Conference Blather

Ryan is attending an Ed Tech conference this week and sends me this email from the venue:

WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN? (bullet points from an actual powerpoint preso)

— Explore better system functionality and/or approaches to pushing
content dynamically into LMS

— Capitalize on future library and learning management systems
enhancements to generate more dynamic content in LMS

Indeed…what does that mean? And, perhaps more important still, what can we do to make blather like this stop?

Something very sad and scary seems to be happening to the language we use at educational technology conferences: at the very moment when we need our language to be precise and eloquent and crystal clear, things fall apart. Conference Speak creeps in and paralyzes the moment.

We are educators. We are talking about teaching our children. These are important conversations. We go to (way too) expensive conferences so we can go home and do our jobs better. And yet if what we hear doesn’t mean anything, why aren’t people raising a fuss and demanding clarity?

Why is it that teachers who believe in rigor and excellence in their classrooms (and from themselves) are not demanding the same from their colleagues at conferences?

Personally I think its a convergence of several things… mainly Money, Fear, and Apathy.

Money because I believe there is an inverse relation between the registration fee one pays and the clarity of the conference speak (that is: the more you pay, the more jargon will be flung your way) …

Fear because we have conditioned ourselves to believe that people who talk about technology must be revered and obeyed and never questioned (“who am I, but an impotent luddite, and for that reason I am lost in this torrent of nonsense…”) and/or because the Emperess spewing the blather might be the boss’ colleague and power struggles being what they are she might not react kindly to your mention of her No-Clothes-Less-Ness…

and Apathy because it just takes too much effort to call someone out and ask for clarification after three days of sitting in a windowless, airless, chandelier-encrusted conference venue…even though you know you would be the hero of the twitter back channel if you did it.

As educators, as thinkers, as paying customers…we should insist upon jargon and buzzword free meetings and insist that people speak clearly. Conference presentations should not be about overwhelming your audience with your supposed brilliance, rather, they should be about engaging them so they feel welcome to ponder, question, engage, learn….

But sometimes, it’s true…you realize the problem is deeper set and more entrenched than you possibly imagined. The free donuts start taking their toll and you cave. What can you do to fight off the mindless prattle?

Well, after you make a mental note to yourself to cross this event off your to do list for 2011…giggle…well then OF COURSE you bring out the IT bullsh#t bingo cards.

Share them with your new-found soon to be zombie-fied pals in the back row. S/he who makes Bingo first buys the first round, and plots the next revolution.

~~Got some great quotes from conference presos you have endured and would like to share? Please add them to the comments below!~~

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Laura · July 23, 2010 Reply

    I was following much of that from my own quite jargon-free hands-on workshop. One will never reach faculty/educators with jargon. They’re rightly skeptical of it. And I’m tired of hearing efficiency and teaching/learning uttered in the same sentence. What you can make more efficient are the administrative tasks, but not the teaching/learning, nor should you. LMS companies need to be honest about that, that their systems are primarily about making some administrative tasks easier, and maybe, someday, one will come along that helps a teacher teach or a student learn, but it’s not going to be because of efficiencies in the system.

    • Barbara · July 23, 2010 Reply

      Thanks for commenting, Laura, and thank you, as always, for showing people that we can talk about teaching and tools without buzzing.

      Yes, being efficient (when did it become a noun vs an adjective??) is personal and subjective…it is based on what needs to be done, the time limit you have to get it done and the outcome it is intended to have. There are questions that need to be asked.

      As teachers we have always asked those questions as we plan our curriculum. But somehow nowadays we are being led to believe that asking questions is superfluous, web 1.0, slowing down “progress,” oh so non-tech savvy… and that tools in teaching (and administration) are “the gold standard” and should be adopted. Without question. Just do it…the learning will happen. Things will be more efficient.


      The slow, slimy creep towards a world where people question less and just do when it comes to teaching with technology continues. Educators deserve better than that, and need to stand up and yell BINGO! more often.

  2. Trip Kirkpatrick · July 23, 2010 Reply

    I see a host of reasons for why people don’t point up the nonsense.

    One is that we don’t want other people to dislike us. Really, half (more?) of the reason for going to conferences is to network. Put more positively, conferences are community, and who wants to be the cranky old woman/man in the neighborhood, the one who always shows up at the community board meetings and complains about everything? Very few of us want others to think of us as “that person” who is always pointing out the flaws in the presentation. Even fewer are actively OK with being “that person”.

    Another is that it takes practice for someone who is not by nature confrontational (a common characteristic of academicians) to take this kind of public risk. Which means that you have to do this repeatedly to get in the habit. Which means that you start to seem like the cranky neighbor (see point #1 above).

