Sunday, April 29, 2007

Will online facilities at conferences kill off smaller, more localized events where people are within travelling distance of the venue?

I hope I can say in a nice way that I disagree that online components to conferences will kill off localized events. I think the opposite, that online access to any professional development opportunity enhances it for everyone involved. I have given many presentations at normally closed on-site venues where the participants have said afterwards that the demonstration of what it was possible to do online was eye opening for them. So at the site itself, appropriate techniques for interaction are modeled, and the people at the on-site location can see first hand how to set up and use the technologies that can bring the world into their classrooms.

It could be argued that the opportunity to learn more about how to do something truly useful like that would draw people to conferences. People might conceivably in the very near future become less and less interested in conferences where this kind of thing doesn't happen.

People in the audience ought to be able to choose their preferred modality, not have things set up so that coming to the site was the only option for them. Constructing learning environments so that users have choices according to individual differences and learning styles is a major premise of individualized learning which ought to underpin what appears in an independent learning center as well as in real-life professional development. I have argued elsewhere that online participants might benefit more from such occasions from a purely technical point of view by having to DO what was talked about in presentations (about technology) rather than just sitting passively, nodding, taking notes, and then returning to work in the same old way.

I have heard it argued that sitting at home online is isolating and that people participating in conferences in this way are missing out on all the social interaction. Again, as someone with over a decade of experience working with people online, I find the opposite to be true. If all your interactions with people you admire in your profession are done face to face on those rare occasions you are able to coincide in the same physical space, then I hope you do savor the moment. Online, you can interact with such people more or less continually. You find that personalities and intellects are much more accessible over time in this mode, that people get to know one another better and more deeply online, and that when face to face meetings do occur, the benefits of having laid all that groundwork are immediately apparent. Ask anyone who has met an online professional acquaintance at long last – in most cases, it’s a milestone in a friendship that has already formed.

I’m not arguing against the importance of attending live conferences. I go to several in person every year and I find that they feed an important aspect of my professional development. But online venues multiply such opportunities, and it is crucial that we share and share alike in this regard – if I benefit online from a conference given in Minsk or Fujairah then I should give my colleagues in Minsk and Fujairah a chance to benefit in kind when I make my presentation, even at my local conference.

As someone with experience in both face to face and virtual events, I can speak with familiarity and some authority on each. But I find that many people with whom I discuss the benefits of interjecting more opportunities for online interaction in areas that are normally face to face (ranging from conferences to meetings at work) are not particularly experienced in online interaction, might try it once, decide they don’t care for it, and never really move cross that threshold where the benefits start to become self-evident.

That is one great contribution of the Aberdeen IATEFL conference I think, that it seems to have been a mostly positive experience for all concerned, and has got people a few steps closer to that all important threshold. I’m trying here to encourage continued movement to the edge, and counter tendencies toward thinking that, ok, it worked there, but it wouldn’t work here. There are many reasons why the example of Aberdeen, and so many others as well which I could get into if anyone is interested, can and absolutely SHOULD be pursued locally - and thanks to the Internet, globally in the same fell swoop.

Smiles and kind regards,


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