Virtually every conference you attend will have keynotes and presentations. One of the strengths of any conference is the level of debate and discussion that takes place, however symposiums aside, most of the discussion at a physical conference, aside from the few minutes for questions, takes place between small groups over lunch or coffee. There is little time for reflection and of course these chats over coffee are never recorded or noted down, making it difficult to refer back to them when back in the office. Also though they are happening across the conference, there is very little or no interaction between the different conversations; so people are not learning from each other or building on the discussions of others.

With an online conference however you will find much more discussion and debate takes place than at a traditional conference. Not only that, the conversations happen over time, allowing for reflection and checking sources. It’s also all written down. This makes it very easy to check back and see what someone said before making a different point. Sharing links and ideas is also so much easier too.

For me this is the real value and one of the key advantages of an online conference. It’s one of the reasons I look forward to and enjoy the JISC e-Learning Online Conference.

Due to the textual and asynchronous nature of the discussion it is possible to engage in the conversation either immediately or after a period of reflection over the days of the discussion.

It’s a real opportunity to take the time to debate the issues that arise out of the presentation with fellow practitioners and experts. You can challenge the experts as well as yourself and other practitioners. In many ways it can be easier to engage with the presenters than it would be at a physical conference.

You know the conference where the chair asks, “are there any questions?” and it can be intimidating to put your hand up. Even if you do, there are usually others and there is very little time for lots of questions. Keynotes can be even more intimidating especially with six hundred odd delegates in the auditorium.

It’s not that an online environment is not as challenging, more the online environment evens the playing field for delegates and presenters. It is, according to people I have spoken to, much easier to ask questions in an online conference than at a physical conference.

Also sometimes you don’t want to ask questions of the presenter, but ask questions to the delegates. This is virtually impossible to do at a traditional conference, but is very easy to do in an online conference.

Another advantage of the online conference is that if you do have a question for the presenter, however you want to check something first, you can. Before you ask your question, you can go back and read that paper you referenced last year, check with a colleague via e-mail that the evidence for the study is online, etc… try doing that in the “few minutes for questions” you get at a physical conference.

So if you haven’t already can I suggest you sign up to the JISC e-Learning Online Conference 2012: Shaping the Future. If you have never attended an online conference before, now is an ideal opportunity (and great value at £50). If you have attended a JISC e-Learning Online Conference before, but didn’t engage, maybe time to give it another try.

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