Conference Formatting

So I have spent a week in Nottingham at ALT-C that is in many ways a traditional academic style conference. We had keynotes and invited speakers, papers short and long, symposia with panels and workshops.

The focus of ALT-C as I see it is very much about bringing together a community to share practice, network and move one’s own learning forward. I do enjoy the conference and learn a lot from it. It’s great to network, discuss, debate and share with other learning technologists from around the country (and the rest of the world).

I have never seen ALT-C as the type of innovating conference that will “call for change” or move the whole learning technology agenda forward. The format as it stands just doesn’t allow for that. For example ALT-C 2011 is just under a year away, however we already know the theme, who the keynote speakers are and who the chairs of the conference will be. The process of speaking at ALT-C 2011 will be finalised in about five months time on the 14th of February when the deadline for proposals for inclusion is closed.

In the past or for other areas this is probably fine and dandy, but for ALT-C it does mean that newer technologies are not even mentioned.

For example nowhere at the conference was a huge deal made of Apple’s new iPad or any of the forthcoming Android tablets. Then again you could say why should there be, they haven’t been used for any length of time and therefore there are no results or research done yet.

Once you understand that ALT-C is not about innovation or new shiny things, but is about practice, research and outcomes the less disappointed you will be about what you see at the conference.

Though this is no excuse for poor presentation skills. I know that the ALT team try really hard to get presenters to be more effective, they produce excellent guides, tips and advice; but still now and again with people’s lack of confidence in themselves we see slides and slides of bullet points. I do think presenters sometimes forget that the idea of a short paper presentation is to either inspire people to read the short paper in more detail or to undertake further reading, or as an opportunity to allow questions to be asked of the short paper. The presentation is not there to provide your audience with lots of bullet points, explanatory notes on methodology or the inside leg measurement of the lead researcher.

If you want innovation, ideas, cutting edge, then to be honest you are not going to find them at ALT-C. So where do you go?

Well ULCC’s FOTE 10 one day conference this year does allow for this kind of radical thought, innovative ideas and inspiring new practices.

So does ALT-C need to change?

Paul Lowe in his recent blog post says

But the overriding feeling for me at my first ALT-C was a sense of nagging disappointment that despite being populated with over 400 of the best practitioners of learning technology around today, what did we actually achieve in concrete terms, what artefact, statement, decision, conclusion or prediction did we build?

Though I agree with Paul in the essence of what he says, we need to remember that the focus of ALT-C in my opinion is not (despite even what it says on the advertising literature) that. It is about Learning Technologists reporting on what they are doing in their institutions, probably based on work they started planning two or even three years ago! ALT-C is not about the future it’s about the past.

Also with the date of ALT-C the same time as one of the busiest weeks of the year for FE we saw FE under-represented at the conference and much of the energy and innovation we do see in FE wasn’t going to be discovered at this year’s ALT-C. The other aspect of that is the proposal submission process does not allow or reflect the actual work and stuff that happens in FE.

Paul continues…

I had expected something much more creative and collaborative, along the lines of the unconference idea or barcamp for example.

I would like to see an unconference stream at ALT-C, the challenge is to get people to attend that stream. At one of the Handheld Learning conferences, they did try that, but it was surprising how few people wanted to be involved in those sessions. It’s not to say there isn’t the demand for ad hoc stuff, at this year’s ALT-C I discussed with various people the merits of Elgato’s EyeTV and Apple’s iPad as well as cultural change in expanding the use of learning technologies in institutions. All interesting subjects that would fit into a barcamp type stream.

However one of the problems with running a non-traditional conference is that it is then challenging for people to get the funding to attend.

ALT-C works in one sense that people will get the funding to go if they present a paper at the conference, if they can’t present a paper then they can’t get the funding. ALT-C isn’t viable unless it has lots of delegates attending. So the format of the conference is dictated by the fact that in order for it to run, it needs lots of delegates to attend, they will only attend if they are presenting and as a result the conference has to consist of lots of papers and presentations. This is why you get lots of short papers and workshops that are only 60 minutes long.

