5 Reasons Why Changing Passive Conference Formats Is So Difficult

How professional gatherings mimic and illuminate postsecondary instructional practices.

October 6, 2015

At the Learning With MOOCs II conference the discussion was all about how open online teaching can improve residential learning, and how we will respond to continued pressures around postsecondary costs and access.

There was also lots of discussion about how learning conferences are evolving.

There is a strong and universal desire amongst educators to change our conferences in order to conform to what we know about learning.

Nobody is a fan of the sage on the stage format of professional gatherings.

Everybody wants to see our conferences align to our push to more participatory and active learning.

It is instructive to think through the difficulties of changing learning conferences as we ponder the resilience of traditional lecture / passive-learning modes of instruction.

The reasons that so many of our learning conferences resemble so much of postsecondary foundational instruction (introductory courses) is that the costs for change are prohibitive.

Here are 5 reasons why our learning conferences are still mostly exercises in didactic interaction (talks, audience questions - thankfully no high stakes tests), rather than the active and distributed conversations that we envision for our classrooms:

#1 - The Built Environment:

Moving from talks to discussions would require conference spaces able to accommodate this switch. Very few venues are set-up for dialogue rather than lecture. Seats are bolted to the ground, tables are too heavy to move, and space for discussion is limited. It may be that the development of active learning classrooms will enable more active participatory conferences in the future.

#2 - Scale:

The quality of conversation diminishes rapidly beyond a certain number of participants. That number may be as small as 20, but is probably not much more than 30. Conferences bring together many more participants than can be accommodated in a single discussion space. There are seldom enough small rooms at a conference to accommodate lots of discussions. And who wants to have numerous simultaneous sessions, as this will break up the flow and cohesion of the conference?  Learning conferences simply do not scale very well.

#3 - Conference Attendees Will Not Prepare:

One reason that we go to conferences is the reprieve that they represent from the onslaught of daily operations. A conference forces you to engage in longer term thinking as you are off campus and out of the office. (If not away from e-mail).  Who amongst us would have the time to read articles or watch pre-recorded conference presentations? It is a powerful dream to have everyone arrive at the conference full prepared to discuss the materials that everyone has digested ahead of time, but only a dream.

#4 - Flipping the Conference Would Be An Enormous Amount of Work:

Nor is it feasible to expect that conference presenters would be able to pre-record their presentations. One thing that we have learned from MOOCs is that good instructional video is incredibly time consuming to create, and that the best results require a collaborative approach with media experts. Creating bad video to watch before a conference would be a worse result than a conference stacked with PowerPoint presentations. At least a live presentation has the benefits of interaction and spontaneity.

#5 - We Are Accustomed to the Performative Nature of Presentations:

Let’s face it - we like to be entertained.  The best conference presentations are like the best lectures. They are passionate, conversational, engaging, visually stimulating, and high energy. They follow a tempo of call and response that has been perfected over millenniums of storytelling.  Great conference presenters tell stories.  We come to conferences looking to be inspired and challenged. Our prime goal is less to learn, as learning is really hard work.  Just as our students are often negative about the switch to active learning courses, we would be skeptical about a change to our learning conferences that asked us to work hard to create our own experience.

Is the future of all conferences unconferences?

What are strategies that you have witnessed that disrupt the tyranny of the passive conference?

What is your favorite learning, technology, or learning technology conference to attend?



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