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The Next Generation Conference

2009 May 3

I’ve been to a lot of conferences this year. So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about conferences, mostly about how to make them a better experience for the participants. After the absolutely fantastic Apple Global Leadership Summit in Hong Kong last week, I had a bit of a brainwave.

Here’s how I think a really engaging, exciting, and community-building conference could be run (apologies if there’s already conferences out there like this, I just haven’t been to any):

Action

So many conferences follow the “sit ‘n git” model where participants sit in room after room (or if you’re incredibly unlucky, the same room all day) listening to “experts” tell you how things “should” be done. Audience

There’s no time in the schedule for actually doing something with our new knowledge, and sadly, often no time for just talking and interacting with our fellow conference goers in a learning- or topic-focused environment (coffee breaks don’t count).

We need to make conferences more practical, not just hands on training with new tools, but a focus on the actual creation of something that bridges new learning with what you already know, and asks you to create something useful.

Although it was great to see so many hands on sessions at the Hong Kong summit, as a presenter, it seemed like the hands on training felt very isolated to the new content presented and there really wasn’t enough time (1 hour for a hands on session) to activate and engage participants’ prior knowledge within the workshop as a whole.

As the ADE Institute and the Flat Classroom Conference did very well, conferences should make the event about some sort of action or project that bridges the theory, content and tools, helps build your network, and requires you to leave with something tangible.

Grouping/Differentiation

I would love to see a conference where attendees were grouped the first day (by choice, ability, experience or interest, organized in iMovie Hands-on Sessionadvance with color-coded nametags), and spent the whole conference reconnecting in various formats with a group leader (during an Apple conference, this could be an ADE group leader) to create something together.

All groups could have an ongoing task that lead you through the conference, asking participants to put their new knowledge to work, building on each plenary and presentation session, and then culminating in the production of something practical and useful during a hands on workshop time. The hands on workshop time could be lead by the same group leader, and introduce group members to the all of the different tools they will need to create their final action project (from a presenter’s perspective, this could be the new role of the “presenter” or “ADE Workshop Leader” at a conference).

Between keynote sessions, these groups could come back together to digest and discuss the information presented and then begin to develop an action project that utilizes this new knowledge. If the groups regularly meet in the same classroom over the course of the conference materials could be kept & posted around the room.

Tom KellyIn order to ensure that there was enough cross-pollination across all conference attendees, the group action projects could be structured in such a way that each group is required to interact with members from the other groups in order to complete their project.

In terms of practicalities, in a conference of around 500 people, you could create 17 groups of 30 people, or 20 groups of 25 people (that raises your number of “presenters”, and therefore the cost of travel and hotel, but it would be so worth it for everyone). Group leaders could have a meeting before the conference starts to discuss, plan, and network among themselves. (And by the way, why don’t we have sessions for the presenters to network at conferences either? They miss out on all the casual conversations because they’re so busy organizing and prepping for their own presentations!)

Diversity

Why, oh why do we still see the same presenters at every conference? I don’t mean the same individual people (although that can be a problem too). I mean the same older, white, males. Where’s the diversity? Gender, race, age, experience? How did we get trapped in this model where we think only older white men have something to offer?

There have been many posts about the need for diversity in conference speakers, but some things never seem to change. This needs to make it to the top of the list for conference organizers.

We need speakers that represent our society. It’s not a planet full of older, white, men, but our conferences make it seem that way.

CameramanStudents

Along the lines of diversifying presenters, why is it that we have all these conferences about learning and how to meet our students needs, but we never actually have any student participants or presenters?

I’m not talking about handing out badges or directing people to the right room, I mean students leading sessions. Maybe sessions on how to use new tools or on what they’re doing with technology outside of school, or what they’d like to see in school (imagine that?). What about having students as experts on a panel discussion of what schools should be doing with technology? Or how technology has changed the way they receive, create and distribute information?

Time for Reflection

As much as I loved the Hong Kong Summit, there was simply not enough time for reflection and metacognition. No matter how much you know about a topic, there is always a need for discussion after an engaging session. After each session, a group leader could facilitate an unconference style discussion, with a focus question or Visible Thinking routine to get people processing the information. If participants are working within the groups outlined in the first paragraph, they would get to know each other well during these breakout unconference sessions, and knowledge could be built as a collaborative team towards the final action project.

