Friday, August 3, 2007

Some reflections on the future of online vs f2f conferences

George Siemens asked me to address five questions regarding differences between online and face-to-face (f2f) conferences in the humanities. George has recently held two very successful online conferences (the Connectivism Online Conference, February 2006 - and the Future of Education Conference, June 2007- and he wrote me as coordinator of the first two Webheads in Action Online Convergences, held in November 2005 and May 2007 to prepare brief statements which he might use in an article on the topic he is writing for Educause. Once I started writing out my answers I realized that I was working on a full-fledged blog post,

George was interested in our second quasi-annual WiAOC conference, but this event must be understood in perspective of the first in November 2005, which at the time was a truly pioneer effort. Nowadays it seems that online conferences have almost come of age, and we are seeing an era of really significant conferences such as George’s, whose content is on par with a convention you might attend at the cost of hundreds of dollars, with the advantage of the online one being that it’s not only free but interactive and subject to replay on demand (that’s not true of all online conferences of course – some charge fees, but George’s conferences and the WiAOC events have been scrupulously free and open source, and it is in fact this kind of conference that my comments here particularly address).

It is clear that the open-source spirit contributes to the level of knowledge in the distributed learning network of which readers of this blog post are hereby a part. This is in keeping with George’s ideas on connectivism, articulated in many places (the just mentioned conference for example), where he postulates that the viability of the network is more important in many respects than the knowledge contained there, in so far as knowledge is not static, but grows and develops in rough proportion with the vitality of the network. As an example, I’ve traveled this summer with several FOE presentations on my iRiver and in my writings I’ve been citing them. I snipped a bit of Cheri Toledo’s presentation into a short sound file which I’ve placed online (at a wiki, to give it a url) and now I cite it like I would any other reference, and embed it in articles I try to write multiliterately; eg in my blog posting here: . I’ve even found a corroborating statement in a WiAOC presentation (Konrad Glogowski and Christopher Sessums, Personal Learning Environments - Exploring Professional Development in a Networked World; ; audio at and ) so it seems to me we are verging more surely on a new literature here. As editor of the On the Internet column in the online journal TESL-EJ I have a platform that lends itself to writing mainstream in that genre (many examples here: Dieu, Barbara, and Vance Stevens. (2007), Pedagogical affordances of syndication, aggregation, and mash-up of content on the Web. TESL-EJ, Volume 11, Number 1: ). This is also a genre of writing marvelously supported by blogs and wikis.

Now, regarding George’s questions: his first was “Why WiAOC? What did we intend to achieve with the conference when we initiated it?

As a start on an answer, I refer to an article I wrote after our first WiAOC online conference (Stevens, Vance. (2005). Behind the scenes at the Webheads in Action Online Convergence, November 18-20, 2005: TESL-EJ, Volume 9, Number 3. where in the conclusion I say

“What the Webheads in Action Online Convergence seeks to achieve is to bring professionals together in a happy medium where those with the requisite skills can assist those who would like to learn more to achieve greater familiarity with computer-based communications and social networking media, in order that our community of practice can utilize available technologies to work most efficiently and productively (and in order to be worthwhile, more effectively than if such tools were not used).”

To that I might add that we also seek to contribute to the archive of knowledge in our domain of interest, and to the concept that such knowledge should be free, easily accessible, and shareable in the spirit of creative commons. Finally we (or to be more accurate, ‘I’ and a few of my most kindred spirits) simply seek to drive a cue ball into the network and enjoy the spectacle of watching all the pieces fly like particles of atoms generating higher quantum levels of energy through the ongoing chain reaction in the context of critical mass of participants in our converging networks.

George’s second question was: How has the community reacted?

Webheads is a truly unique community that has been the subject of at least three PhD dissertatons (Steele, Johnson, and Costa), and is a part of others that I know of (Gonzalez, Stuckey), and all these studies indicate that Webheads distinguish themselves with an uncommonly high level of support for one another within a context of learning so informal that it is at times cloaked in social and empathetic banter.

