Monday, November 03, 2008

Conferences – jumped up classrooms?

Conferences are mirror images of the classroom. By and large people turn up to be spoon-fed by sages on the stage talking at them, with the occasional opportunity to ask questions. It has one, and only one, advantage over the classroom - scale.
It’s a lazy approach to learning made even more inefficient by the fact that even learning professionals often fail to take notes. This makes it a forgetting experience. The best one can hope for, as a speaker, is to affect some emotional or attitudinal shift. And when people get back to the ranch they rarely write up their findings and distribute them across the organisation. If one were to truly apply a ROI justification for conference attendance, few would be able to look you in the eye.

10 suggestions
So here are 10 off-the-cuff suggestions for sticking some rhubarb up the backsides of these events:
1.       Stop handing out those black, canvas bags that just get dumped – save embarrassment and the planet2.       No name badges – encourages more random networking
3.       Get all speakers to introduce themselves and their talk to all (one minute each) as the very first event
4.       Cut the crap catering – be imaginative with the food
5.       Limit number of PPT slides – maximum of seven, ten at tops
6.       Cut the corporate crud –don’t tell us about how wonderful your organisation is
7.       Smack down sessions between opposing views – more contention
8.       Force audience participation with debate and discussion (not break-out groups)
9.       Tear up the happy sheets – disturb and disrupt people, make them reflective, even angry, not happy
10.   Two feet rule – if you don’t like it leave – this should be encouraged – keep doors open

Handheld chutzpah
I listed these on the train coming back from chairing the Virtual Worlds session at Handheld Learning in London recently, organised by my old mate Graham Brown Martin, as it was refreshing to be at a conference with a difference. Graham has worked in the music industry and brought some of his chutzpah to bear on the event (unlike the exponents of Edupunk who seem to think that slapping a punk track beneath some images makes them interesting).
Of course he had complaints from the old guard who like their traditional fare. Sure you had to write your own name badge and it was a little anarchic at times, and there were a touch too many people living on fat grants on projects that were clearly going nowhere, but that was the whole point. I loved the coloured, Glastonbury wristbands for entry, the bowls of bangers and mash (none of those crap triangular sandwiches and breaded things) and the speakers. Graham is well connected and he had some impressive sponsorship and speakers.

Revolt is in the air
I’ve blogged on the SXSW conference where the audience revolted by taking off articles of clothing every time a ‘social media’ was mentioned. The audience were so incensed at the boredom of Mark Gutenberg’s interview (he of Facebook – and the most boring billionaire on the planet) that they simply grabbed the microphones and started shooting questions themselves.

Time for some fizz
You need only see the audiences mid-afternoon, struggling to stay awake, to realise that something is amiss. There are some great conference organisers out there, specifically Donald Taylor (Learning Technologies) and Rebecca Stromeyer (Online Educa). The problem they have is the same problem that the learning community has, the conservative expectations of their customers. I’m not suggesting that we swing wildly into wholly, participant-driven events, unconferences, where the whole event takes shape as it progresses. They’re rather good actually, but the UK is far too socially reserved for such events to work. What I’d like to see is some added fizz.


John Wootton UK said...

Hey Donald, couldn't agree more ... Big numbers, late starts, early finishes, people speaking who can't engage and hold an audience ... I just held a session this morning on Behaviour Management for SCITT members in Birmingham ... They loved it because I planned it like a lesson ... a bit of something for everyone ... a bit of controversy ... etc etc ... I'm not the only one ... and if I charged for doing it I would have given a money-back guarantee! Let's all only attend a paying conference with a MBG! Thanks ... Great Blog ...John Wootton

Andy Tedd said...

When I do these things I wish people would ask more difficult questions, (or even any). Even when you think you have done a good job of waking people up, even dared to be a bit edgy everyone is always too polite to try and make a speaker squirm.

Anyone who is at a talk I am giving feel free to give me a hard time or shout out bullshit when you think you've heard it.

My #1 conference cliche is questioning conventional wisdom - not all conventional wisdom sucks - some of it is actually quite wise. Confupunk anyone? :)

Donald Clark said...

What many who attend conferences realise is that most speakers, certainly those who tend to be controversial, actually want to be challenged.

At a recent conference I was told by the first questioner that I had it was morally wrong that I wa\s allowed to speak at the conference - this from a teacher, who should surely know about opening minds to new ideas and learning. The result, however, was a vigorous and interesting debate as others came to my defence. The chair had difficulty in closing down the session.

I was also accused at a Futurelab event of being the 'Jeremy Clarkson' of e-learning. I don't even drive!

My point, like John and Andy, is let's get the juices flowing - contention is good.