    A related reason is that even if you don’t seem like the cranky neighbor, we don’t want to seem like we are making a spectacle of ourselves (well some people don’t; this is clearly not my problem) or grandstanding.

    Finally, we are not in a field where people react quickly, in general. Speaking with a colleague recently about an article she wrote in 1991, she said she didn’t hear a peep about it for nigh on 7 years until some compliments started trickling in.

    None of this contradicts your point that we should be doing it. (By the same token, I find avoiding presentations from shills does my blood pressure a real favor.)

    • barbara · July 23, 2010 Reply

      Thanks for commenting, Trip. Especially the part about doing your blood pressure a favor. I have walked out of more presentations than I would care to mention because I knew it would take me days to settle down if indeed I stayed seated.

      I get what you are saying but there has to a middle ground here somewhere: in the wunnerful world of academia we live and breathe and debate and poke holes in ideas. That’s just what we do. Why can’t we find a productive way of doing that at conferences too? Why is it that asking questions is always seen as adversarial?

      Doesn’t it seem weird that even though we know that the lecture format of teaching is ineffective, we choose to revere it and perpetuate it in conference venues??

      Maybe what we need are more un-conferences where people aren’t feeling talked at? (Hellooo IALLT 11 Program Planning committeeeeeeee?) Maybe if we change the gameplan, people (presenters and attendees alike) won’t be able to hide behind the nonsensical, unhelpful jargon.

      • Trip Kirkpatrick · July 23, 2010 Reply

        Yes, in academia we question, but there are rules, and the rules tend toward delay and indirection. I’m still not always sure whether I’m getting the whole intended message when I speak to an academician. So many layers! Like the proverbial onion, only this is also like an onion in that it’s enough to make you cry.

        It’s like what I said about talking to a colleague recently — 7 years or so before she got any substantive feedback on an article!

        I think I agree about the unconference, though I haven’t attended one. It’s why I’m excited to have been accepted into THATCamp New England in November. (Could you get away for the weekend of 13-14 November? It’d be great!)

        But what I’m thinking of for IALLT is the underconference:
        I’ll even throw down the gauntlet right now — let’s make an IALLT ’11 underconference. Surely there are enough crazy people in IALLT — let me finish! — that we could make an underconference work?

        • barbara · July 23, 2010 Reply

          Oooh oooh! An underconference (above) with Bullsh*t bingo cards (below) passed out as session evaluation forms.

          The object of the game is to not talk at people, to foment conversation and a sharing of ideas, and if anyone gets BINGO during the session, what…the facilitator has to buy the group a round of rootbeer or something…


        • Ryan · July 23, 2010 Reply

          “Like the proverbial onion, only this is also like an onion in that it’s enough to make you cry.”

          You are my hero.

          I agree, I think IALLT ’11 could be a great underconference. And that we could show that an underconference isn’t about undermining people’s credentials and standing in their institution … but about stripping away all the crap that keeps us from being able to think and create and consider and DO, instead of just blabbing.

  3. Ryan · July 23, 2010 Reply

    Had I been playing your version of bingo, Barbara? I would have been broke from buying too many rounds. People here have PLENTY of good, smart, useful observations and ideas, so I really don’t understand why there is such a need to suffocate that under jargon. It doesn’t make us sound any smarter, it just makes us sound that much more irrelevant.

    I wonder why we don’t make BINGO an actual part of a conference — not to be adversarial, but to encourage us to hold ourselves, and our peers, accountable for the kind of language we use and the kinds of attitudes we perpetuate. For example, “my students aren’t engaged with the material” CAN be a legitimate statement, but when the real complaint is “I want my students to stop surfing Facebook during class and listen to my lecture,” saying your students aren’t engaged is just shifting the blame/responsibility, and it’s not going to help solve the actual problem (that perhaps the lecture is boring and/or perceived as irrelevant).

    Speaking of blame: I’m sitting in a session right this moment about how to manage course backups … and the current discussion is how to deal with the “stupid users” who call support and say “I deleted an assignment with 50 submissions, and now it’s gone. It’s not my fault. Fix it.” Sigh.

  4. barbara · July 23, 2010 Reply

    Trip tweeted this but it deserves a mention here as well: UNDERCONFERENCES, FTW:

  5. Notes from Sloan-C’s Emerging Techs « Lisa’s (Online) Teaching Blog · July 23, 2010 Reply

    […] and jargon were rampant! This bingo card would have been useful. Also I kept hearing turn key. But some jargon was helpful. […]

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