An unconference stream would be really interesting and useful if run well, however I can’t see people getting the funding to attend to facilitate sessions in that stream as it would not be related to particular projects, research or institutional objectives.

I have run various unconferences in my time and I have had lots of correspondence from people who wanted to attend, but couldn’t because staff development funds weren’t available for travel (the events were free) as there was no concrete objectives or outcomes for the event. Well there were, it was just that in order to secure funding it is easier if they can show a programme of keynotes and presentations!

At the end of the day I do think we let ALT-C be ALT-C and try not to change it. To change it to something that is that different probably would result in it not working at all.

The only way to change things, is to instigate that process of change yourself. If we want to see different kinds of innovative events then we need to create these events that produce the results we want to see. We can of course involve ALT, or ALT could even lead that process. I would like ALT to add two more events to their calendar in addition to ALT-C.

Firstly would like to see a conference with an FE focus, one that was less about research on FE practice, but more a showcase of existing FE practice. With the demise of Becta there is now a real vacuum for FE in sharing what they do.

The second conference would be on that focuses on the issues Paul talks about in his blog, on innovation, predictions, new stuff, future stuff. This could be a TED type conference but could instead have an unstructured unconference format. We could have a series of bar camp events that lead into the conference. One of the issues however with the unconference format was mentioned by me on an article I wrote for ALT on the Second ILT Champions informal conference in which I said

I did consider that such an informal approach this may have a possible downside, since what we want to see and discuss might not always correlate with what we need to see and discuss. This is not so much about dictating what should happen, but ensuring that delegates are informed about issues and subjects which they may have not have previously considered fully or dismissed as irrelevant.

So it is important that we not only have an open format, but we consider all the issues. Though who decides on these issues is an important question.

I do expect that ALT-C 2011 will take place in Leeds next September. I am hoping to attend, though with the budget cuts expected this year that is no certainty. Will there be an ALT-C 2012? I hope so.

8 thoughts on “Conference Formatting”

  1. Hi James
    I didn’t want to appear to be a downer on ALT-C, there is a fantastic amount of energy, ideas and commitment there, but I just felt that it could have been expressed more than it was – and that’s not a specific critique of ALT-C, it’s the same at most conferences in any filed at present.
    I think the format of the academic conference is a really important issue to dig down into; as you say funding in the future is going to be tighter and tighter, and who knows if this model of organising a conference will be sustainable in the future- as the accountants grip tightens and every bean is counted, apparent ‘luxuries’ like attending conferences is going to get harder and harder.
    So there seem to be several issues
    1: what can be done within the existing paper presentation/workshop based conference to make it better ??
    Well, as I suggested in my post, we could harness the ‘cognitive surplus’ of th event to do something more concrete – like creating an artefact of the conference by aggregating all of the onliena ctivity around it for example, or by giving the informal parts of the confeence a bit more focus – even simple tables at lunch with signs on like ‘mobile learning ‘ etc so that people can sit down and talk about something they have in common instead of the aimless wanderings looking for a friendly face.
    So a brainstorm on what can be done within the existing parameters – as you have already started with F-ALT- is needed – I’m not sure I totally agree that ALT-C cant be changed, there are so many innovative people there

    2; How can we create more innovative events that are self sustaining and that people can afford to get to, and will make the effort to attend?

    Maybe more events but smaller, but linked together in some way – like a travelling road show for example, that went from city to city, with each event locally hosted and funded.

    Or get a kick ass keynote that everyone wants to hear and use them to market the conference – this worked really well for us at the mediating boundaries event we ran with JISC where we had Etienne Wenger – and make sure that like Etienne you get your money’s worth and they stick around all day and get involved in the discussions

    Have a Silicon Valley style session like bar camp but where the focus is on actually producing something concrete in affixed length of time – so we get some real deliverables

    Sell the events more as staff development/training than conferences – courses rather than conferences perhaps

    Lots of thought needed on this but would really love to be involved

    Should we set up a space to brainstorm??

