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?
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?
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