Webheads are a community with no institutional support or funding whatsoever, apart from grants of online presentation and meeting spaces from entities serving education which maintain such spaces and have shared them with Webheads at no cost to the community. We are also a community which has sustained a schedule of regular weekly online meetings since 1998, over 500 consecutive and well-attended weekly meetings so far, and listserv traffic amounting to numerous messages each day for the past ten years, entirely through the support of the hundreds of individuals who sustain the community through their continued interest.

The two conferences we have put on have been a logical evolution of our desire to interact with one another in such a way as to increase the level of knowledge within the group, and members in general realize that the increase in knowledge for them personally is worth the time each puts into interacting through these conferences and other online activities. So as regards our conferences, community members not only calculated that the time and effort involved would be well rewarded, but others outside the community have been attracted and made the same calculation, and this has served to bolster the community with infusions of more knowledge.

As for logistical support the community reacted superbly to the first conference. For the second one I thought that though there was healthy interest expressed by many, fewer people actually came forward to help, possibly because they are becoming slightly jaded with the cue ball approach (mine) as opposed to the more studied and scholarly approach (e.g. George’s) which now that the pioneers have crossed the plains, is more in keeping with and surely more appropriate to the established practices envisaged for the territory as it goes mainstream.

George’s third question was: What lesson have we learned in conducting the online conference?

Going from the above, it seems that in order for us to continue we will have to meet the more refined expectations of increasingly sophisticated audiences. When we started with WiAOC in 2005 we were in proof of concept stage, the concept being that free online conferences can and should be put on as creative commons endeavors, without fees, funding, or compensation for anyone involved, and that what was perceived to be in the best interests of all concerned would sustain the endeavor. Having proved the concept and seen that it has occurred to others to mount other free online conferences also (in various guises ranging from unconferences to regularly scheduled webcasts and seminars, some associated with simultaneous f2f conferences, to full fledged free conferences such as George’s two and the K-12 Online Conference ), we are now in position to assess what works in these conferences and what doesn’t.

One thing that doesn’t work as well as it might is having one person too predominantly at the helm, and for the next WiAOC one, I will seek a much wider base, with many tasks and responsibilities delegated from the outset. It seems that for the first one, we went at it as it occurred to us, I documented what we did, and for the second one in 2007 I attempted to steer in the same rut of the first. But I found this so overwhelming as to have perhaps compromised some aspects of the interface, so certainly, broader community support must be engaged from the start.

Secondly, I think we can assume that people will be able to cope with the technological requirements necessary for participation in greater droves than before, so that we can devote more of our energies into developing our interface as opposed to explaining it.

Finally, I think in selecting that interface we will chose a more integrated one, such as Drupal, which can bring together many of the features of submission and vetting, coaching, scheduling, etc. under one portal, plus serve as a venue for the conference itself. The real possibility of using a Drupal portal emerged this past conference through our ongoing association with Worldbridges, but next time if we can count on it from the start, we can plan our efforts around that single venue.

One thing I probably wouldn’t change much is the way we select our presenters. At the moment, the WiAOC has very flexible criteria for accepting submissions. My goal is to accept as many presentations as 72 hour-long time slots over a three-day conference will allow. My idea, which has so far been borne out, is that presenters will strive to meet the expectations of the worldwide audience and prepare quality presentations once their rough sketches are accepted, so our vetting rubric is designed to let in anyone with a seemingly viable idea. So far we’ve been fortunate in that quality of presentations has been quite high, plus we invite a half dozen known speakers to ensure that there will be exemplary presentations throughout the conference. The result is a kind of Woodstock where stars are interspersed with backup bands that so far have been surprisingly good. The 72-hour time frame over three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, one or two of which are weekend days in almost every culture in the world) also means that no one in the world can complain that the events were held at a bad time for them.

