Thoughts on conferences

So the first full day of NECC 2008 comes to an end and I find myself thinking more about conferences, how to create them, manage them, and make them relevant to participants then I thought I would. Have I mentioned the conference we’re doing in Shanghai? :)

I’ve been thinking a lot about spaces and how important it is to create spaces for learning and conversing at the conference. Today I ran into cognitive overload. Ewan McIntosh does a beautiful job of explaining exactly how I was feeling today.

At one point I literally had to find a quiet corner in the Hyatt to just take a breathe and relax. I felt like calling a time out and just pausing everything for a second.

So here are my thoughts on designing and organizing a conference.

Pace: The pace of the conference is an important aspect to consider. Chris Lehmann and I talked about this for a bit yesterday. How much time do you give between presentations? How many presentations do you have during a session? Both of these help to determine the pace of the conference. At NECC this year the feeling of many (including me) is that the pace of the conference is just to fast. Many sessions are closed to participants 15 minutes before they are do to begin. One person in the Blogger Cafe today talked about showing up 30 minutes early to get into a session and the line was already forming outside. Here at NECC the sessions run 60 minutes with varying start times in between sessions. With sessions filling up so fast, people feel an urgency to get to sessions quickly and then once there, feel like they can’t “vote with your feet” and leave a session because there is no guarantee that there is another session with space.

Scale to Size: I talked about this in my last post and I think it is something you must make a priority if you are planning any type of conference. Your conference venue and the number of sessions you run per hour are two factors that you need spend time thinking about. At NECC this year I saw a sign that stated there were over 13,000 participants. A quick count of the number of presentations that were offered at 11am this morning was 33. A little simple math 13,000/33=394 people per presentation. 394 people per presentation means you need to have a venue that can hold 33 sessions at a time and each room must hold 394 people….good luck!

I don’t know what the perfect size of a session is but close to 400 people per presentation seems a little big to me, and some of the rooms here were never made to hold 400 people (some have been closed to participants due to fire code violations).

There is such a thing as to much: We get excited about trying new things, trying to expand these conferences to meet the needs of everyone. 13,000 educators have a lot of needs, and us in the edublogosphere have needs we want met as well. Last year NECC set up the Blogger’s Cafe for us and it was an amazing area where conversations flowed, people connected, and ideas were spread.

This year the Blogger’s Cafe has not been that for many. The placement of the Cafe this year has a lot to do with it. Last year (as many of us in Atlanta will recall) the Blogger’s Cafe was out of the way, down a long hallway. You had to make an effort to get there, you had to want to go there to engage in conversations. This year the Blogger’s Cafe is on a many thoroughfare. People are coming and going constantly and many people grab a chair real quick to check e-mail as they are passing through. In between sessions the space is very crowded and over flowing with people. Twice today I went and couldn’t find a place to set my bag down. Could NECC have put the Blogger’s Cafe in another spot? I’m not sure, from the looks of things they are pretty crammed into the conference center here the way it is.

Secondly, NECC Unplugged is also being held in the Blogger’s Cafe. Would it be better in another spot? I think we all agree it would…but where? The Blogger’s Cafe was never made to hold “sessions” of any type. The conversation atmosphere does not lend itself to even quick 7 or 10 minute demos of programs. The Blogger’s Cafe serves a purpose as a place to converse face to face. Trying to make the space something it isn’t adds to the cognitive overload that I think many of us are feeling at the conference this year.

There is such a think as doing to much and I think we found that this year at the Cafe. Not every great idea needs to be played out.

As I continue to think about the Learning 2.008 conference I can’t help but hope that I have learned some valuable lessons from NECC this year.

  • We’re hoping for 500 people meaning we need about 20 presentations a session to keep our numbers around 25 people a presentation
  • We need to manage the pace of the conference. We try and do this using an unconference model where conversations can go for days and there is no obligation to ever stop a conversation giving a relaxed feel to the learning space.
  • Expand without over doing it: We will use Twitter this year again, tweak the way we used it, but continue to use it as our synchronous communication tool during the conference.

It’s been great as people have come up to me during the past couple of days and have wanted to know more about our conference and how we run it. I don’t think you can directly compare Learning 2.008 to NECC between the size and the fundamental belief in conversations being the main focus of learning the two conferences are just different. But I do believe we can learn from each other on what a conference in the 21st Century needs to feel like.

11 Comments

  1. Jeff (et al.),

    I think I found a good alternate location for a “bloggers’ cafe” this afternoon… the Global Connections cafe is on the third level (one higher than the Blogger’s cafe), further down that wing of the building… above where the edubloggercon was held. It was sure empty when I was there at about 3, but it was outfit just as well as the blogger’s cafe… lots of tables, comfy chairs, the widescreen tv, the whiteboard with short-throw projector, power, etc.

    If folks are up for it, I think it might fit the bill. I’d love to have more informal conversations and learning there the next two days. I don’t know what it would take to get a critical mass there, but perhaps it can start with something like this comment. ;)

    -Mark

  2. I’m up for an alternate location to supplement NECC Unplugged. Particularly if someone tweets regularly that they’re there so others know!

    FYI, for all the deep thinking by the edubloggers about how to improve this year’s experience, I’ve talked to non-edublogger conference attendees who see what we’re doing and, yet again, think it’s pretty neat (still)!

  3. I’m glad to see all the thought you are putting into the format for Learning 2.008, Jeff.

    Reading bits of the blogs so far on NECC it seems like a whole lot of hand wringing– a mentor early on in my career said the most important thing about doing these events are just getting people together in one place for a meaningful purpose. There’s only so much you can do.

