September is always an interesting month. It is the beginning of a new term. It usually also means the start of new projects, meeting new people and, of course, welcoming new students. Hence, the first weeks are always very busy, trying to prepare everything for the new start. This year, September has been even a busier month for me as I got myself in three different conferences related to my area. They are always good fun, but also quite a lot of work as I like to take active part in such events as a presenter/ workshop convener. I always get more out of it if I present or offer a workshop, because ‘exposing myself’ this way gives me an excuse to address the attendees and learn from their experience. I personally need that impulse. Do you too?
In my opinion, that is the main purpose of these events: to provide opportunities to meet new people in one’s area, learn about new developments and from new perspectives, share ideas, etc. However, that is not always easy to achieve, as people, often in times, tend to group themselves in familiar circles, leaving little scope for the ‘stranger’ to join in…or so I think! That is why I am so fond of online conferences. They are so more relaxed. Now I am also becoming quite a fan of face to face events, which encourage delegates to use some technology as part of the networking strategy. Curious? So was I, until I found out how it all works. Not that difficult, actually…so I have realised!
In the last years, I have witnessed a gradual transformation in the way conferences are organised. Technology is being introduced to enhance the attendees’ experience and even raise their profile. It consequently has had a significant impact in the way its delegates network and cultivate their connections during and after the event. Sometimes even before! It definitely helps the solo delegate to get connected way before the long awaited conference dinner or the short coffee breaks which hardly reserve enough time to move from one session to the other. Yet the few socialization moments are often regarded as the most meaningful part of any academic event.
So, I am pleased to observe that the networking possibilities are now being augmented by the use of free, open technology tools which provide the individual with one more channel for communication. In my experience and opinion it does add great value to the whole experience.
In online environments, the socializing culture is different. We don’t necessarily expect to have met the people in that environment before we join the conversation. We just need to show interest in the discussion. The barriers online are more closely related to the use of a particular technology, rather than to any implicit etiquette rules. It is, of course, also related with how confident and extrovert the individual is. But my point here is that technology is helping, I think, on how we organise such events. They also provide new, complementary forms to networking.
Networking has always been an important aspect of everyone’s life. It enables us to extend our spheres of influence, maintain and establish connections, while implicitly enhancing our professional profile. After all, our reputation is so much dependent on what we do, who we collaborate/interact with as well as what people think of us and rate our work. Such assumptions are usually based on what, and how, we “project‘ourselves as part of our practice. In the process we grow, develop a new sense of ourselves towards the ‘other’ and become aware of how important and influent our networks are.
All of this to take me to my next point: Online Social Networking in Face to face events. Is this relevant? What does it add to the experience?
I personally think it is the social component that makes such events so interesting. This is for me the added value of my attending it. By introducing technology as part of the networking possibilities, the opportunities to connect are increased. We get a feeling of who is in the event, and what interests they have. All of a sudden, the conference is amplified to an almost unimagined scale. When well advertised, it reaches audiences beyond the physical venue, who will equally add value to the whole experience. Through such approach, participants contribute more openly and widely to discussions as they share their thoughts, post and react to comments, which are accessible to the wider community. By doing so, they might lose their anonymity, but they gain in other aspects, as they get included in that group and discussion. A new facet of their identity starts being formed.
For me that is the added value of all these new gadgets and applications. The fact they can bridge a connection, help people communicate and network…and create new scenarios through which like-minded people can congregate during and beyond specific events (if they wish to).
At this year’s ALT-C, for instance, Crowdvine and twitter were used as supporting communication tools to aid the more than 500 delegates to have a feeling about who was taking part of the event. Furthermore, it allowed those who were not able to join in person to have access to some of the discussions, and even listen in and take active part in some of the key sessions synchronously.
This approach of opening up the event to a wider audience changes the entire dynamics of a conference. It complements the traditional approaches to enhance one’s networks and professional profile. It also encourages new forms of interaction, which can be prolonged after a given event, as the physical venue is no longer the only place for congregation of the conference delegates.
Of course, such approaches raise a lot of issues such as access to mobile and micro technologies by delegates, provision of a reliable, free wireless network, and the willing to make the event accessible to a blended audience, giving the online participants the opportunity to be part of it despite the fact they have not officially enrolled to it.
It will also be interesting to know how conferences focusing on other areas rather than Learning Technologies will adopt and explore the possibilities of such initiatives as part of their event organising approach. Equally pertinent will be to observe if the movement of ‘open conferences’ will also trigger a transformation, in the way the physical event are still being structured. Will technology serve merely as a platform to reach a wider, blended audience, and giving them a voice through different channels, or will it also drive a change in the way such events are traditionally planned and delivered?
How would you like to see conferences / academic events in your area being organised? Are paper / keynote presentations, followed by 5 minute question and answer sessions still effective, or should we be thinking of and offering new formats?
We are currently looking at organising the SPARC 2010 conference and look forward to your inputs regarding what you envisage this conference should offer and help achieve. So get involved. Add your comments. get in touch. Help us develop a an interesting event for you and your peers.Your ideas count.