I was recently at the 17th Annual Sloan Consortium Online Learning, Teaching, and Research in the New Media Ecology conference. In short, it was a tech geek's dream. This was my typical setup at the sessions during this conference.
It was great! One thing I loved about this conference was that it was paperless. There was no conference tote bag filled with paper ads that I would throw away. There wasn't a thick conference program to carry around each day. And, there weren't a lot of flyers and handouts in sessions or the exhibit hall. The conference program was made available in advance on the Sloan-C Web site and could be downloaded as a PDF document. I downloaded it and saved it in my Dropbox and also added it to my iBooks shelf. This way, I could easily carry it and flip through it from my iPhone or iPad. The attendees list was also made available this way. Many presenters and exhibitors used QR codes to link to their presentations, handouts, and materials so no one left the sessions or exhibit hall looking (or feeling) like a pack rat.
When going from session to session, all I needed was my schedule-at-a-glance, iPad, and iPhone. I decided that instead of taking handwritten notes, I would tweet my notes instead. There were a couple of advantages to this - one was that I didn't have to carry a notebook and pen and juggle more things (or go back to that tote bag or messenger bag that I really don't like wag around), and the other was that I also got to see other attendees notes and comments. If I missed something, I could pick it up from someone else. An unexpected advantage was that I could have conversations with other attendees - sometimes those in the same session, but sometimes someone in another session. This was nice since there were usually multiple sessions that I wanted to attend during a given time slot. The conference used #ALN2011 to identify all tweets, so it was easy to follow everyone there, build my PLN (personal learning network), and conference announcements.
There was a very active back-channel at this conference, which was a big plus. It was easy to find out about changes quickly and easy to join to conversations about topics at the conference. When the community is that active, it is easy to brainstorm, share ideas, and make connections. It was also happening real-time, and we're becoming more and more accustomed to getting our information quickly.
This conference had a record number of attendees: 1,488 onsite; 600 virtual attendees; 25 countries; 47 states. At one point, I realized I was having conversations with a couple of virtual attendees - one in Boston and one in Minnesota. Though the wireless connection was strained at times (like any typical conference hotel), the technology made it possible for virtual attendees to log in and participate in sessions and back-channel conversations as if they were in the same room.
The sessions were 35 minutes rather than the normal 50 minute format. I really like this because it kept the session focused and moving. There were some sessions that were allotted back-to-back 35 minute slots for more time, but I leaned more toward the shorter sessions. It gave me a chance to hit more sessions than normal, and I didn't feel like I was wasting my time if I found myself in a session that wasn't what I expected. That format also keeps the presenter on their toes to control the audience, stay on topic, and work in a "just the facts" manner. The one format I did not like was the poster sessions. The tables were much too close together and it made moving through or talking with presenters incredibly difficult.
Overall, I thought this was one of the best educational technology conferences I've ever attended. I attended a Sloan-C Blended Learning Conference in spring 2010 which was really well run and had great sessions, so my expectations were high. It didn't hurt anything that this most recent conference was in Orland, FL in mid-November. The weather couldn't have been better, so the evenings were perfect for walking around Downtown Disney and eating dinner outside.
I picked up some ideas that I'm planning to try as early as next semester. First up is using texting through Google Voice as an additional contact point with my students. I have already set up my number and am giving it a test run now. More about that next time.
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