How Do You Conference?

Best practices, information exchange and scholarship.

July 10, 2019

Last month we wrote about the challenge of building new, stable, strong networks, and we contextualized this by briefly exploring the dynamic between academic and professional networks. Much of the feedback we received was not about the premise -- how to build new networks -- but rather argued that these networks already exist.

Fair enough. Many professional networks do exist. ELI, OLC, edX Global Forum, UPCEA, Educause, Domains, HAIL and myriad one-off symposia all bring together practitioners who explore best practices and innovations in learning, design, educational technology, etc. Between the two of us, we’ve been to all of these conferences. Many repeatedly.

This is good, important work. Our point was not meant to be a value judgment on the work that happens in these networks and at these conferences, but to suggest there are often differences worth exploring, and our continued push for scholarly engagement suggests it’s worth exploring these differences.

Like many of you, both of us have attended numerous academic and professional conferences. Some of these are connected to our disciplinary backgrounds and to our teaching. Others connect with our work critically exploring higher education and learning, looking at a range of topics from digital learning to curricular and co-curricular innovation.

We’re always interested in how people share knowledge at these conferences.

At the more traditional academic conferences, particularly in the humanities, presenters more often than not read a paper of seven to 15 minutes in length in which they present new research and arguments about a particular topic. If slides are used, they tend to be limited and often for longer quotations or images.

At many of the professional conferences we attend, the mode of delivery is almost always talking through and to a PowerPoint presentation. Slides can serve (in the worst case) as simply an awkwardly placed teleprompter for a poorly thought-out presentation or (in the best of cases) as a visual montage helping to supplement a genuinely interesting story of success (or perhaps failure).

Whenever we share what happens at these two different types of conferences, the responses are almost always entirely predictable. Experts in digital learning and the like can’t imagine having to sit and listen to a paper. How boring is that? Don’t they know people can’t maintain their attention for seven minutes, let alone 15 or 20 (or longer in the case of a plenary talk)?

Humanities scholars can’t even begin to imagine why anyone would want to listen to someone lecture from a deck of slides. Where is the rigor? Where is the scholarly depth?

This divide speaks in part to the challenge of bridging academic and professional conferences. We often carry out our work in different modalities, with each championing the method of exchange most comfortable.

Is there a better mode? We’re not sure. But it does strike us important to ask how many people at the sessions you attend are paying attention and how many are on their phones or laptops. How much of the work presented at a session leads to additional scholarship and sharing? And, alternatively, how much of the work presented or read leads to a change in practice (scholarship, pedagogy or administrative)?

How do you conference?

Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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