    I’m curious why the model is based on such low numbers per session- perhaps the venue space limits? There is a downside to running 50 simultaneous sessions in that you make the program densely overwhelming AND the presenters themselves miss a lot of sessions. I attended SXSW Interactive this year, and it is a huge event, NECC scale.. even the “smaller” sessions had seating for 100-150.

    Also not to be underestimated is building a lot of padding time between sessions- at SXSW it was at least 30 minutes. We talk about the action taking place in the halls, yet most programs end up like crazy class schedules with 10-15 minutes to scramble. No wonder people are dragging zombies after a few days.

    I know you are thinking alot on busting up the normal conference format, and if you can move it farther away from the lecture mode of sessions, you will have really cut a new path.

  4. Room 212B. Available. Only used for one session tomorrow. Just saying.

  5. I think that the comments on this post are really important. We are always touting (and more so recently) the DIY nature of what we are doing. So, rather than being tied to what has already been set up for unconference style learning, set up your own. I think it would be much more interesting to tweet out where you will be for the next hour and see who shows up. Tell people what you are doing on your laptop or in your head via a synchronous network, and I have no doubt that the eduPunks will come a running. Anyway, I really like that the comments on this post are talking about owning NECC 2008, rather than bemoaning the fact that it isn’t NECC 2007.

  6. I am sure that ASCD went through similar experiences as NECC before they developed the not-often-favored ticketing method for some workshops. The downside to an abundance of sessions that I’ve seen is that often there are presenters (often funded) who have traveled a good distance to present to an audience of six.

    I can’t stop thinking that as presenters and workshop organizers, we need to “Conference by Design” – determine the enduring understandings and work backwards from there. If we allow our students a few moments to reflect, what is it that stops us from those moments of silence at the end of a presentation/workshop? Imagine a surveymonkey-type eval that participants could take away that asked “The thing that stood out the most. . .” or “My next steps are”. . .

    In EdTech, there is so much that is worth being familiar with AND important to know and be able to do, but, when it’s all over, what do we want to endure in the minds of participants?

    Sounds like you’re well on your way in that mode.

  7. These are some great points and actually are the opposite of what I first thought. My first impression of the space in general was pretty good. I haven’t been to a conference this big, but I did think that the space was manageable. However, after trying to get into a few sessions several minutes early and finding standing room only, I’m certainly leaning more to the same line of thinking as Jeff. As far as the Bloggers’ Cafe – I like that it’s somewhat centrally located, but the bandwidth problems yesterday were frustrating. I love the concept and it’s been great to meet people I read and follow.

    As far as the number of sessions offered – I don’t think more is better. In my case, I already have several I want to attend at the same time – which makes decision making challenging. If I had 7 or 8 to choose from, I’d go nuts.

    I’m sure organizers have a hard time figuring out what sessions are going to be packed and which ones aren’t, but perhaps a fix would be asking people who had a packed session to repeat it another time and day. Maybe logistics would make this difficult, but it’s a thought.

  8. Part of the thinking by the conference organizers is that a large chunk of the attendees will be spending their time on the exhibit floor. I suspect that’s not happening this year (with good reason).

    I agree that the bloggers lounge (and most of the rest of them for that matter), are in lousy locations. It’s hard to have a conversation with a few people, much less a larger discussion/presentation with all the noise.

  9. Hey Jeff,
    I’m not at NECC this year. I’m taking a break for many of the reasons you’ve talked about in this post and your last. I’m glad you’re using your time at NECC to reflect on making Learning 2.008 great again this year. It was great last year and though nothing is like the first time ;-) I’m hoping we can keep the magic going again this year.

    One thing that I might add to your thoughts on designing and organizing a conference would be context. By this I mean that the attendees come from a similar context. At Learning 2.0 the context is international schools. Of course diversity is important and one needs to guard against group think but it can be beneficial when people are trying to apply what they hear to similar contexts. At Learning 2.0 most people are trying to apply the ideas they hear and the tools they see to an international school context.

  10. Hi Jeff,

    I echo a lot of your comments about NECC. I too felt as though it was fast paced. I often wanted to take breaks (which I did) but that meant missing sessions I would have liked to attended.

    The best organized conference I’ve ever attended was Online Educa in Berlin. There most of the sessions are panel sessions for 1.5 or two hours. All sessions have 20 minutes at least in between with free coffee and tea provided. This works really well as after the sessions you have time to interact with presenters and talk with fellow attendees (not rushing off). I also think this works well becuase quite frankly a lot of people don’t have the content or presentation skills to fill up an hour. Better to hear five people talk briefly (10 minutes each) on a connected issue and have time for questions. This format allows you to see more and is more interactive. of course having hour longs for people like Warlick is important (and Educa has that as well) but it should not be the defacto format. I went to some forums at NECC but they did not seem to be well regulated in terms of how they were run (long transition times between presentations, not always time for questions, etc).

    One comment on Learning 2.0. Although I like the idea of 20 people per room the problem with this is people do not spread out evenly on the sessions. One comment I heard a lot last year about 2.0 is that it was easy to miss a lot of the keynote level speakers. I’d encourage more keynotes with backchat. At least one a day (but not need for the speaker intro which just wastes time). have less simultaneous sessions, it is hard for teacher presenters to ‘compete’ with the headliners!

    Cheers.
    Justin

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Mark Wagner, Ph.D. - Just commented on @jutecht's post... with an alternate locations for a blogger's cafe tomorrow: http://tinyurl.com/6kjwlq
  2. Educational Technology and Life » Blog Archive » NECC 08 Highlights: Monday - [...] I commented on Jeff’s post I think the Global Connections cafe (where the CUE social was) might be perfect …

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