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Monday, March 02, 2009

Online Conference

Two of my eLearning Predictions for 2009 were:
#5 - Virtual Classroom Tipping Point

... we've reached a point where virtual classroom training is no longer seen as inherently inferior and a lower value ... 2009 will be the year when we realize that we should be justifying any in-person training.

#11 - Micro Virtual Conferences

The move towards acceptance of virtual classroom means ... acceptance of online conferences ... we won't have time to go for several days ... in between a full online conference and something that's a few sessions.
Already this year, I'm seeing a lot of this ...

And I think there's a fairly substantial implication for workplace learning organizations...

Online Conference Associated with Major In-Person Conferences

It was interesting to see that ASTD TechKnowledge offer an online conference. The experience sounds like it was okay (TK 09 Virtual Experience). They opened that up late in the process. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if they had offered it earlier. Would attendance have been even lower for in-person?

And I'm not the only one: Online conferences - the future is now.

Both talk about: great value.

Online Conference on Conferences

I was asked to participate in a recent online conference: AACE - Spaces of Interaction: An Online Conversation on Improving Traditional Conferences. The event was held purely online with sessions spaced about 6 hours apart, 3 times per day, for 3 days (9 total sessions). They were recorded. And there was a discussion group.

Think about how having it as an online conference allowed:
  • Narrow focus
  • Attend without interrupting my job.
  • Get people involved who would never participate in-person in such a narrow topic.
  • Organize quickly
  • Low cost
Side note: It was somewhat ironic to hear all the discussion about how to improve "traditional conferences" while we were participating in something that was not really traditional - but was fairly effective.

New Organizers and New Designs

Now, I'm not saying that there's anything new about holding an online conference. The eLearningGuild has been doing this for years with monthly, for-fee online conferences structured around particular topics. These are held over two days with a structure very similar to in-person conferences. Part of the reason that the eLearningGuild structures their online conferences to be similar to in-person conferences to make it more obvious that it's similar and thus is worth the money.

Once you go to an online conference it suddenly allows all sorts of new conferences, new organizers and new designs to flourish.

I've really not spent a lot of time looking at different models, but it seems like there are several common design questions that come into play:
  • Number of Sessions - You can go anywhere from Single Event Webinars (e.g., Tapping the Social Grid) to complete conferences with many sessions across many topics.
  • Tracks - Is there a single series or do you have multiple sessions at the same time?
  • Synchronous / Asynchronous - Do you design for live sessions or more for recording and viewing later with interaction pushed to discussion groups?
  • Schedule - When in the day do you schedule your sessions?
  • Spacing - Do you block sessions to occur back-to-back or do you leave room for discussion and work to occur in-between?
  • Exhibitors / Sponsors - How do you integrate exhibitors and sponsors? Are there demonstration sessions?
  • Discussion Mechanism
  • Networking
  • Start-up Support / Training - How do you help participants participate effectively?
  • Conference End / Follow-on - What do you do at the end?
Targeted Online Conferences

When I did my online session Tapping the Social Grid - I primarily focused on establishing 1-to-1 conversations. I probably used the phrase "30 minute conversation" more than any other phrase. But what get's me excite about online conferences is that we can easily make this a many-to-many conversation.

If you look at what we are doing with SharePoint in Corporate Learning - Free Micro Virtual Conference, the reality is that I've tapped into the Social Grid to find people Using SharePoint. We are turning that into an amazing online conversation with:
  • High quality speakers / participants (HP, Intel, Thomson Reuters, Administaff, ...)
  • Focused topic
  • More discussion and less presentation
We've structured it to hopefully encourage lots of sharing and discussion.

The bottom line:
I would go have each of these conversations 1-on-1 if I didn't have this way of doing it. We might as well make it many-to-many.
Implication for Workplace Learning Organizations

When you look at the dynamic here, I believe there's an incredible opportunity for workplace learning organizations to become a new kind of organizer as well. I get asked to come speak at various in-house conferences. That's generally a fairly expensive proposition. And I would guess that the number of in-person, in-house conferences is going down right now. Just a guess. ;)

Maybe you can create something much better. Create an online conference. Invite people from outside the organization who share similar issues. Invite the "experts" but reduce the costs greatly by allowing it to occur without travel. You really don't need George, Jay and I to organize these things for you.

Or do you? Literally as I'm composing this, I'm wondering if there's possibly a great new service offering here. Would you like help pulling together an online conference around a topic for your organization?