    Cheers Paul

  2. Thinking a bit more – how much does JISC spend for example on free workshops etc

    What about a model where a fluid group of well respected/innovative educators get funded to go on a road trip for a period of time facilitating events in different locations around the country – each person gets staff dev funds to participate, we get some central funding from someone like JISC and away we go

    Do you think we should tell Steve Wheeler that the band is getting back together again?

  3. Not a long post, but I wanted to say: i) this kind of discussion is very welcome; ii) ALT intends to share (to the extent it can) the post-conference assessment, which is based in part on our analysis of delegate feedback; iii) in relation to Paul’s “Have a Silicon Valley style session like bar camp but where the focus is on actually producing something concrete in affixed length of time – so we get some real deliverables”, the evaluation form asks “If ALT-C included problem-solving sessions related specifically to institutional challenges then my employer would be more likely to fund my attendance”. The “problem-solving challenges” that we are referring to are, in part, the kinds of concrete outputs that Paul refers to. Alongside this ALT has to orchestrate the creation of a conference that i) people want to come to; ii) employers will pay for (enough of) their staff to attend in sufficient numbers; iii) can be run for the money; iv) meets the diversity of needs that are out there (we are seeking to be a broader church).
    Seb Schmoller

  4. I totally agree…
    it’s not ALT-C , it is not this conference or that… it’s a whole culture screaming to be changed, but which at the same time does not want to be changed.
    For sometime now we have been trying to play with formats… The Thought Fest and the PLE conferences were examples of that

    But what have we witnessed was that sometimes we need to do more than putting a different call for presentations forward – we need to drive new formats, new ways.
    In the Thought Fest we ended up talking to individuals and asking them how they could share what they do/know differently – and they did – they did great!

    In the PLE everyone stuck to the usual formats of submission, but then we asked the chairs to come up with the format of ‘communication/ sharing’. Again, even though I got some …let’s say…less glamorous responses to my chosen ‘communication format’ in the end people enjoyed and saw the benefits.
    What I am saying – I guess – is that most of us go with what we think it’s more acceptable … has more chances to please. Like Seb says – most often we are tied to the institution and the way things work around here. It has to be ‘serious’!
    We need to foster a culture of diversity and of more informal communication for research conferences to become more engaging.
    I’d love to see a space for bloggers to hang-out all through the conference. An open room for spontaneous sessions, another where people could do radio about research…you name it! And learn from those who had the courage of doing that.
    I am not a great presenter – but I have seen worse days. Having been giving a chance to try things in less formal settings has helped me improve immensely. I still have a long way to go though 🙂

    I think there is a lot to be done in this area…it’s a fascinating process too.
    thanks for raising this issue

  5. Here’s an idea:

    1.Cut the core conference to one or (at most) two days with keynotes plus a few other “big” sessions (more TED-like?)

    2. Encourage a network of local events for following along the main event online and then doing your own unconference afterwards. E.g. like F-ALT M25 for Londoners unable to make the event.

    Result: lower costs, less travelling


  6. Just picking up the themes of FE, Regional and JISC I just wanted to note that (in the south-east at least) there is the JISC region support centre e-learning fair, usually held during the october half term so good for FE timetables (although open to HE and ACL sectors). We (Solent Uni) hosted a few years ago.
    Do other JISC RSCs do this?
    One thing however – the event tends to be quite ‘FE’ so is just as ineffective at bridging the FE / HE gap as ALT-C – shame as we can (and do) learn so much from each other

    1. Most RSCs do run a summer fair or conference. I gave a keynote at RSC Eastern this year and RSC South West last year.

      I do think though there is still room for an ALT FE conference now, more so now that we have lost Becta.

      However I agree with you Roger in the benefits of FE and HE learning from each other. I certainly do learn lessons from HE at ALT-C and from feedback I have received I know people from HE learn from the lessons in FE I talk about.


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