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Friday, September 10th, 2010...3:41 pm

The Cognitive Surplus of a Conference

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New wine, old bottles was possibly the key theme of ALT-C in that much of the discussion flowed around questioning the relevance and role of traditional delivery methods of education in the digital age. From Donald Clark’s dissing of the lecture format, which he puzzlingly delivered by giving a pretty good lecture (in the sense that it was entertaining, polemical, well illustrated, he didn’t read from a paper, he engaged the audience, and he swore a lot, see Steve Wheeler , Peter Tinson and David Kernohan for more discussion on this ), to James Clay’s ending question about PLE’s that echoed last year’s clarion call that the ‘VLE is dead’, there was a lot of discussion about whether we need a new paradigm for learning that acknowledges that formal learning might need to be a preparation for informal learning rather than the other way around.

The key moment for me was when Sugata Mitra demonstrated that the key role of the educator is to set some parameters for learning then let the learner get stuck in: educators should ask the questions, he said, and let the learners find the answers. He proved the efficacy of this by telling the story of how he challenged a group of Indian schoolchildren to master the complexities of molecular biology completely on their own purely by interacting with the web; expecting the experiment to be a total failure he, and the audience, were astonished when after just a few months the group of children had collaboratively raised their understanding of the subject to close that of an undergraduate student. Mark Prensky and the Innovative educator seem to be thinking along the same lines.

But the overriding feeling for me at my first ALT-C was a sense of nagging disappointment that despite being populated with over 400 of the best practitioners of learning technology around today, what did we actually achieve in concrete terms, what artefact, statement, decision, conclusion or prediction did we build? (Although sadly this is true of most conferences whatever the subject) My disappointment was exacerbated by my expectations, I had expected that at a conference like ALT-C I would be blown away by examples of amazing ways to use learning technology to deliver ideas, presentations and collaborations; instead sadly I was blown away by how dull, boring and traditional so many of the sessions were. There is, and forgive me for shouting at this point, ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE FOR BULLETPOINTED POWERPOINTS THAT CANT BE READ at a conference like this, you’ve all had ages to prepare so YOU MUST DO BETTER. I’m not saying my style is perfect, but at least I show lots of pretty pictures and don’t read from my slides. Admittedly there were presentations that did something different, engaging and new – Thom Cochrane’s prezi seems to have been one although I missed it – and there were several that relied on the force of the presenter themselves – such as Dave White’s. (if you need some inspiration, see Presentation Zen for a start and follow his advice)

My disappointment was also at the traditional format of much of the conference too, lots of short and long papers, and the usual milling around at lunch and dinner. I had expected something much more creative and collaborative, along the lines of the unconference idea or barcamp for example. This lack of what we might call ‘organised informality’ is a key failure of so many conferences, and fails to exploit what we might call the ‘cognitive surplus’ of such events. Clay Shirky’s idea can easily be extended to the conference arena, just imagine if instead of answering the techies equivalent of a Sunday pub quiz, all that talent, brains and application had been harnessed for the evening to actually DO something. It doesn’t really matter what, but something. Collectively there was something in the order of 1000 work days at the conference, which if it was a research grant would have been in the order of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of staff buy out. Even if  just a fraction of that had been harnessed in a more focused way, we could have done something amazing together. I do not doubt that there was lots of flow and exchange of ideas and experiences at the conference, and that lots of deals were done, but there is little coherent evidence of this, no artefact left to be proud of except the scatterings of blogs and tweets.

So here are some suggestions for future conferences.

One: aggregate all of the content of the conference in real time to make a live, digital publication – newspapers and magazines are published every day from scratch, so why cant a conference be reported on in real time. Take a team of volunteers – student journalists perhaps- and produce a publication that takes the twitter feeds, blog posts, conference abstracts, live interviews with flip cams whatever, to give what Dave White has suggested could be seen as a sense of ‘eventedness’ of the conference – this builds on the cool aggregation of the twitter feeds from ALT-C that Tony Hirst has done or Andy Powell’s analysis of their content

Two: Instead of a ‘pub quiz social’ make one night of the conference more like a barcamp event, except with a theme – a bit like a pub lock in – you are not leaving here until you have done something useful – really dig down and debate an issue and come up with a document or something – theme to be decided by the conference itself.

Three: organise the lunch sessions more into themed discussions, and make them longer – say 2 hours – birds of a feather tables for example, or get the keynotes/invited speakers/presenters to each sit at a table and lead off a discussion, more of a knowledge cafe format

So what ideas have you got to make use of the cognitive surplus of a conference??


  • This is really interesting though your suggestion that the conference represents 1000 person days is a vast under-estimate isn’t it? Even if you ignore travel time and the time spent writing and evaluating papers?

    I totally agree that we need to find more innovative ways of exploiting this coming together of minds.

    ALT-C isn’t unusual in this respect (the events I organise usually have similar problems) but that’s not a reason to try.

    I’m not sure if you discovered F-ALT, the fringe event (search Twitter for #falt10 I think), but that was started as an attempt to do some of what you suggest.

  •   paullowe
    September 10th, 2010 at 4:34 pm    

    Hi Andy,
    yep, I was just taking the time people spent at the conference itself, if you add travel, preparation, and even all the blogging afterwards its horrendous! Never mind all the other costs of trains, planes and automobiles etc.
    I went to the F-ALT event too, and it was fun but still pretty lightweight….
    so yes, we do need to try harder with the format of big events like this, I’ve tried a few experiments with one day sessions and they worked really well – getting the students union to make the sandwiches for a pound and then selling them for two with all profits going to charity worked really well for example as a way to keep costs down.

