (check the conference hashtag archive for a preview, if you dare), I’d like to start by considering our broken, outdated conference model more generally.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!

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.


  1. Bryan Alexander · July 26, 2010 Reply

    Terrific post, Barbara.

    Twas Ryan’s post, not mine…kudos to Ryan… –Barbara

    A few thoughts:

    -cheers to having more than a “few minutes in between session”s. CNI does this really well, with around 30 or 40 minute breaks, for a relatively small event (few hundred folks).

    -cool idea, having evaluation feedback during the event. In-session might unnerve people, but having feedback before the entire conference is done would be nifty.

    -How was conference internet access? I’ve been at some conferences over the past 2 years where a lack of WiFi nixed any digital backchannel. Blogging could happen, at a delay, as when people retired to hotel rooms or coffeeshops between sessions, or upon returning home. Heck, getting access to cell networks isn’t guaranteed, as I’ve experienced at two prestigious Washington DC conference venues.

    -Make the conference space meaningful. Conference centers and hotels can be soul-crushing environments, regardless of cost. So put up more posters. Have collaborative chalk and whiteboards. Run a conference game, like we did @ ELI 2009, and put bits of it around.

    -expand participant interaction *before* the event. The pre-event feedback I’ve received has been enormously useful, at times radically reshaping what I went on to do.

    Overall, rethinking a conference as a game is a powerful exercise, at the least!

    • Ryan · July 27, 2010 Reply

      Thanks for the kinds words, Bryan, and for your suggestions! Great ideas from someone who clearly knows his way around the conference circuit.

      Wireless access was better than average, but still was spotty at times (both for presenters and attendees). On a couple of occasions I gave up trying. Connectivity in the common areas was good, though, and they had plenty of “power stations” with lots of outlets (30 per table, 2 or 3 tables, i think?) available for those who needed them.

      I really like the idea of interacting prior to the event — at a minimum, having access to the slideshow or other resources a presenter will be using can help folks make more informed decisions about what sessions to attend. Best case scenario? You can skip the boring parts and get right to the discussion. Of course this depends on the participants being willing to do their homework … it’s a culture shift for all of us.

      Re: BINGO — I don’t mean that people should stand up in the middle of a session and announce their win. I can see how that might be a little unnerving. 🙂 But I think it is important to encourage clarity vs. trying to sound smart. No reason to use a 50-cent word when a 5-cent word’ll do just fine …

      What was the conference game @ ELI in 2009? I’d love to hear more about that.

      • Bryan Alexander · July 27, 2010 Reply

        “skip the boring parts and get right to the discussion” – agreed!
        Hey, don’t we try to do something like this in classes?

        Key point, electrical power supply.

    • Bryan Alexander · July 27, 2010 Reply

      Er, *Ryan*, great post.
      (hangs head in embarrassment)

  2. barbara · July 26, 2010 Reply

    Thanks to Ryan for a great post.

    I agree: the standard format of academic conferences undermines thoughtful participation in a big, big way. Academic conferences follow a top down, speaker centered model… the very same traditional lecture-oriented models of teaching that we find ourselves trying to undo for our students and in the classroom.

    Does anyone else see the irony here? If you are edupunk and you want to talk about how edupunky your teaching is… then you gotta walk the walk and talk the talk and you gotta present the way you teach. Edupunking is more about talking from the back of the room, not the front, and certainly not from behind a podium.

    Do as I say, not as I do.

    We thought unlearning only had to happen in the classroom… it has to happen in our professional development models too. I have been to a couple of unconferences and try as they might, while the content of the conference is decided by many, the format of the presentations is no different from a regular conference. Understood: These are hard patterns to break, because we have been doing them for so terribly long.

    Lord knows what we are doing does not promote (nor provide) the needed time to collect one’s thoughts, form new thoughts, or encourage us to filter out the chatter and the noise in order to focus on the things we want to change and improve back home. We need to find a way to make that happen, for all of the people in the room, and all of the people watching online (should they be there), and soon…

    Otherwise it’s the same ole same ole: we show up, pay up, run about, endure crappy wireless and equally crappy coffee, get talked at for hours, and leave more fried and frustrated than when we arrived.

    • Ryan · July 27, 2010 Reply

      “Academic conferences follow a top down, speaker centered model… the very same traditional lecture-oriented models of teaching that we find ourselves trying to undo for our students and in the classroom. ”

      … that SOME of us find ourselves trying to undo. I guess the larger question is, how do we revolutionize the conference model (and learning environments more generally), while not leaving behind those folks that aren’t interested in “revolution” (at least the kind that requires taking chainsaws to zombies)?

  3. Trip Kirkpatrick · July 27, 2010 Reply

    I don’t have the time at the moment to respond as I should, so I’ll just drive-by with a word and two links.



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