Dialogue

Connecting Across Continents SessionHere’s one of the many things I have learned from the past two years working in the elementary division. Every single presentation must include room for dialogue, not always with the presenter but just with the people you’re sitting next to, even keynotes.

Just a simple opportunity to chat with the person you’ve never met (but had to crawl over to get to the only remaining seat in the middle of the row) based on the information you’re learning. We know we have to do this in the classroom, and the same applies in a conference – it’s just a big classroom, right?

Movement

Do not sit in the same room all day no matter how logistically convenient it is.

Final Thoughts

What have I missed? What would you like to see in a next generation conference format?

World Mosaic: A Tribute to Flickr Portraits by pardeshi

7 Responses leave one →
  1. May 5, 2009

    Hi Kim,

    You have some great ideas here. Most of us would benefit from smaller, more personal experiences at conferences.

    Just a few world-weary observations…

    1. Conferences tend to be major revenue sources for non-profit organizations like ISTE, ALA and state organizations. It will be difficult to change a model that works financially. (Like large lecture classes in colleges are cash cows despite being a poor education model.) One thing is that one is rarely required to attend a conference (and thus support it) if other methods of learning work better.

    2. Despite being an old white guy, I’ve grumbled about the lack of gender diversity in conference keynoters myself. (See http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2005/10/9/is-aasl-sexist.html
    But here is the deal… I think most keynoters become keynoters due to traditional publications which have given them a “reputation.” While this may be changing as more bloggers become well known, print publication stills seems the fast track to being acknowledged as an “expert.” Get published!

    3. While I agree about the need for reflection, I will put on my administrator hat here and say you should do it on the flight home, not during the conference itself. I think of conference sessions like instant coffee granules and reflection as the hot water. You need both, but you should only need to pay for one ;-)

    Keep at’m, Kim! Looking forward to meeting you in about a week.

    Doug

  2. May 6, 2009

    I attended a small unconference last year and am now co-organizing the event next year. One thing that came out of this year’s survey was request for time for reflection and further discussion during the conference. It’s hard to process and reflect when you’re trying to figure out which session to go to next! We’re building that in to the day as well as holding roundtable discussions at the end of the day, which they did this year.

    The connections with the other participants between sessions are often more valuable than a session itself.

  3. May 11, 2009

    @Doug,

    Thanks for your thoughtful (if somewhat depressing) comments! I was worried about the financial aspects of conferences – I guess it’s pretty much exactly the same problem we have with schools as a whole, isn’t it?

    I agree with your statement about getting published, but I also think that conferences should promote new ideas, not just the same recycled ideas that were published 15 years ago simply *because* they were published. I understand that’s just the world we live in, but I’m planning the ideal conference, right? Sometimes we need to think about the way things should be in order to improve what we’ve got (I think).

    I’m not so sure I agree with your statement about reflection. One of the very first things Tom Kelley told us in his presentation is that the human brain can only take in 7 new bits of information at a time. This means that if we don’t have time to reflect and scaffold our understanding to “put in in place” so to speak, any conference can only give us 7 new bits of information if we’re waiting to reflect until the plane ride home. We need time to process and if we don’t have it, we might as well just look up those 7 new bits of information on the web and be done with it because the rest of the conference will be big waste of time…

    @Deanna,

    I totally agree about processing and reflecting time. As I mentioned to Doug above, if we’re not able to connect what we’re learning to what we know, we can only manage 7 new things at a time. I hope that any conference I make the effort to physically haul myself to will give me a lot more than just 7 new things!

  4. May 30, 2010

    Most conferences I’ve been to were about short presentations by “experts” and were supposed to include a Q&A session at the end of every presentation. That Q&A rarely worked, though. Having finished their speech, the speaker would ask: “Are there any questions”? In most cases, there were none.
    Now, why is that? Is it because the people listening were not interested in the topic raised? I believe that everything depends on the way you organize this Q&A. For instance, the presenter can come up with some questions or activities for the audience that could help “break the ice” and initiate a discussion. And does it have to be a Q&A at all? Why not suggest activities that would engage everyone and that would be both entertaining and instructive? Clearly, we need to re-think the way in which we organize conferences.
    .-= Anton KuninĀ“s last blog ..antonkunin: Some free #Italian lessons for 3 different levels from the #ITALY magazine: http://ow.ly/1Ryvp =-.

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