Most conferences have a central focal point – a stage or screen – and chairs or tables arranged so that all can have a clear view of the stage or screen.
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Washington DC Metro A group of us including Michael Coghlan and Steven Ridgeway (and dynamic lady to whom I wasn’t introduced please leave you name in comments) were discussing all these issues when I was called to my cab.  They were going on to discuss it, I had to catch my plane. So, what can we do to bring our conferences into the 21st century? Here are some initial brainstorms: 1) Make all the materials and any formal presentations available BEFORE everyone gets together for the face to face event. Pre-record presentations and cite the resources from which they are drawn.  Allow participants to digest and mull over what information is being presented. Maybe put it out there a week before. Ensure there is a tag so that conference organsiers/facilitators can collect it all and synthesize it. 2) Prior to the day, set up a template that people can download and can create and print  their own name tags so that they can include social networking addresses and names. Encourage them to print off sheets of them and cut them up so they can hand them out on the day (it’s low tech and it works). Include a space for an image of the person. Include blanks at the conference. 3) START the day with a networking activity that will allow people who will be using online tools during the event to meet each other. Ensure there is a screen or a really large monitor and computer to meet with those not coming to the event physically but taking part online.  Include a “safe” option for those who aren’t comfortable with open social networking sites but who want to participate. Include a space for those who don’t use online tools and don’t want to or don’t like them. Preferably have really good coffee available. 4) When everyone gets together, the first presenter could give a 5-minute summary of the major points of his or her presentation. Then, groups have a set time to not only formulate and present questions and comments — but if they disagree, to offer supported alternate viewpoints and solutions.  The presenter and facilitator should circulate through the area where the tables are set up to answer questions. once finished, each group could present their viewpoints, with opportunities for questions and comments. A scribe from each table adds these to a public Wiki. One table could be for the virtual participants, with a person at the venue facilitating the Wiki entry.  OR, tables could be assigned numbers or colours and online participants could choose which table to direct their only commentary to. The other presenters will be participating at the tables until it is their turn to circulate. 5) Have a clear goal for the day. What will be the result — a mini information portal with the original presentations and citations and the content from the conference? A paper or eBook chaired by the facilitator/organiser of the day? People are no longer merely consumers of information — many participants CREATE information. Harness that. 6) Include an unconference portion of the day.  Ask the question — what didn’t we cover or what should we cover? Set aside a block of time for this. If no one comes to the party, hand out the door prizes and let ’em go early. 7) If people want to plan a casual piggyback event – a Tweetup or bloggers dinner — encourage it prior to. That’s all the bright ideas I can think of at the moment — please add yours…


  1. An excellent post that raises many tangible solutions to improve Professional Development at conferences.

    I agree with pre conference input/thought/reading so the F2F conference days are not passive “sit down” sessions. Students could easily be included in this PD as well.

    I moaned about lost opportunities back in March and tried to articulate a better way. Not as succinct, but parallels a few of these ideas. Top stuff Kerry.

  2. This is a really sound discussion to be having at the moment and you make some very salient points when so many of us are pretty often ‘conferenced’ or ‘workshopped’ out – and you know I bet this applies to so many students in so many classrooms who are bored stiff with so much terrible ‘stuff’ being constantly thrown at them – LET the learning begin!

  3. In conferences where there is a Twitter backchannel, put someone _on the podium_ who is monitoring/responding to/feeding back to the room, based on the Twitter conversation. This is more potent (by far) than the normal technique of just running the Twitter feed on the projector. Which can be very distracting, anyway.

  4. Getting people to think about the material to be presented before the event has to be valuable-explicit teaching… LOVE the idea of taking “new information” and constructing new meanings with it by collaborating with others at the conference.

  5. Excellent ideas and discussion – things I have been thinking about a lot lately.
    Firstly, let me congratulate you on your superb effort managing the back-channel for friday’s event. Even with the glitches, what you managed to cobble together thru sheer determination really did connect the event to the outside world. In the hour I had free that day I managed to tune into the twitter stream, join the coveritlive and listen to about 45min of live audio. Reviewing the twitter hashtag this morning gave me a real sense of how things finished up. Here are some practical details that could have improved that particular experience:

    1. Build a really good (and easy to find) ‘event page’. Build that page around the structure of the timetable (in hyperlinked text, not .pdf) include links to timezone conversion for each segment, speaker names with links to some background. Publicise the (short url) of that page along with the event tag in the lead-up to the event. (I found out about this event while you were testing with kerrie smith and deanne via twitter).

    2. By all means collect pre-recorded, uploaded, etc materials before the event and link to them on the page above.

    3. Make sure at least 2-3 people are taking and uploading flickr pix during the event. I heard that @mpesce looked sharp, would have been a treat to link off to a photo from that tweet, then discover other images from the day. (I find this adds a lot to live audio and the other back-channel participation).

    4. Keep striving to make recorded audio .mp3 available while the event is still running. Treat your own podcast recording as a ‘back-up’. Find a way to implement the ‘remote producer’ role we have talked about. (Either volunteer/community effort or a staffer back at HQ could record sections of live stream and upload immediately to share around). Doesn’t need to be exhaustive or perfect, just adds more ways to connect and share during the event and as a bonus, your event podcasts are done before you get on the plane!!

    As for some of the more fruity suggestions in your post:

    – Keep balance, still need a core event structure but create space and set norms for some of the excellent ideas

    – Love Mark’s suggestion about backchannel person on podium (I was listening when he threw to you for twitter feedback and it really didn’t work well – way too hard). Michael C would do a great job of that – facilitating interaction rather than summarising/synthesising questions.

    – Set norms for audio/video/photo recording and sharing. A room full of iPhones trumps a team of staffers with recording devices any day.

    – Add a few ‘unconference style slots’ into the timetable rather than turn the whole day into a self-organising thing. (need some structure so people not attending can plan when to dip in/out).

    – Be explicit about the role of vendors. If they are paying to sponsor your event then make this explicit & create meaningful ways for them to spruke their product. If your audience can’t be respectful of this perhaps they would like to fund these events themselves? (separate rant on this topic coming…)

    Phew, that’s a long comment, and I have much more to say.
    Better get off my arse and write a post of my own to continue this important conversation. Well done KJ.

    Fang – Mike Seyfang

  6. Kerry

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas. I’m pleased to say that we’ve been incorporating some of them into the Learning Technologies conference & there are plans for others this year. However, you’ve given us food for thought with a number of the ideas so there’s still time to incorporate them into this year’s conference in November. Off to alert the planning committee to your post – work to be done…..