9 ways to design better conferences

by Viv on October 24, 2008

One of the reasons that I started this blog was that it would force me to reflect more thoroughly, as describing something to others requires far more clarity of thought than telling yourself that you understand it. Here I reflect on the changes that I’ve helped make to the design of e-Learning Network conferences in the form of tips that you could use to freshen up events that you design, or perhaps even demand from conferences that you attend in future.

Historically the ELN events were held in a lecture theatre with the day following a fairly standard pattern of 5 or 6 presentations, some Q&A and occasionally a panel discussion. Sadly this is not that much different from most other conferences that I’ve been to over the years. Periodic attempts to vary the diet of activities e.g. work in subgroups tended to fail as the fixed layout of the lecture theatre made it difficult for people to have face to face discussions. Whilst many of the presenters were excellent, there’s only so much being talked at that I can cope with before I fall asleep (ask anyone who was in my Economics tutorial group at uni). The networking aspect of the ELN was also not working as well as it could…most of us are not natural networkers so perhaps a helping hand was needed. When I joined the ELN committee I was determined to improve the learning design of the days to make them more useful, interactive and promote networking.

Having more than 20 people at an event makes it challenging to achieve genuine interactivity. Here’s some tips from my experience so far:

  1. Get a room setup where people can form into different groups and sub-groups easily – the ELN’s current Holborn Bars venue is good for this as it allows people to be seated cabaret style.
  2. Have an activity early on where participants can talk with the people nearby them e.g. give them 5 minutes to discuss in pairs questions like: what’s your experience of X? what are you most looking forward to today? This sets the tone for the day being interactive rather than experts lecturing – the collective knowledge of the participants is likely to be huge, it would be a waste not to harness it.
  3. Sequence the sessions so that there is a learning journey or some other coherent narrative e.g. What? So what? Now what? worked well in the “Free e-learning” event that I chaired for the ELN in November 2007.
  4. Make sure that you have briefed the speakers well in advance so that their sessions don’t overlap and fit with your overall vision for the day’s learning journey.
  5. If there is a batch of speakers covering similar themes a 20 minute Q&A for all 4 speakers is more interesting than 4 individual 5 minute Q&As. It also gives the chance for speakers to bounce off each other and compare/ contrast their views.
  6. Audio does not always work smoothly, hence it is worth having an AV technician on hand, even if you have to pay extra for it.
  7. If the topic lends itself to controversy, consider using debates/ interviews to bring the different sides of the argument to life.
  8. If the audience has significant technophobic elements, but you’re covering a hi tech topic, use an introductory learning activity that is low tech e.g. at the TDN’s “The impact of Web 2.0 on learning” event, I ran a successful session where participants had the chance to experience what it could be like to be part of an on-line community using an activity based on technology no more advanced than flipchart paper & pens and post-its.
  9. Have a brief closing activity where people think about and share what they’re planning to put into practice as a result of the event.

I’m still learning how to make conferences better…hence I stopped at 9…

If everyone demands and designs more interesting conferences, I’ll be delighted to see you at them…

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