Yet another advantage is that our format creates opportunities for those at the edges of our converged communities to come forward and enjoy limelight. It reaches out to all parts of the community and encourages participation and greater group cohesion, where everyone has a chance to have a voice. This is a unique aspect of WiAOC that sets us apart from other online conferences (but not from unconferences). I think it serves our networks well to maintain these differences (between conference styles) rather than to find one formula tending to homogeneity (or worse, mediocrity). One draw of the present offering of online conferences is that each is so different to one another, none is a repetition of the previous, which gives our community members the broadest spectrum of offerings over many different conferences.

George asks, “Are there any drawbacks to online conferences?”

Apart from the very real consideration of digital divide issues, those who ignore online conferences entirely often say that the main reason they travel to live conferences is to interact with peers socially and meet them face-to-face, and perhaps have a meal or a coffee together. Intuitively, this would seem to be a reasonable position, but in fact, interaction online can be much more intense and multi-dimensional than is possible face to face. Is that surprising? You meet people online on an intellectual plane not really possible f2f, where personality, appearance, who can get a word in during the question period, who can best dominate the floor (or where speakers pontificate and the audience sits and listens, or checks email, or glances through the program …). These all tend to constrict the level of interaction possible. For people who dominate meetings at work, surely f2f is preferable, but for the quiet majority, online might be more appealing, and effective. It’s cheaper, more interactive, recorded, and playback enabled.

Another thing that people fail to realize until they’ve experienced it, is that interaction online paves the way for more fruitful f2f interaction later. Given that proven aspect, any tendency to ignore online conferencing on the premise that it does not support the interpersonal benefits of f2f meetings (while living out of a suitcase in a strange and expensive city) would be ill advised. Note that this does not suggest that f2f conferences should be avoided, only that online ones most emphatically should not be.

George’s last question is: What lessons can traditional conferences learn from your experience? i.e. what needs to change with F2F conferences?

One regular f2f conference that is adapting well to the online environment is the IATEFL one. I participated in February of 2006 in a British Council conference called ICT in ELT: putting the 'Learning' back into 'E-Learning' which was actually held face to face at the Manchester Conference Centre, 12-17 February 2006: . The presentations given at the conference were recorded and placed online, and I was invited to participate in the reverse direction, presenting to the f2f audience from a distance. Although the conference was therefore in theory open to worldwide access, in that year the organizers seemed hesitant to advertise it too widely. There were doubts about what the server could handle, what the reaction of the on site participants would be, and just general worry about what was being got into. However, the sky did not fall, on the contrary the online component proved both popular and manageable and the following year some of the same organizers of the Manchester event implemented in the IATEFL conference in Aberdeen, a totally free and open parallel virtual conference which met with enthusiastic response - not just response ... acclaim! (this is where one begins to see the benefits of this to the institution), and this year they are institutionalizing their Virtual Strand even more assiduously during the 2008 conference in Exeter, with two keynote addresses being planned at a distance.

This is one conference that is grappling with the fear of other f2f ones … if conferences are free and online then won’t f2f ones disappear? Doesn’t that threaten the institutions that put them on, and whose raison d’etre is sometimes that one annual conference, plus perhaps a scholarly journal that is becoming less and less relevant given the tendency to publish online? The answer is of course not, no more than software companies who sell their wares will disappear in the wake of those who create open source equivalents.

There is perhaps a parallel in the music industry. The commercial model of that industry is that music is created, packaged, and sold in the package, and any attempt to disseminate that music outside this system is depriving someone (not often the artist) of rightful revenues. This is not true. For art to be sought after and valued it must be first experienced. The traditional vehicle for that was the radio station, which became arbiter of what music would succeed in the industry, and sometimes on the basis of corruption, not strictly on taste. This actually served to constrain the art (if not the industry), because in that system there would be few chances to hear most music apart from radio stations and music stores, and there would be minimal or no play for small niche bands in the long tail ignored by the media power brokers.

