Building a Better Conference

In the education/learning parts of the blogosphere, there's been a lot of talk lately about professional conferences and how to increase their value. I want to follow this trail because it led me to some thoughts of my own.

Tony Karrer started things going by asking what we could do to make conferences better. He made several suggestions, including:

  • "Expert Only" time
  • Unconference within a conference
  • Better fun activities
  • "Passionate Keynotes aimed at Us"
  • Demos
  • Cheat sheets
  • Free wifi

This led to a great discussion in the comments on his post on the relative merits of each idea, new possibilities, etc.

Then Tom Haskins suggested that blogging and engaging in conversation with other bloggers was a form of conferencing.  And I still had Tom's post on Indie Professional Development floating around, wondering where the "long tail" is in this arena.

I've also been following the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) held in Atlanta this week. According to several bloggers in attendance (David, Brian and Jeff to name a few), they got the greatest value from the Blogger's Cafe where informal conversation and Web 2.0 tools reigned.

So all of this floating around in my brain . . . which got me to thinking about why we go to conferences. Yes, for professional development, but also to connect with other people, to have conversations and, most importantly, to talk about the things that really matter to us

I was also thinking about the beauty of Web 2.0 tools, which invite collaboration and interaction and engagement with content, provide immediate access to information and so forth. So some of my own thoughts on creating better conferences. (Warning--bit of a brain dump here.)

  • Use an open, web-enabled process to set the conference agenda
  • Build sessions on the fly by listening and responding to conference conversations
  • Use "citizen-journalists" to create learning synthesis
  • Where possible, web-enable the conference and provide attendees with "cheat sheets" that show them how to make the most out of the tools at the conference.
  • Create a Companion "Virtual" Conference
  • Create "Value-Add" Follow-Up

Use an Open, Web-Enabled Process to Set the Conference Agenda
One of the reasons that I love unconferences and Open Space Technology is because the agendas for these conferences grow organically from the passions and interests of the participants, rather than from the politics and egos of conference organizers. Further, Web 2.0 has taught us that bottom up, community generated solutions work better. So why don't conference organizers set up a wiki to post conference proposals and let prospective conference attendees vote on the sessions they'd most like to attend? Allow individuals to post comments, ask questions, etc. These could then be used both to select sessions and also by the speaker to improve the quality of his/her presentation. This process could also build "buzz" for sessions prior to the beginning of the conference and allow people to connect prior to the conference with people who share their same interests.

I'd use the same process for selecting keynoters (assuming you wanted to have one). I would use the wiki to ask people to submit their ideas for keynote speakers. I'd also have the keynoters submit videos of themselves, along with other key information re: their presentations. I'd upload to the web and have people vote, comment, etc.

Build Sessions on the Fly
Building on both Open Space and the NECC experiences with the Blogger's Cafe, I'd monitor the conversations that were happening, both in person and through web-enabled channels like live blogging, Skype, Twitter, etc. and then pull together panel discussions or facilitated conversations on those topics. The point is not to artificially redirect valuable informal conversation, but to recognize when it might be valuable to pull together what's occurring in conversations in various areas to create a synthesis of ideas.

Use "Citizen Journalists" to Create Learning Synthesis
The best conferences are a form of ongoing learning and conversation, not static presentations. But often what happens at the end of a conference is that we lose some of that learning. We miss larger patterns, we don't pull together various strands of thought. This is starting to change as bloggers reflect on their conference experiences, but I'm still not sure it happens in a more comprehensive way that is useful for people.

One strategy for addressing the issue would be to designate individuals to be in charge of taking a look at all of the channels of information and conversation that developed during the course of the conference. They would look for patterns, new ideas and questions, suggestions, etc. and document that as part of the follow-up to the conference.

Web-Enable the Conference and Provide Attendees with Cheat Sheets Ahead of Time
Liveblogging, Twitter, Skypecasting, Flickr photos, etc.--these are all tools that are beginning to enliven and engage conference-goers. But not everyone knows how to use them or how to use them at a conference. One "value-add" for pre-conferencing might be to provide conference goers with instructions and ideas on how they can get the most from the conference through these tools. Give them instructions on how to set up a blog or sign up for a Flickr account. (You can create quick screencasts for this if you want). Give them examples of how others have used these tools at conferences. Help "newbies" figure out how to use these tools of personal learning, which will enable them to get the most out of the conference. (Note--take a look at this post from Jeff Utecht  and scroll down to see the ways he observed Twitter being used at NECC. Could be a good start to a cheat sheet)

Create a Companion Virtual Conference
If you're going to web-enable your conference, think about web-enabling things for people who can't attend. I'm actually thinking that this is one of those areas that could benefit both conference organizers and conference-goers. Not everyone can afford full conference fees and travel expenses. But people might be willing to pay a smaller conference fee to "attend" the conference virtually. For this to be a worthwhile value proposition, virtual attendance would have to mirror as closely as possible actually being there. But this is doable, I think, with careful thought and use of tools, although there may still be time barriers for international conferencing.

Create Value Add Follow-up
People generally leave conferences energized, engaged, etc. But there's often nothing to do with this energy except maybe to stay connected to the people you met. One of the interesting things I've read recently about Web 2.0 that I hadn't really considered is that it's about people connecting over objects/things they have in common. Yet when a conference is over, we're not always providing people with some more things to which they can connect.

One major thing to consider is that if you used a wiki to set up your conference, you can use it to provide follow-up. Have presenters record sessions and then upload them to the wiki, along with their handouts, slides, links to other resources, etc. This would also be a place to include summaries of learning you had your citizen journalists create, new ideas or questions that arose during the conference, etc.

I know that to a certain extent, this kind of follow-up exists. Many times when you leave a conference you can access handouts online. I think what I don't see as much of is thinking about how to use conference follow-up as a way to continually engage people in new learning and connecting, to provide them with something more than just a chance to download the handouts from the sessions they weren't able to attend. I'm not entirely sure how this would look, but I think that there's more here if we think about it.

Some Final Thoughts
Here I've focused on enhancing our current paradigm of conferencing. I still think that there are possibilities in entirely virtual conferences, but there are obviously major hurdles to deal with, not the least of which is the time factor. When you go away, then you know that you're committing yourself to attending conference activities. If you're "attending" online, you're much less likely to give a conference the same time and focus.

Also, I feel like I didn't pay enough attention to enhancing the informal connections that are so valuable in conferences. There's probably more that could be done on a pre-conference level with using social networking to connect people, as well as creating more activities like the Blogger's Cafe that take advantage of people's tendencies to meet and talk informally.

Lots of possibilities, I think, in taking conferences to the next level. It will be interesting to see where things go. I'd love to hear from people about other examples of conferences they enjoyed or specific conference enhancements that they found particularly effective.