I know people who are really good at pulling together online conferences. I know how to network to get lots of interesting folks together. I'm sure there are plenty of corporate event organizers who would organize an online conference. But I sense there's something a little different here.

What do you think? Is there need among workplace learning organizations? Is there a new business here?


Thomas R. Stone said...

Great post! And yes I think the eLearning Guild has been cutting edge in this regard. They have been doing their Online Forums for a while now, and Karen and team really have a good system going. I enjoyed speaking at one last fall, and look forward to doing so again this April. I just wish I had time to attend more sessions in all the other OFs they do month to month!

I agree with your predictions in this area... the current economic reality will drive use of virtual conferences, and soon what the eLG is doing with their Online Forums won't seem innovative to anyone.

One thing I think they should do to make it even better... is wrap a consistent social networking platform around their OF series... using a good platform, say either Ning, or even more powerful I think would be IntroNetworks' platform. People sign up for an OF, fill out their profile, and then it could carry over from month to month, such that when they attend another one their profile is there, keeps track of which OFs and even which sessions they are attending, and so on. Ditto for speakers -- we fill out our profile in the system once, and it carries over and tracks our speaking history and so on.

Doing that would kick it up a notch, and keep their OFs cutting edge -- since soon lots of people will be doing virtual conferences.

Tony Karrer said...

Thomas - Great points.

What do you think attendees would do with such a social network? I could see discussion around the topics that are being presented, but I'm not as sure about use in between events.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your ideas, as well as those of Jay Cross concerning the eConference or unconference. It seems that this ideas may fit a niche, such as Elearning Guild members, who are very comfortable with technology, and may actually prefer or have a strong preference towards that type of technology.

But we shouldn't assume that all people want this type of interaction. I was shocked this winter semester with two classes that I teach at a community college. I have 31 students in my two courses. I needed to attend a conference, requiring me to be gone for a week.

So I facilitated three sessions online using an online meeting tool (2 sessions of 1 class, and 1 session of the other). Prior to coordinating this, I polled both classes. 2 students had taken an asynchronous online classes through the college. One 1 student (a non-traditional student) had participated in a synchronous online learning program for work.

In a written survey at the start of class, nearly 75% had a lot of anxiety about online learning or preferred no online learning.

Following the session, I distributed a quick survey - 1 question, I don't remember the wording, but essentially asking them how they liked it. The average through all 3 classes was 3.25 (or of 5).

On the surface, that is a slight improvement from the earlier 75% who didn't want an experience or who had anxiety.

Further, I find it interesting, that at least anecdotally - my non-traditional students made more favorable comments about the experience than traditional students.

I'm not sure where exactly I am going with this, other than the fact that not everyone wants this type of experience; classroom or for a conference.

How do we handle this balancing act?

Paul Angileri said...

Tony, I definitely agree that the current economic climate, and the growing concern for environmental integrity, will significantly improve the uptake of online meetings. I think the medium was already well on its way to proving itself and would've eventually come about anyhow, but economics being what they are at the moment will probably be seen as the first major catalyst for the movement when we are looking back in 20-30 years.

Telepresence I think is the next major revolution of the movement, and it's something my last employer was beginning to invest heavily in, in order to get the face-to-face element without sending people to other continents.

To the question about Thomas's social network and its possible uses, I know someone in the Twin Cities who heads a local elearning group comprised of professionals working at companies that are competing and collaborating with each other. This group meets once a month in-person to discuss industry topics, but it also serves in part as a networking and job-finding resource for those involved. I would think even just the networking aspect of such a revised OF would lend itself to good participation, but this also means it would have to grow steadily over time, and may become unmanageable at some point.

Tony Karrer said...

@Anonymous - I agree that some people will take longer to adjust and may never adjust. Still I run into interesting cases (an old school CPA doing a certification online) that makes me think that a large percentage of the population will get there. I do think there's a good caution that there will still be some segment that doesn't feel comfortable with it.

@Paul - I've often wondered about that. I have a local CTO group that I've organized for about 10 years. About 80 of us with 25 getting together once a month. It's fantastic in-person social network with very high value. Theoretically, we should be able to do this online, but somehow it doesn't seem to always translate.

For example, there have been lots of different discussion groups that emerge around eLearning events and things like LearningTown. Most somewhat come and go. And as I'm sitting here, I don't feel compelled to go look at them. So, it doesn't really translate for me either. There's something else to all this.

John said...