Enter the Internet and the rest is history. Now even fringe musicians have many online outlets to get their music heard. But the record companies are crying foul, litigating against free dissemination of music, and trying to exert control on the system in such a way that revenues flow back to them. But the cat is out of the bag. People have tasted the free music. They will not go back to the concept of paying exorbitant prices only to sample a limited range of music, without expanding their knowledge of musical genre.

As Stephen Downes has pointed out, “content is free.” If there is money to be made in this new age it is in adding value to that content. So to mount a viable business model, a way to retain commercially viable relevance in an era of free content, is to restructure business so that it sells something other than the content itself; e.g. tickets to concerts, souvenirs, song books, hardware involved in more efficient delivery of the music to the device of choice, and so on.

Professional organizations may be ideally altruistic but their method of content distribution has long been patterned on the music industry model, where there is a financial impediment to both acquiring the content, and mounting it in the first place. Again the Internet has intervened to present options for people to create and access content leaving f2f conferences in a similar position to media moguls in that they must find novel ways to adapt or face irrelevance. This is especially true in education, given the nature of knowledge dissemination over the Internet. Those organizations and their conference offshoots that fail to adapt will become the ones least interesting to the most innovative educators. Do people go to conferences to become aware of innovation? If so, professional organizations need to be modeling these innovations, not constraining them on the one hand while paying lip service to them on the other.

In at least one professional organization of which I am a member, you could divide the stakeholders into four camps. There are an increasing number of innovators who are integrating the latest techniques in their teaching practices, a larger and growing number in the second camp who want to know more about these innovations, and probably a decreasing but still substantial number of members in a third camp who are satisfied with the status quo or who are developing along traditional lines. In the fourth camp there are the business office managers of the organization. These people are not all educators. There is an executive director, a network specialist, and staff who take their lead from the executive director. In this organization there are tensions in what is good for the organization and its financial viability and what would be possible if conferences were opened up to Web 2.0. That would be difficult in any event because this organization’s conferences are all in hotels where Internet is priced beyond the means of educational presenters. The tensions are apparent also in the protection of the proprietary aspects of the many professional training opportunities available through the organization, and even free ones available there might require a registration that could result in unwanted emails. The part of the organization responsible for its financial fluidity is thus at odds with the ultimate goals of the first two camps, the innovators and the wannabes, and there is risk of alienating these two camps unless the organization adapts.

So to get back to the last question, and the conclusion of this posting, there is a need for professional organizations to move to models which are able to do better what these organizations were created for, and that is: disseminate knowledge across networks. If there exist mechanisms to do this more effectively and efficiently over the Internet than at f2f conferences, then these conferences must capitalize on their strengths, which include the personal networking that takes place at big conferences, and adopt the better features of the online environment as enhancements to on site participants,

For example, even the f2f experience is enhanced when outside voices are brought into the mix, as when on site delegates as well as online ones have the opportunity to interact with presenters they are listing to in text chats that the presenters are following and occasionally responding to, or for on site and online participants to blog their reactions to sessions they are sitting in (often before the session is over). This could be accomplished for the conference goers if a part of their fees went towards wifi available to all at the conference venues.

On site participants need not have to make the choice that’s bane to all big conferences with numerous parallel sessions, having to choose just one session to attend and miss the others. Why not attend one presentation and while there monitor another via a laptop computer. Perhaps f2f participants would be more (not less) inclined to pay for the richer experience of actually being there it that experience were enriched even more through techniques that, let’s face it, we should all be using in our classrooms; e.g.

  • creating virtual communities within even the f2f class,
  • connecting the students to the outside world,
  • multitasking in multiple venues including the f2f one,
  • connecting with other participants on site and online via social networking tools,
  • and making better sense of it all by aggregating content,

rather than being constrained in a f2f conference always to an inflexible, static timetable, to your immediate surroundings and to the company of those sitting next to you.

How are the students gonna learn if the teachers won’t?