Friday, September 10th, 2010...3:41 pm
The Cognitive Surplus of a Conference
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??