  • Nice. We’ve tried to do different stuff with LGC events. Kids made a film about us;

    Nigel & I developed the Policy Forest capturing a summative view of the debates and meanings generated. Here is one from JISC Sustaining Innovation from June;
    For me ALT-C worked best when it had less Themes with Theme Leaders who tracked each theme and reported back to the conference. I think it is a mistake to have the titles and themes of the next ALT announced a year early. If we were debating propositions each year to a conclusion then the following years conference themes and issues would emerge from the current years concerns.
    Still good to celebrate and network though!
    MAybe we need some

  • Hi Paul – this is a brave post and I really respect you for sticking your head on the block and saying what we’re probably all beginning to think. I was only at ALT-C for one day but I did leave thinking that it was nice to catch up with old friends but *what did we achieve*?

    The traditional conference model is definitely running out of steam for me. I don’t want to go into a room of people who are only vaguely interested in what I’m up to and show them some slides with some outcomes and next steps and take a couple of questions, and I have no real desire to be on the other end of it either.

    You’re right – all that humanpower and what’s the result? Words, and perhaps an additional stimulus to *do* something. Considering all the energy it took to get us to Nottingham and the energy we spent while we were there, couldn’t we have returned home having achieved something more concrete?

  • One of the problems with running a non-traditional conference is that it is then challenging for people to get the funding to attend.

    ALT-C works in one sense that people will get the funding to go if they present a paper at the conference, if they can’t present a paper then they can’t get the funding. ALT-C isn’t viable unless it has lots of delegates attending. So the format of the conference is dictated by the fact that in order for it to run, it needs lots of delegates to attend, they will only attend if they are presenting and as a result the conference has to consist of lots of papers and presentations.

    I have run various unconferences in my time and I have had lots of correspondence from people who wanted to attend, but couldn’t because staff development funds weren’t available for travel (the events were free) as there was no concrete objectives or outcomes for the event. Well there were, it was just that in order to secure funding it is easier if they can show a programme of keynotes and presentations!

    It goes back to something I have said before, we do things this way, because we have always done it this way.

    The only way to change things, is to instigate that process of change yourself. The PLE conference this year is an example of that.

    James Clay

  •   paullowe
    September 12th, 2010 at 4:01 pm    

    Hi James
    Having organised both traditional and non traditional conferences too I totally agree and understand the economics of conferences, and the problem of only being able to get funds from staff development or whatever to attend one if you are presenting means that you have to have lots of presenters and sessions (although since no one from higher up has ever asked me how long my presentations at any given conference are, maybe we could go for the extreme version of VERY short papers – the one minute presentation! – and longer discussions around them….). And of course the mother of the all, that we all so admire, TED charges its attendees a fortune to be there in person.

    But that’s why I was suggesting the concept of cognitive surplus- i.e. trying to harness the energy of the attendees in the informal spaces that already exist at a normal conference.

    Sure we need to keep the paymasters happy but if we used some of the ‘unconference’ ideas during a more traditional one then we could perhaps combine the best of both worlds. Some of the symposiums at ALT-C began to work like that, but they were still organised in a ‘lecture’ format – a bunch of people on the stage debate the issue with a few questions from the crowd.

    So that’s why my suggestions were all things that could be done as well as the mainstream conference that allows everyone to get together in the first place, and served to amplify and expand and archive the informal discussions that happen on the tables and nooks and crannies of the venue.

    Of course, we could throw out the baby and the bath water and think again about the whole model of the conference. I’ve run 2 ‘unconference’ conferences this year on a shoestring, with free admission and they were very successful with around 100 attendees at each one – a lot of stress and work, but then so is any conference – and the results were great. One big advantage is that they can be very focused on an issue as you control the agenda more when setting the event up.

    Maybe universities should switch some of their staff dev funds from paying their staff to go to other people’s conferences and instead use it to hold events that are free to their staff and to anyone else who wants to attend – Cole Camplese has done this at Penn State in the US for example

    Whatever we do, we need to do something though, as in the current climate funds for attending conferences are only going to get tighter and tighter!!!

  • Having been to one of Paul’s unconference-style events, I can vouch for it being a *big* success – the most inspiring few hours I’ve spent this year. It just shows that, if you have the guts to cut the crap, herd everyone into a basement and feed them squidgy cheese sandwiches, you can stoke up a hell of a lot of brain power for very little cash. When I think about that day I remember a flow of ideas, a paper tablecloth covered in scribbles, a melding of minds and insights. The cheese sandwiches weren’t actually that bad either.

    The second-best event I’ve been to this year was Educamp London, organised by Tim Bush (ULCC) and Harold Fricker. Also in unconference format, with a fluid programme collaboratively put together in Googledocs, I got a lot from this event; people spoke about what they were doing NOW, rather than what they thought they’d be doing five months ago, and exchanged useful suggestions to address real current and future issues.

  •   Niall Watts
    September 13th, 2010 at 1:24 pm    

    Lots of interesting points raised in this discussion. I only attended for one day (the day I was giving a short paper) but attended the whole ALT-C a few years ago and indeed many similar conferences. I may have missed something but…

    Workshops where participants can get hands-on experience of new technologies would add a practical dimension.

    Also sessions where participants can bring a problem or issue and debate and discuss it with their peers

  • Many good points, Paul.

    I like the idea (if I’m reading you correctly) of having a mix of ‘traditional’ (to get funding) & ‘non-trad’ – to get the dynamism you felt lacking (world cafe style lunch [though that pre-supposes everyone can sit down at the same time... ])

    The one minute (or a bit more) presentation would give everyone a chance to practice their PechaKucha! (I can never decide about Prezi – I know lots of people like it, but I always feel sea-sick when I am in the audience – so have been reluctant to try it. )


  1. The Cognitive Surplus of a conference revisited | E-flections

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