What do you look for in a conference?
In the course of the average year, there are plenty of conferences and professional gatherings to choose from in our industry. They range in size from a tweetup of half a dozen or so, through to major conferences like VALA, Information Online and LIANZA. Not to mention major international conferences such as IFLA and ALA. Models too, vary depending on the event: the standard model has mostly been to run a conference over 2-3 days with a series of speakers in lecture mode, i.e. out the front with an audience seated in rows.
NLS for example, have varied the basic model by having cabaret seating where folk sit around tables in small groups - the idea being to encourage interaction. At the other end of the spectrum is the unconference whereby everyone has the opportunity to engage with the material and speak up. Plus there have been attempts to combine various forms within a single conference whether through the addition of satellite events or the incorporation of streams within the larger conference structure.
Each model has its strengths and weaknesses, and can appeal to different sorts of audiences. At the core of each, there are perhaps a few items that strike me as common:
• a desire to learn new things
• meet new people
• catch up with old friends
• a chance to engage in conversation with your peers
Different trends come and go, but those basic needs seem constant.
Conference communication is changing too and here I'm not speaking in terms of marketing but rather the way people engage with the conference community both in the run up to, and during. Social tools such as twitter are playing a substantial part in this area particularly. I have a sense, as one who has attended many conferences, that VALA 2010 represented a key moment in communication changes in this region hitting critical mass. There was a strong presence via twitter involving folk physically and virtually present. Sufficiently strong that those not on twitter, experienced a markedly different conference to those that were. This is not an either/or scenario where one is better than the other, and of course there were some overlaps so they weren't necessarily distinct groups. That sense of engagement continued throughout 2010, e.g. we saw it again at ALIA Access several months later, and with Online this year.
Ultimately though, what are conferences about and what do we expect from them? For folk involved in social media, there is occasionally a sense that we are getting information much sooner in the publication cycle. There can be times where the mainstream media is days or weeks behind the twitter feed when it comes to breaking a story. Yet, there is the danger of restricting yourself to the circles of similarly minded people – i.e. it’s easy to lose track of stuff you don’t otherwise stumble across. I see a conference as presenting a range of ideas, some of which I’ve encountered before, but I’d also like to think that I’ll come across items that haven’t crossed my path.
I want to know what I don’t know.
I don’t think the old conference model of individuals lecturing to a group is particularly effective anymore by itself. Even with backchannel conversations via other media occurring, a rigid structure can inhibit rather than encourage. Though the unconference model suits a particular group of people well, it isn’t for everyone either. There continue to be experiments with hybrid conferences and incorporating other media into more formal structures. I am unclear as to what the best model is, particularly for larger scale conferences, and indeed what sorts of models are viable.
What sort of conference model best encourages learning?