Conferences are changing just as Higher Education and modes of learning are changing. Where once you had to be present to engage with and learn from your peers at a conference you can now follow proceedings and interact online. These changes can be seen across disciplines, but in this post I am going to reflect briefly on my hybrid participation in the recent ALT (Association for Learning Technology) conference.
The physical conference took place over 3 days in Manchester but people were also encouraged to participate online and there were many opportunities ahead of the event to connect with the ALT community via the conference website or using the #altc hashtag on social media.
Hybrid participation – home and away
On day one I watched the first keynote presentation online and participated in the Twitter ‘backchannel’. In the afternoon I travelled up to Manchester – reading tweets, saving links to explore later, and connecting with other participants along the way. On day 2 I attended in person and on day 3 I was back at home, following on Twitter, watching recorded sessions on YouTube, drafting this blog post and watching the live-streamed final keynote and closing remarks.
Others who were not able to be in Manchester could join in with Virtually Connecting, the brainchild of Rebecca Hogue and Maha Bali who facilitated online sessions to ‘connect onsite conference presenters with virtual participants in small groups’ as in this conversation with keynote speaker Jonathan Worth.
Strengthening online relationships
Whilst I am a keen user of social media there is no doubt that there is something special about meeting people ‘face to face’. Occasional opportunities to meet people we have known through Twitter, online courses or other collaborations strengthen those online relationships. As Editor-in-Chief of the #altc Blog it was also a good opportunity for me to meet up with some of the deputy editors and people who have offered to write for the blog.
Making new connections
Even one day at the conference gave me the chance to meet new people in sessions and have interesting conversations in the lunch queue. Although these may have been snatched moments they can be expanded upon later online.
Time travel – being in two places at once
Inevitably with such a large conference (over 160 sessions, plus keynotes etc.) it would be impossible to attend all the sessions I wanted to even in 3 days. By using Twitter and monitoring the conference hashtag (with Hootsuite on my mobile devices) I was effectively able to experience 2 or more sessions at once. This could be distracting, but I managed the wealth of inputs by saving some tweets to explore later (using an IFTTT recipe that saves all my ‘favourited’ tweets to Pocket).
This sort of open backchannel, where virtual participants can play a major part, blurs the boundaries of conference attendance – it’s never really clear who is there and who isn’t. On the first morning, I was discussing the keynote with a colleague using Twitter direct messaging as we each watched the livestream in different towns. That evening as I arrived in Manchester someone tweeted to ask where I was because they hadn’t been able to find me in the conference centre – clearly my virtual engagement had made me seem ‘present’ to those already at the event!
For presenters, social media such as Twitter extend the reach of their papers and allow many more people to engage with them, but it can be daunting to consider just how many people are taking part that you cannot see in the room.
There are always a great selection of exhibitors at the ALT conference and I had the chance to browse the stands and ask difficult questions. As well as taking away literature I will carry on researching the products and services online.
Time (and money) for more events during the year
Perhaps the best part of this hybrid participation is that by only attending on one day I am able to go to one or more other events during the year to support my professional development and extend further my PLN (personal/professional learning network).
Hybrid conference participation – some questions for the future
As Jonathan Worth’s described his Phonar (Photography and Narrative) course during his keynote I tweeted: ‘What does “coming to class” mean in the digital open age?’. We can also ask ‘what does “going to a conference” mean now?
If more people take advantage of virtual conference participation will physical attendance dwindle threatening the future of conferences? Or, just as recorded lectures don’t reduce the appetite for attending in person, will the two modes continue to enhance each other?
Can virtual participation in conferences stimulate interest and lead to physical attendance – just as MOOCs are said to act as adverts for campus-based courses?
As university budgets are squeezed and time pressures increase, can we expect the hybrid model of conference participation to become more popular? Or is getting away from work and home for 3-4 days to immerse yourself in a topic with colleagues from other institutions, sectors and/or countries still the best option?