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Should we kill the conference panel?

Panel sessions seem to be increasingly popular at the edtech events that I attend. Is the same true at your conferences?

An edtech panel usually consists of a lineup of luminaries. The panel is moderated some other notable in the field.

Here’s how a typical panel session goes:

#1 - The first 10 minutes are spent introducing the panel. This is important in the edtech world because nobody has every heard of Google, we can’t search the people in our pocket computers, and the details of the panelists are not in the printed or online program. Well - none of that is true - so I imagine that the flowery introductions are intended to stroke the fragile egos of the panel participants.

#2 - The moderator asks the panelists some softball and totally inoffensive question. The panelist then spend 10 minutes each dispensing their wisdom. There is violent agreement between the panelists.

#3 - The moderator asks the panelists another questions. Same result as in #2 above.

#4 - In the 3 minutes remaining in the session, the moderator asks for audience questions. A few people queue up in front of the microphones. Either good or bad questions or asked, but with only a minute left in the session there is no time for discussion.

#5 - The panel ends.  Everyone congratulates themselves for participating in the great panel discussion. The same cast of characters then shows up at a panel somewhere else.

Does this sound like you experience watching - or participating in - conference panels?

The reasons that we have panels are clear. Sitting on a panel is a much easier gig than giving a talk. 

On a panel you can mostly just talk - and in higher ed we talk for a living. If you give a presentation you need to make an argument (ideally), show some evidence (hopefully), and engage with the audience. 

Talks are hard, panels are easy.

We also always think that panels will be good.  The panelists sitting on the stage are indeed interesting people. They are doing great work. They have interesting things to say. They are luminaries.

The reality is that the room dynamics of panels just don’t work all that well. It is difficult for panelists to build a narrative that will capture the audience’s attention. Panel discussions become performative rather enlightening or challenging.  None of us are as good as speaking extemporaneously as we think that we are.

The other problem with conference panels - at least edtech conference panels - is that we all seem to agree with each other. Panels are seldom constructed around people with disagreements around fundamental issues. There is no attempt to construct an argument or debate an opposing view - as we all tend to agree with each other. Panels become another opportunity for professional networking. Our fellow panelists are our colleagues. Higher ed edtech is collegial to a fault.

Maybe in your discipline your academic conference panels have more spark. Perhaps the learning and technology crowd that I run with is insufficiently argumentative. We are too polite, too supportive, and too agreeable. This collegiality makes for a very pleasant experience for the panelists - and a usually forgettable experience for the audience.

Can you point to some great conference panels?

Are you finding yourself watching, and participating in, more panels during your professional conference attending?

How could we re-invent the conference panel to take advantage of the fact that we are all together at a single time and place?

How could we bring in what we know about how people learn into how we construct and run our panels?

Can we imagine panels that are more interactive and collaborative with the people in attendance?

Should we design our panels to surface disagreements and fault lines?

Do you care to defend the goodness and value of the traditional conference panel?

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