Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why I Hate Conferences!

I have attended five conferences over the past seven months and have noticed a disturbing trend. All these conferences were focused on eLearning and/or workplace learning. And although many presenters spoke of the brave new world of training and the need to do things differently and to engage learners in new and innovative ways, each event was really no different than any conferences that have happened over the last few hundred years.

The pattern is a familiar one. Gather in a big room and be talked at for an hour or so. Then adjourn to smaller rooms where the same thing happens, only on a smaller scale. Repeat this for three days, until your butt is sore, your knees have seized up, and you are bored to tears. We seem to talk a lot about the importance of interaction and engagement in the training field, but are lousy at practicing what we preach. If you are lucky, you can ask the odd question here and there, but for the most part you experience a very passive mode of learning.

There is often a lot of talk about the importance of sharing the collective knowledge and experience of all those in attendance at the conference, but, in practice, there are really precious few opportunities to do so.

Elliott Masie tried to reverse some of these trends in the Learning 2005 Conference last fall. There were opportunities to network electronically with other conference participants both before and after the event. However, the event itself was pretty much the standard sit there and listen model.

You would think as "learning experts" that we would realize that gathering people together physically in one place is a precious opportunity and that we should make the most of it by encouraging rich, meaningful, real-time interactions. However, we often squander these opportunities. For example, at the recent eLearning Producers Conference in Boston, I sat through a one-hour discussion about simulations and another one on gaming in training. We talked about simulations and games. We didn't see any simulations or games, nor did we experience any (we didn't even see screen shots of examples). This was rather surreal. It was much like going to an art gallery, being blind-folded, and having someone describe what was on the walls. All I could think was, "I waited for hours in an airport lounge for this?" We could have accomplished the same result via a conference call.

We need a new model of conference, one that is based on collaboration, idea sharing, learning-by-experiencing, and learning-by-doing. I encourage anyone interested in exploring a new model of conference to drop me a line. Sore butts of the world unite!


Blogger Tony Karrer said...

Rick - I had seen your blog before because of one of your posts and had used your feed link to subscribe, but something seems to be wrong with your feedburner link (I should go test mine). In any case, when I subscribed directly to your atom feed, no problems. But feedburner shows your last post as sometime in 2005.

Good stuff and I'm definitely going to comment on your conferences post.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Tony Karrer said...

I completely agree that its amazing we don't do a better job with conferences. I've put a couple of my thoughts around this on my blog at:

eLearning Technology: More Effective Conferences for Learning Professionals

eLearning Technology: More Questions on Making Learning for Learning Professionals More Effective

I'm going to post some additional comments on this topic shortly based on some discussions over the past few weeks.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Rick,

Have you ever been to a LAN party? You know where everyone brings their computer and they play a game, usually a first person shooter, against one another. I think we can learn something from gamers and how they organize their events. Thinking beyond the current expectations and paradigm of conferences.

BTW: I found your site through a post I read on DEOS. I have been around distance education/elearning for awhile -- I can't believe its been 10 year since graduating from the ed tech masters program at San Diego State. Anyway, as co-founder of Distance-Educator.com, I made suggestions (about 9 years ago) to established conferences about adding computer mediated collaborative opportunities to conferences but they weren't interested. I've found people don't like change, so they don't. Over the years I made several other attempts, still with no luck. But I haven't given up.


Vanessa Haakenson

1:11 AM  
Blogger Rick Nigol said...

Thanks for your comments Tony and Vanessa. Maybe we could start a movement to create really good creative collaboartive online conferences? All I know is that I am tired of the same old, same old...


9:47 AM  
Blogger Terrence Seamon said...

Hey Rick,

I know what you mean about the excruciating torture of some conferences...

Here's an article on "unconferences":



"Welcome to the weird world of unconferences, a trend that is shaking up the $122 billion conference industry. These inexpensive, informal gatherings - like BarCamp, BrainJams, and Foo Camp – are conceived as little as weeks in advance. All were started in the past few years by Valley types bored with the usual calendar of confabs.

"We figured there was much more expertise in the audience than there possibly could be onstage," says BarCamp co-founder Ryan King.

Unconferences break the barrier between the two. Attendees write topics they're interested in on boards, consolidate the topics, and then break into discussion groups.

At traditional conferences, the most productive moments often occur in the corridor between meetings; at unconferences, attendees like to say, it's all corridor.


1) Create a wiki - a Web-based tool for knowledge sharing - so attendees can sign up and discuss proposed topics. See BarCamp.org and BrainJams.org for help with wiki setup.

2) Find sponsors that are willing to assist without interfering. Unconference sponsors have donated everything from lunch to the venue itself.

3) Post author Harrison Owen's Law of Two Feet: Any person neither learning from nor contributing to a group discussion must walk to another one"

Intrguing eh?


9:15 AM  
Blogger Rick Nigol said...

Thanks Terry...the "unconference"...I like the concept.

The thing I really like about the new technologies is that a lot of the gatekeepers are cut out of the loop. It is now easy to publish things without publishers and to organize meetings without meeting organizers. There are trends I like....


4:10 PM  
Blogger Ib Ravn said...

Rick, I agree with you completely. At my institution, Learning Lab Denmark, we're doing some research and development on alternative conference formats that allow for much more F2F participant involvement and interaction. We call it "the learning conference". Allow me to stick in here an abstract from a paper I wrote. I'll be back and read more of your stuff. Find more here: www.dpu.dk/om/ibr. Best, Ib Ravn.

Abstract for paper, "The Learning Conference": "The typical one-day conference attended by managers or professionals in search of in-spiration is packed with PowerPoint presentations and offers little opportunity for in-volvement or knowledge sharing. Behind the conventional conference format lurks the transfer model of learning, which finds little support amongst serious students of learn-ing. The professional conference as a forum for knowledge sharing is in dire need of a new learning theory and a more enlightened practice. The notion of human flourishing is offered as basis for theory, and four simple design principles for “the learning conference” are proposed: People go to conferences to 1. get concise input, 2. inter-pret it in the light of their ongoing concerns, 3. talk about their current projects and 4. meet the other attendees and be inspired by them. Six practical techniques that induce attendees to do these things at the learning conference are presented."

3:34 PM  
Blogger Rick Nigol said...

Thanks for your contribution Ib....good stuff! We in the learning business should be organizing "Learning Conferences."


3:33 PM  

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