First regarding prediction number 5:
I hope this is true. I love live ILT. But I think the economy will finally help us move toward more acceptance of virtual classroom training. Count me in. Sure there are bandwith issues. Sure telepresence would be way cool, but the cost is still way oustide the reach of most of us.

Regarding #11:
I think that this will be true especially of well-targeted MVCs. Live conferences have to have a somewhat broad audience (and multiple tracks) to suppor the resources necessary to put them on. A well-targeted niche conference could be very affordable to produce. With open-source tools it could be even cheaper.

Finally, yes, there might be a need for a conference organizer. Part of the reason is access to lists of potential participants. I don't have a big list, nor do other WLP pros I know. There needs to be some sort of JV model -- not all MVCs will be in the WLP field, though. Lots of potential here.

Unknown said...

I was a member of the ASTD TechKnowledge 09 Virtual Conference. I thought it was a great experience. In fact, I've commented to a few of my colleagues that it was one of the most engaging conferences I've been to in many years. While there were definitely a few hiccups along the way, I thought the staff at ASTD pulled off a remarkable feet.

I especially enjoyed how we were able to watch Tony's key note address and then had our own private one-on-one interaction with Tony in our WebEx classroom. I definitely hope that ASTD and other associations really think seriously about implementing online conferences as a consistent part of physical conferences in the future.

Tony Karrer said...

@John - good point about the need for distribution list to get participants in narrowly focused online conferences.

@Jason - I thought it was quite interesting to do a keynote and not have much interaction with the F2F audience. Then for the people online spend an hour doing a Q&A follow-up. My guess is that people at the conference would have liked to do that as well (although there was a session that afternoon that had a deeper dive - so maybe that covered the need). But I thought it worked pretty well. Of course, if someone wasn't interested in my topic, then that's a lot of time on it. :)

John said...

Tony, Have you thought of a bloc post, course or MVC on creating MVCs? It might help get the ball rolling. And it might be fun, too...

Jane Bozarth said...

I both presented at and attended the Illinois Online Conference in 2008 and found it an excellent, meaningful experience. It was very close to the things I like about "live" conferences (choice of sessions, good keynotes) without the things I dislike (trapped in Expo hall, long breaks, huge labrynthine venues). Organizers arranged social spaces including a virtual coffee shop and a virtual cocktail hour in Second Life.

I also found a couple of like-minded colleagues, one from Germany and another from Holland, who would never have traveled to the US for a similar event. They're both good online friends now.

A lot depends on thoughtful planning and skilled administration, but overall I'd say this really was a win-win arrangement for speakers and attendees.

Nancy White said...

Finally getting a chance to add a few thoughts. Sorry for my delay.

First, have you see this story on how a group on-ramped participants into a second life virtual conf?

Have you seen the amazing work of David Sibbet and the Grove in Second Life, ably assisted by such magical people as Michele Paradise and Amy Lenzo? They are looking at some of the non verbal enhancements that are also key to a lot of the telepresence work.

I saw an interesting telepresence demo in January that blew me away - both at the sophistication of the technology and room set up, and at how ridiculous their meeting design ideas were. They were taking old, dysfunctional practices and simply moving them to a new environment. Not so smart, eh? So there is a learning trajectory that improves both on technology and practice. Some of the best online learning experiences I've had have tried to move beyond simple presentation.

That said, with some work I'm doing with one client, there actually seems to be a desire for presentation. They are busy, tired of working and want to sit back and watch. I was surprised. It challenged my assumptions about virtual meetings. ;-)

Finally, on this idea of wrapping social networking etc. I think the key barrier to this - and to virtual meetings - is the challenge of belonging to too many communities and networks (multimembership). We need some way to bridge across without having to keep joining and joining then abandoning right after an event.

Finally, it is really fun to see this field take off. I think starting with the Groupware people, Peter and Trudy Johnson Lenz in the 80's, etc. there was some fantastic work done. Then money was flush and everyone went back to F2F. It is worth reaching back to remember what the pioneers did. Much of it still has tremendous relevance.

OK, enough of a Friday night ramble!

Unknown said...

I love your blog!

Technical Writer
Medical Software, Burnaby, BC

Anonymous said...

Its a useful Information. Thanks for sharing that. But previously i happened to attend a Cloud Computing and Virtual Conference 2009 which is the World's largest and virtual conference on Cloud computing. I got a good opportunity to meet and talk with the World's leading experts on Cloud computing.