Online conferences & the legitimacy deficit

Wordle
(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.

7 Comments

  1. Yes. But I think there are a few more points which might add some light and shade.
    The choice of technology makes a difference – I spent the day with a heavy headset on and it was uncomfortable. This was my choice rather than something imposed but I’d certainly suggest that we mention comfort in the “joining instructions”. I also felt that we need to adjust the pace. I felt that I was much more part of the event, it was almost intimate, but I needed more spaces to step away and reflect – things that I might do at a f2f conference by “zoning out” during the next presentation but I couldn’t comfortably do in this setting. I also think that this format creates new challenges for presenters. Those who might rely on gestures and facial expressions now have to find an online voice.
    Overall it was a wonderfully exhilarating event and I’m more than glad that I was able to “attend”.

  2. LMAHunt says:

    I have to agree with your first point. I found it very difficult to ‘attend’ without interuptions. They were all important interuptions but if I had not been there, they could have managed without me!
    I do not agree with your commitment example. I am used to Elluminate and know the computer sets up fine on a weekly basis. I always ‘arrive’ early to make sure I can get in but this was not enough on this occasion. I have no idea why I could not connect but I missed all of the first presentation and half of the second. This has only happened with the OU conference. I have connected fine both before and since. It was really frustrating knowing that I was missing it.
    I have also heard several people discussing problems with headaches after online conferencing sessions. The one I had after day one of the conference put me off attending day two as I knew I had another Elluminate session later that day. Not sure whether this is something that you ger used to or not. I was wearing my most comfortable headphones but I tend to associate the headaches with the amount of concentration needed to listen through headphones with no visual clues. It does seem easier when I can see the presenter as well as the slides or when there are captions.
    I did really enjoy the sessions I listened to and I learnt a lot from it. Thanks very much for organising it.

  3. AJ Cann says:

    Many of the metrics used to measure “success” are inappropriate when comparing online with physical events – they are not the same. Just as it is a ridiculous idea to build replicas of physical spaces in Second Life, it is equally silly to expect “attendees” at online events to follow the same behaviours as people constrained by the limitations of tradition conference formats and the physical constraints of traditional venues. If we held a “conference” in someone’s home, delegates would be have in different ways to those sitting in a lecture theatre. So it goes online.

  4. Martin says:

    @LMA – sorry you had problems. This is one of the real problems of online – unless you stick to very basic tech, it seems problems occur for some people. And as you say, it isn’t easily diagnosable as you’ve been using it happily until now. Unlike f2f conferences you can then be powerless to do anything about it, which is very frustrating. I thought elluminate was _almost_ there tech wise, but not quite. If I was doing it again, I couldn’t say what tech I’d use at the moment.
    @AJ yes I agree completely, but the problem is that is the comparison made, and making the ‘its different’ argument is hard. I think there is something in being held to a higher standard of account than f2f is a problem – if someone gives a bad presentation at a f2f conference we’d never think all conferences were invalid, yet that sort of reaction does crop up in the online version. I also think I was guilty of not exploring the possibilities enough, and making it a little too like a f2f conference, but it’s sometimes difficult to know how many new things to try. The danger is that we make online conferences like boring versions of f2f ones, just as we’ve made VLEs be boring versions of f2f teaching.

  5. AJ Cann says:

    Yes. As Weinberger pointed out, digital information is not the same as physical objects. We should not try to reproduce physical conferences online. So we’ve built Facebook…

  6. I think you got it spot on with camelot comparison, which is reflected in @AJ’s comments. Its not hard to see the issues of commitment, attention and burden is resulting from trying to replicate physical conference. The light is perhaps the increasing popularity of unconferences, flashmeets, techie brekkies and other more free flowing gatherings, which is allowing organisers explore different formats.
    Maybe the first step then in the ‘its different’ argument is the drop the word ‘conference’ 😉
    Something that was apparent during the conference was making an online presentation has the danger to emphasising the deficiencies of equivalent face-to-face presentation, mainly in the removal of sensory feedback mechanisms. Backchannel communication provides a way to replace part of this but I’ve yet to see someone present whilst simultaneously monitoring this. For the REAP07 conference http://www.reap.ac.uk/reap07/ we tried recording presentations before hand, circulating to delegates then using a defined period to allow delegates to text chat with the author, chats were then posted to a forum for further discussion. Commitment can still be an issue with this solution (I don’t know about you but I use most of the time travelling to conferences reading the papers)
    As you say this area is intriguing and I look forward to seeing how you take some of your ideas forward for next year!
    Martin
    [When putting together the REAP conference there was some things in Wang, Y.M., 1999, Online Conference: A Participant’s Perspective, T.H.E. Journal, v26 n8 p70-76 that we used (can’t remember what though)]

  7. E-Leaning team have held a number of online conferences which have brought together a selection of key innovators within e-Learning to discuss the current and future impact of using technology to support learning and teaching.

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