Virtual conferencing

This morning finds me in Antwerpen, where yesterday I was very pleased to sit on the jury of Dorothy Duchatelet’s thesis. Dorothy – occasionally of this parish – did as excellent a job in her defence as her thesis, plus she even managed to get most of the jury on the dance floor afterwards, so that’s got to count for something.

Literally missing the point

When we weren’t viva-ing, or dancing, we were all having various conversations about learning and teaching. And one of those was with fellow juror Heidi Maurer about conferencing.

As Heidi rightly noted, the cost of attending conferences can be prohibitive for more junior colleagues, especially if it’s in L&T, which they might see as less of a priority area.

Quite aside from any registration fees, there’s the travel, accommodation and subsistence to factor in, and that’s even before the carbon footprint of it all. Sure, it’s lovely to travel the globe to exotic locales, but it’s certainly not cost-free, even if we are lucky enough to have someone to pick up the tab.

Hence a discussion about a virtual conference format.

Heidi noted that while online might solve one problem, it created another: format. Losing the physical co-location means losing a lot of the freedom you have when you’ve got people in a room.

Or does it?

Part of addressing this is trying to work with the advantages that virtual spaces have. Central to that seems to be the capacity to time-shift.

Imagine a conference format that lasts a week. From an initially-rather-basic website, you establish a programme for that week with some very different activities.

You could certainly have a keynote and or conventional panels – both as live-streams and as replayable content – with space for Q&A. Such communal events might be good bookends for the conference, helping to generate a sense of ‘who we all are’, but without necessarily having to commit everyone to being online at the same time the whole time.

Alongside that, you could also run some asynchronous workshops, where people could dip in and out through the week to experience different activities and cross paths with others. The obvious examples here would be online simulation exercises, where delegates could get their hands dirty, or design workshops, where you could get communal feedback on addressing your L&T challenges.

Throw in some spaces for more informal discussion and you’ve got something that’s not a normal conference, but which does something else.

And the cost? Some for a website and the event organisation, but very much less than usual. Maybe you ask people to chip in via PayPal, or just tell them to set aside $20 to buy themselves nice coffee, instead of that stuff you normally find in the breaks.

Of course, there are issues. First, you still need people to organise and facilitate. Second, the loss of co-location means you risk people signing up and then never showing up, or drifting away. Third, there’s all the concern about encouraging and policing appropriate behaviour. Fourth, could the format work on a recurring format: you’d do it once, but would you do any more often?

But similar problems exist for ‘normal’ conferences.

So, something for someone to think about. I’d really welcome your thoughts on it all in the comments below.