Teaching & Learning

Conference Roulette (Why the player rarely wins…)


Jeff presenting a keynote at Online Educa Berlin.

Jeff presenting a keynote at Online Educa Berlin.

In 12 years at eCollege / Pearson, I estimate that I attended 400 – 450 conferences. I spoke at every single one. They started out as booth support mostly, but soon the booth became a distant memory. -I moved on to presenting, much of the time being sought after for workshops or seminars, and then came the keynotes. But in that same 12 year period of time I never attended a single, full conference just to learn. I never had the pick of sessions. I usually went in, did my thing, saw whatever I could in the 2-4 hours I wasn’t presenting, then left. I rarely stayed multiple days, even if the conference was a week. That never changed in a dozen years…

…until now.

I just returned from the first conference I attended solely for my own edification. In fact, my new position at Saint Leo affords me the opportunity to do this at least once every year if not more. Same goes for all full time faculty! (But that little game changer is another blog entirely.) This one is about my first conference as an attendee. So, I chose an “un-conference” for my first go. It was glorious…

It was a conference on Innovation. CHEI, a part of NUTN, is all about bringing together some of the best innovators in US Higher Ed for some serious networking, discussions, and to peek outside the college box a few times a year. There was no keynote, no Powerpoints, and as the invitation notes – no session in Salon C.  There were technologists, innovators, researchers, and designers from Northeastern, Michigan State, etc., but also from innovative companies like BioSig and One Squared.  There were education consultants in the mix too.  All in all, a great mix of people!

In fairness, this was the 2nd meeting of the group and was my 2nd visit as well. But the first time I tied it to another conference, paid out of pocket to go, and had to leave early. So, in the total of 5 days I’ve spent with CHEI – in Vegas and Norfolk – I’ve mingled with some amazingly entrepreneurial educators, toured Zappos, been given a behind the scenes look at the 2nd biggest display the Smithsonian has ever put on by the developer / artist (The Art of Video Games – Chris Melissinos), toured a college in its second year to see what happens when you come to the table with no history (aka baggage), and witnessed the shared ride program in downtown Vegas which uses bikes, carts, and electric Teslas to impact the world.

cheiThe conference itself was refreshing. Why?  I’ll bet you already know. How many times have you played conference roulette and lost?  I’ve never seen a conference with better odds than 1 in 4 that the session would actually yield good stuff. We’ve all been to sessions like the one on active learning that was entirely lecture based or the session on Competency Based Education where the presenter started by telling you that they tried a lot of stuff, most of which didn’t work, but they’ll tell you anyway. Ugh.

Please hear me, I get how hard putting a conference together can be!  I closely assisted with the 250-700 person CiTE conference at Pearson for 12 years.  Trying to get decent sessions by competent presenters is no easy task!  Not to mention quality keynotes (I think we did far better than most during that time, for the record), good space, and decent catering, etc.  And of course, this all needs to be done for the least possible cost…

But I do have a few suggestions for conference creators.  Whether it’s a faculty development day or a full on, three day conference, here are some things to hedge your attendees bets:

  1. Get a rock star keynote and let them do their thing! I consider myself a decent keynote presenter – mostly because I’m often asked back multiple times – but I’ve seen my fair share too.  It still amazes me when a keynote presenter is given only 60 minutes, of which 5 minutes a taken away because of a late start and 10 more minutes are removed because of an over-zealous emcee or host explaining where the restrooms are or how to use the Twitter hashtag.  (#timewasted)  If you have a rock star (and I realize, that isn’t always the case – if you have a weak speaker, 45 minutes is probably safer…), give them 75 minutes.  A FULL 75 minutes.  And if you ask them to take questions, give them 15 more.  Take into consideration the late start, the announcements, the ice breakers and give-aways – then let them develop a full thesis and defend it adequately.  Nothing ruins the culture of a conference like a rushed opening keynote.  (Oh, and if you’re saying, “…but we don’t have enough TIME for that in our conference!” – you’re wrong.)
  2. If possible, give your keynote presenter(s) some time to interact with your constituents. This is  done through informal sessions of Q&A which means a breakout session or two are valuable.
  3. Don’t show favoritism for “new” or “never-before-presented” sessions! This is a big pet peeve from my perspective.  A LOT of conferences do this.  They want to present “cutting edge” materials that nobody has seen or heard before.  But what they typically end up with is ugly, raw, unpolished research or overly cheeky “active” presentations that have no meat.  Think about this.  The best stand-up comics in the world, from Seinfeld to Rock to Degeneres to Louis CK don’t perform their specials for HBO or Comedy Central without practice.  They do small bits hundreds of times in tiny clubs first.  Then, they put together the “best of” stuff for the big show.  My advice?  Give preference to sessions that have been tried before, and if they’ve been highly rated at another conference, all the better!  (It’s not like faculty can afford to go to every conference anyway – your venue will have different attendees than every other venue!)
  4. Be careful asking about “active” sessions. Just like you want to prevent boring lecturers from presenting to your audience, you also don’t want to eliminate A-rated speakers from the agenda.  Ask to see feedback from other conferences or start keeping your own lists – who are the great speakers vs the amazing facilitators?  Think of it this way.  If you tried to force Ken Robinson or Dan Meyer or Mark Milliron into creating an activity or promoting a collaborative experience during a 50 minute workshop, you (and your attendees) would lose out on some amazing content presented quite effectively without those things.
  5. Panel presentations stink. Panels of experts, taking audience questions around prepared topics are great!  But putting 5 people on a dais, having each one give a 5-7 minute presentation, then leaving 15 minutes for questions at the end is a recipe for disaster.  Panel presentations are not the best of both worlds – they are the worst.
  6. Take it easy with the presentation applications.  It doesn’t need to take 3 hours to fill in your new Google form so as to get a shot at presenting.  Nor should it take 45 minutes to wade through the results by your committee.  In fact, you want a better conference?  Ask for a 4-5 minute presentation – either the session previously shot at another conference or a “video interview” from the presenter explaining their ideas, research, etc.  You’ll see immediately if it’s a session people want to attend.
  7. Watch for key indicators.  A presenter who needs sound / speakers, is (likely) going to have video.  A presenter who needs Internet is likely going to show a website.  A presenter who doesn’t even need a projector is likely going to read from a paper.

There are other things to consider, but I’m out of energy.  It still dumbfounds me how (generally) poor education conferences are.  There are notable exceptions.  SXSWedu is an amazing event.  TED conferences are often fantastic.  But most education conferences I’ve been to see attendees searching desperately for something good, fun, or informative.  In fact, a regular practice at conferences are people who sit in the back of each session so they can leave if it gets boring, giving them a shot at 2 sessions during 1 hour.  Clever.  I call that the “double down” method.

Good luck and good conferencing!

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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