This is in response to the Will Richardson's recent post The Ultimate Conference Attendee. I know Will's original post was tongue-in-cheek, but I think there are serious and interesting thoughts here. It is, of course, way too long...
At the 2008 IL-TCE conference, where much of what is being discussed here was going on, there was no central information space for the ad-hoc collaboration and media creation taking place. So to start with, I've created a wiki at:
http://conference20.wikispaces.com (or www.conference20.com)
to serve as a repository for specific real-time links for conferences. For example, since the CUE.org conference starts tomorrow, if you go to the CUE 2008 link (http://conference20.wikispaces.com/CUE+2008, and the only one there now), you will see I've added areas for backchannel chat links, for tags, ustream links, twitter, etc. I've populated those links as much as I can for CUE and the CUE "EduBloggerCon" taking place tomorrow. I've also posted links to this blog post and to a post I wrote after a "collaborative conference" in San Francisco last month.
As it turns out, I flew into Palm Springs today to get ready for the CUE conference and EduBloggerCon "West," and while checking in I ran into Mike Lawrence, the executive director of CUE. I told him about this discussion, and asked his thoughts--especially about whether these technologies in any way threaten their conference model. Mike was quick to respond that he's not worried at all about it. He said: if the physical conference can't stand up to the podcasting or streaming of sessions, then the conference shouldn't be held.
I, too, think there's a ton that takes place physically at a conference which we'll still want to experience. At the same time, I also think that the conferences which promote more collaborative sessions and have more time for face-to-face connecting with colleagues will be most attractive to the "highly-connected" attendees. Look at the TED conference and even our own EduBloggerCons for good examples. But we're forgetting a significant issue, which concerns permissions. At IL-TCE, this was all taking place in among the highly collaborative and sharing group of Web 2.0-ified presenters who are very much in experimental mode and very open to sharing. We didn't ask for permission from the conference organizers to do what we were doing, but I'll be if we'd tried to UStream a keynote session, there might have been some hard questions to answer. What will happen when someone tries to video-stream a session and they haven't asked the presenter--who then objects?
On another note, I think we may tend to overestimate the number of folks who are ready to have a remote conference experience, and who even are using these tools in sessions. Kymberli mentioned the session at IL-TCE where nobody was responding in the small auditorium to my questions--I left that particular session more convinced that the general conference attendee at IL-TCE wasn't really prepared for highly give-and-take dialogs, real-time or electronic. I attended other sessions by Lucy Gray, David Jakes, and Vicki Davis and saw what I thought was a little bit of "deer-in-headlights" reactions as well, and concluded that much of the audience was just trying to absorb a lot of material about Web 2.0. (IL-TCE deserves a huge amount of credit for really bringing in a lot of folks to talk about Web 2.0 in education, I think.)
There's another issue which I think will play out here: too much content. It's going to be a tidal wave, since we're trying to teach everyone we know how to do it themselves! All the recording and streaming and chatting around sessions will only increase, and it's already pretty-much impossible to keep up with it all. Add that to the Twitter stream and our RSS aggregators, and I think we'll relish the chance to get together with others to teach and learn in time we set aside for that purpose. Again, I don't think we'll do that for lecture-style events, but we'll crave highly-engaged, collaborative meetings.
Backchannel chatting and "Ustreaming" were the grand experiments for me at IL-TCE. I think backchannel chatting has huge value and potential and will be a great addition to our conference experiences. Vicki Davis recommended www.chatzy.com, which has the added bonus of keeping a log, and while you cannot embed the live chat somewhere else, it was a good experience to use it. (Since CUE doesn't have the bandwidth--expensive!--to have Internet in their session rooms, it will be interesting to see how many have broadband cell services to do this. Twittering can be done from the cell phone, but hard to manage reading others' "tweets" that way.) The first use of a backchannel chat is to have a chat room specific to a session, and I found that the dropping of web links and the making of other connections was very valuable in this environment. However, it was much more valuable in a larger session than in a smaller one. During a keynote it really adds to the experience; but in a smaller session it seems to be distracting to both the speaker and the attendees. Vicki Davis did lead the way here as well by having assigning someone to serve as a "Google Jockey" to post links in the chat, and someone else to serve as moderator and bring to her attention questions coming up.
The second use of backchannel chatting, which surprised me, was when a chat room hosted folks who were in different sessions. I really like hearing about what was going on in the sessions I reluctantly chose not to go to when there were several that I wanted to. I'm not even sure why this was true, since getting one or two tidbits from another session is clearly not a replacement for being there. But I did feel my experience was enhanced when this took place.
The Ustreaming was compelling enough for me that I ran out and bought a better webcam right after IL-TCE. (I got the Logitech Orbit AF, since it has a good lens, a microphone, and can be moved via motorized controls--seems like the perfect webcam for a conference session.) One real downside is that because there is a chat window for Ustream.tv, it divides the chat between whatever else is being used for chat an Ustream. And if participants on-site want to take part in the chat, they have to go to the Ustream show page, adding to the bandwidth issues as video of the very session they are in starts to stream down. I can see video streaming as a huge bonus to those who cannot afford to attend, and the recording of sessions will give us the opportunity to potentially accumulate a great library of content.
I did find that Twitter-out tidbits from a session (a la Andy Carvin) was enjoyable--kind of like taking notes gives you more incentive to understand and pick out important thoughts. But because everyone's twitter "clouds" are unique and depend on others paying attention, you never really know who is reading what you are writing, and how much to "relay" to others in your own cloud. Twitter was also terribly erratic during IL-TCE, so added to the aforementioned was not even knowing if Twitter was up for others when you sent a "tweet."
In summary (can you summarize rambling thoughts?), I do think that ed tech conferences are an imperfect mirror of what educators think should be taking place in the classroom, and so if the ideas discussed here are mind-stretching, just wait until they begin to more regularly hit the classroom. I've really appreciated Chris Lehman's approach to IM at Science Leadership Academy: promote the use of it in positive ways, and help the students learn together how to do so. It was also interesting to me to have just recently completed the two-day collaborative Classroom 2.0 workshop we held in San Francisco before going to IL-TCE. For all of the fun things happening at IL-TCE, it was still very much a traditional format--lots of sessions with just enough break time to get to the next room. Lots of note-taking to be filed away and looked at when? (Vicki Davis told her attendees: write down three things you want to take away from my session since you'll forget them otherwise. That's just sad.) The experience in San Francisco, with everyone involved, with facilitated discussion sessions, and long breaks between them for drilling down, was like making and eating ice cream. Being at IL-TCE (with all due respect, really) was like being taught how to eat ice cream and watching others eat it. :)