(Wordle of OU Conference – we asked participants to give us 3 words describing it)
In the second post following up on the OU online conference, I want to explore some issues around perceptions of online conferences. The feedback from the conference thus far has been almost entirely positive (I'll blog the questionnaire results later), but I have also picked up a couple of issues which I think are worth pulling out.
It strikes me that in some ways online conferences are in a similar position to distance learning 40 years ago, or elearning 10 years ago. They have a legitimacy deficit to some, and thus have to work extra hard to overcome it. When something is new there is an understandable tendency to take that instance as representative of the whole, in a way one never does with accepted norms. Thus if you have never met someone from a particular country people will often take the first person they meet to be representative of that nation. And yet they wouldn't expect any random person off the street to be representative of their own country. So when you are pioneering in something you have this representative burden, which I think we just have to accept, but it underlies some of the points below.
Online conferencing doesn't separate from daily tasks sufficiently – this is also one of its strengths of course, in that you can attend, when if you had to give up two or three days you may not. But a few people commented that either they weren't allowed to prioritise virtual attendance over other work, or that if they were in the office, then people assume they are interruptible. If you attend a face to face conference the physical separation immediately performs this function. I did think this was just one of those things we'll get better at, and learn ways of coping, but maybe not – the physical will always trump the virtual for attention.
Online doesn't command as much attention – on a related note, although attendance was about the same as the physical event held the previous year, I might have expected it to be higher. When you have a physical conference on campus you can't help but notice it is going on – there are signs, catering, people looking lost. A virtual conference, despite all the communications you might deploy, loses some of these cues.
Commitment to online is lower – when you are travelling to a physical conference you need to make some preparations: accommodation, transport, child care cover, etc. The beauty of an online conference is that you don't need to do all this (and thus people attend who couldn't normally). But it also means it doesn't foreground in your attention until the day. We had some people with connection problems, which was easily fixed, but because it happened on the day it was too late and they gave up. We had sent out instructions about checking the connection prior to the conference, which might be seen as the equivalent of booking your accommodation, but it doesn't register in the same way as making physical arrangements.
The camelot comparison – when being compared against an existing practice, there is a tendency sometimes to accentuate the positive elements of the entrenched practice. Not every face to face conference is a success. Not every speaker is engaging. Not every location wonderful. But the new version is often compared against the idealised version of this.
Unrealistic burdens – with new formats unrealistic demands are sometimes placed upon them which are never asked of the existing practice. An online conference doesn't need to be for everyone. Not every physical conference is meant to appeal to everyone. The whole conference format doesn't appeal to many people, but we don't hear from them, because they don't go to conferences. Some people will have a very strong preference for face to face only, which is fine. This is one way of doing conferences, it isn't trying to be the only way.
But to summarise, online conferences are different things to face to face conferences. They have different advantages, disadvantages, modes of operation, and interactions. Just as with elearning it is a mistake to only compare them with the existing practice, because it's what they do differently that's intriguing.