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.
So here are 10 off-the-cuff suggestions for sticking some rhubarb up the backsides of these events:
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
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.