Conferences Part III

I thought I’d follow up my two conference posts by talking briefly about a couple of conferences that I think get it right in terms of participation and keeping that ‘conference vibe’ going after the event itself.

These two conferences generally follow the ‘unconference format’ where some or all of the sessions are proposed at the conference or in advance.  At first I thought this was strange, thinking about the length of time I’d need to sort myself out for any conference session, then I realized that the spontaneity was the key point – with less time to prepare a stuffy powerpoint presentation, session leaders had to get audience participation.  (trust me, I’m working on an ‘un-lecture format for my lectures but that is another post).   A proper unconference is a risky undertaking because you don’t know what you are getting before you go.  I can’t see many people parting with the registration fee to go to a conference of unknown content. This is where I think Science Online 2010 got it so right.  They did it all – they had a keynote speaker, and they used the best tools the web has to offer to build up a conference program in advance.  Through wikis, blogs, twitter, facebook, email, and general arm twisting, a diverse and vibrant science communication program was created.  I’ll own up to having attended Science Online 2009 which was organized in a similar manner and found it fantastic.  This year I couldn’t go for a variety of reasons, but would love to go next year again.

It is about more than just letting the participants figure out the program for themselves.  I appreciate that when a bunch of exceptional communicators get together, pretty spectacular things are going to happen, but that isn’t possible for other subjects.  I can just imagine the difficulties involved with trying to get the old guard of chemistry academics into wikis enough to organise themselves into a conferenced.  It just isn’t going to happen.  The beautiful thing about Science Online 2010 is that the majority of the sessions were recorded, video and audio.  So anyone who was there and missed a parallel session, or anyone who wasn’t there can catch up and join in the conversation.  Issues about unpublished work aside, why aren’t we doing this more at conferences?  The technology exists, but not the initiative to actually do it.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to charge a small fee for access to such materials either if thats the concern.

I’ve also been to two ScienceOnline London conferences in 2008 and2009.  The first was better because it was more unconferency, the second more diverse in content so there was less that specifically interested me.  One commonality between all of these conferences is the participants.  I read many of their blogs, and have corresponded through comments, facebook, twitter, email for years.  They are a most enthusiastic bunch, generally inclusive and happy to chatter.  I’ve followed some academics work for years, but at no point has there been an opportunity to interact directly with them in the same way, whether electronically or on the conference circuit.  Why on earth not?  I know part of the answer is to do with being too busy, but if I can make time to exchange a couple of tweets about some polymer chemistry lectures with the diverse bunch that follow me on twitter, I think I can make time to talk chemistry to someone in a different time zone.  The lack of prior interactions inhibit communication at conferences, just as much as the restrictive format does.  Where would be the harm to devote a couple of sessions in a conference to discussion like the Dalton or Faraday discussions of the RSC?  Where would be the harm in having a couple of sessions where participants discuss the recent developments in a field and consider more broadly the challenges that face the field?

So, I’d like more conferences to consider online elements to the programs, be it online chat sessions with a common topic, streaming/podcasts of talks, engaging more with web2.0, engaging more with the changing audience that participates, and finding ways to break free of the ‘traditional’ format.  More conference organizers should look at the precedent being set by Science Online 2010 – they could learn a lot from the model.

Update: if you want some idea of what it looks like when a lot of people engage with a conference before, during and after the fact, have a look at this list at A Blog Around The Clockcoverage of Science Online 2010.

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