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How can we best use technology at conferences?

October 3rd, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Last weeks video adventure at the European Conference on Educational Research (#ECER2009) – where we interviewed some 40 or 50 participants on video plus more on audio – has provoked quite some discussion on how we can use educational technology to support conferences. First lets provide a little background information.

ECER is a long running and popular conference. It attracted some 2050 enrolled delegates and covers a multitude of themes in educational research, organised by semi autonomous networks and coordinated by the European Educational Research Association (EERA). Whilst interest and participation in ECER is growing fast in terms of size, the conference is probably at its maximum. As ex EERA Secretary General, Martin Lawn explained to us on video, ECER is traditional hosted in university accommodation and few – if any – European universities have space for many more delegates than 2000. And talking to delegates – whilst they appreciated the breadth of the conference and the chance to talk to researchers from different areas of educational research – the very size of the conference was felt to be problematic. With many sessions running in parallel it was difficult to select sessions from the 229 page paper based programme.

ECER has done little with technology in the past. The web site (based on Typo 3) provides access to a PDF version of the programme and to standard information on travel and accommodation but little more. Although the use of technology for learning is obviously a theme in some of the sessions and networks (notably the Vocational Education and Training Network) and there is a relatively small network focused on ICT and learning (Network 16), Technology Enhanced Learning has never been a major theme at ECER.

There are four main arguments for embracing more technology. First is to ease the undoubted difficulties in administration and managing the conference. Second is to provide timely updated information to participants. Thirdly is to make the face to face conference more accessible, for instance through interactive programmes. Fourthly is to facilitate networking between delegates. but perhaps the most compelling argument for the use of technology is the idea of Open Education. Technology could allow the conference to turn itself outwards and to allow participation by those unable to afford either the time to attend or the quite expensive delegate fee. Access is obviously particularly problematic for younger researchers – who possibly might benefit most from a conference of this nature. Rather than being an episodic event on the educational research calendar, ECER could be at the centre of what is called by the European Commission the European Research Area. At the same time this would allow ECER to grow, whilst remaining limited in terms of physical attendance.

So at a practical level what technologies could be used?

First and most important is to set up a social networking site for the conference. Cloudworks, BuddyPress, Ning or Mixxt are all possibilities. However, in my mind CrowdVine is probably the best for the ability to create individual conference programmes. If this was done, I am sure it would encourage more delegates to attend network events, other than those of their own immediate network.

Attention needs to be paid as to how to provide rich information about sessions. I posed this question in a previous blog post about the #AltC conference. Seb Schmoller from ALT put forward a number of interesting suggestions in a comment on the post:

“What is it about a session that you need to know to make a decision about whether to go to it?
Inclusion of a micro-abstract – 140 characters max?
Themes addressed?
Type of session (demo, workshop, symposium, etc)?
Level of experience aimed at?
Where on tech/learning spectrum it lies?
Extent to which it has a strong data or numerical component?
X?
Y?”

Other comments and suggestions included encouraging presenters to make a short video or audio about their contributions. In terms of the participants to ECER (for the most part non-techies), this would require a very simple web based facility to do this – maybe CrowdVine could consider this?

Thirdly stream the keynote sessions and other selected sessions and publicise this in advance. Encouragement and support could also be provided to the different networks to consider streaming some of their sessions. A second screen should be provided in streamed sessions for allowing feedback from those participating remotely.

Fourthly continue what we did this year in producing videos and podcasts from the conference (probably with a little more organisation and preparation than we did this year 🙂 ).

Fifthly, consideration needs to be paid as to how to easily allow presenters to upload their papers and presentations to a central or distributed repository. ECER does not require full papers to be produced and this is a weakness of the conference. However, VETNET has now over 60 of the 90 or so presentations on-line and other networks should be encouraged to follow suit.

One small but key measure would be to adopt a common hashtag and publicise this in advance. As far as I can see only four or five delegates twittered this years conference – but it may be that different people used different tags.

One way of encouraging more use of Twitter – or whatever microblogging service is trending next year – would be to distribute large screens around conference spaces. These could not only be used to show real time aggregated feedback, but also to provide information on upcoming conference sessions.

This is of course only a starting point. But if these steps were taken, they could allow ECER to turn itself outwards, not only to researchers in Europe but to researchers in other continents. With the announcement of the formation of the World Education Research Association at this years ECER, it would be a timely move forward

7 Responses to “How can we best use technology at conferences?”

  1. Sam Smith says:

    Hi – I think that you are right in the 5 areas where technology can help your event.

    Where you start really depends upon the objectives of your event and how you want it to evolve. For example, if your objective is to use the conference as a learning and idea hub of a larger community then extending the reach and range is a good place to start. For example, in this case – using a backchannel, social media (photo sharing, video, twitter, wikis and blogs), Ustream webcasting, etc. will help you include more voices in your event AND integrate the virtual and face2face attendees.

    On the other hand, if your objective is to improve the attendee experience – so they can make informed choices, connect with other delegates and share their ideas and experiences – then I would suggest identifying tools that are going to improve the attendee performance.

    At this point, there is a probably one event technology tool for each different type of activity that you might want to implement at your event. Finding the tools shouldn’t be the problem– just decide where to start.

    I would be happy to point you to any resources or examples from others if that would be of value to you.

    – Sam Smith

    Twitter: @samueljsmith
    blog: http://interactivemtgtech.wordpress.com

  2. Ton Mooij says:

    Some very good ideas to be explored and realised stepwise!
    At the end of ECER 2009, network 16 and VETNET already discussed this issue. Both networks suggested to combine efforts and to contact the EERA office to work on these points. It was agreed upon that I will initate this contact in October 2009.
    Best wishes, Ton

  3. Thanks a lot for this valuable discussion.

    I agree there is a lot of space for development for ECER regarding the use of ICT, uncouthly first steps are made: there is an upload option to put papers onto the ECER online program which turns into the ECER archive after the conference.

    Response to this is already higher than last year, when it was offered for the first time.
    The video and audio pod casts from this years conference are surely a welcome imitative and good start for broadening ECER and it would be good if this could be expanded for next years conference.

    I also see a lot of value in creating a social network site – for the conference as such and for in between conferences to facilitate the work of the networks.

    EERA only recently introduced some new technologies like conference management tool with an interface to the Typo3 website, the online programme, which is only done for the second year directly at the EERA website, this year a personal program planner was introduced, which allowed delegates to highlight and print off sessions they are interested in ….
    This process is still in progress: the searching interface will be enhanced, old archives included,
    I would be good to find tools that can be combined with existing technologies that are already employed by EERA.

    I am happy to receive information on possible technical solutions.
    Best
    Angelika

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