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.