The strange case of the unconnected conference

Richard Hall and Joss Winn

(An unexpected appearance by the Two Ronnies went some way to alleviate frustration about the lack of wifi at OpenEd 2010 – Richard Hall and Joss Winn in full flow).

I was at the Open Ed 2010 conference last week. First off, I want to say that it was great to finally meet Brian Lamb and I really enjoyed presentations from Richard Hall, David Wiley, Erik Duval, Joss Winn and others. So this post is not a comment on the quality of the conference or the discussions I had there.

The conference was held in the science museum CosmoCaixa. This is a great museum and my daughter loved it. It is, sadly, not a great conference venue. Although they had wifi in every room which you could connect to, the bandwidth coming into the museum was so low that in reality no-one could get online (I had visions of a 14K modem in an office somewhere which then got fed into all these lecture halls with great AV facilities and their own routers).

This made me reflect on how connectivity, and the amplified conference has become the norm for me. Being unable to connect had a serious impact on the nature of the conference I think, in the following ways:

  1. Loss of archive -  It couldn’t be streamed, or tweeted, or live-blogged, so the more holistic, distributed record of a conference that has become the norm was lost.
  2. No backchannel – within the conference itself not being able to chat with other participants and share thoughts meant some of the immediate conversation around a presentation was lost.
  3. Stunted presentations – many presenters wanted to at least demonstrate a site. I foolishly wanted to play some YouTube vids (although thankfully an Ethernet connection had been found for presenters by the time I came to present which gave some limited access). Being unable to do so made it seem like we had been sucked into a conference in 1995.
  4. No wider participation – at least with those present you could have conversations over coffee, but I am also accustomed to have dialogue with those in my network who aren’t present. There were many time I would have tweeted during a talk and I know I would have had a response from someone in my network who wasn’t present.
  5. No amplification – if one of the measures of success for a conference is its impact in its field then to lose connectivity for its duration results in it effectively being isolated. Not to be able to amplify the content and discussion at a conference to a global network severely restricts its significance.

Before someone jumps in and says ‘perhaps you should try talking to the person next to you’, yes I did plenty of that. I’m capable of doing both. And I think there is increasing value in hosting ‘disconnect’ events, where you deliberately don’t have access, such as writing retreats. But these types of events are geared up for this and it’s what you sign up for. What the experience here brought home to me is that amplification is not an interesting extra or a techie nice-to-have – it’s essential.

 

13 Comments

  1. I went through a similar experience a few weeks ago for a New Literacies event, and we were even at a Microsoft Research Center, which you would expect would be fully connected. It was frustrating for me, a presenter, and it was certainly frustrating for folks in the audience.
    All the points you make are exactly what I would have said, too. It’s interesting how our expectations of conferences have changed over the years — we don’t expect to be passive receivers, we want to be active participants.
    Kevin

  2. I was among many people not in Barcelona looking for the live stuff from openEd. If it were not for the limits of mobile plans abroad we would have seen more action, as the new response to the venues lack of net is to whip our own out of our pockets.
    Rather than “haves” and “have nots” we can see times of being “connected” and “connected nots” and rather than it being a factor of economic status, it’s one imposed by the facilities (and tha damn mobile companies). It was great that one person shared some notes and links on their wiki.
    The live amplification is one thing but also equally valuable is the reflective and archival amplification that happens post. Where are the blog posts, the shared presentations, the Flickr stream? Given a lavk of live video, did snybody pull out a pocket audio recorder. That is not the same amplification, but IMHO, important in other ways, and to me, more valuable than knowing what was happening in real time.
    I’m a bit saddened with the decline (I don’t buy “death”) of reflective blogging from conferences.
    The only footprint making this conference one can find on the web site is the program?

  3. @Alan – I felt that not having people like you, Tony, Jim etc as part of the broader conversation definitely lessened the conference. I also wonder if the lack of activity you note after the conference is a consequence of the lack of online activity during it. You get conversations going, start blog posts, find links etc while you are there and in the moment. You may post these afterwards but a lot of it is formed during the event. If you are not connected a lot of these ideas are lost.
    Also a small point – if you’re not connected then it means you get stay on top of emails, so when you get back you have a backlog, which distracts you so you never get around to doing that reflective post.

  4. I agree with Martin’s comments.
    In addition, I’ve come to rely on permanent connectedness, and it makes me uncomfortable when I get disconnected. Like many of you, I am at a conference or in a meeting abroad two a three days every week and it becomes difficult to balance that with work and family obligations when the connection disappears.
    After two days without a connection, I actually stayed away from the last day of the conference because of this reason! Pity I missed some good talks and conversations as a result…

  5. If you know which YouTube videos you want to play at a conference, you should download them beforehand – at least as a backup if the connection does fail. I use a Firefox add-on called DownloadHelper for this.

  6. @Erik – I’m not away from home as much as you, but to be unconnected begins to have a knock-on effect doesn’t it? So your decision to stay at the hotel and do email was partly to stop the backlog into the following week.
    @Carl – yes, I know I should have done this. I thought about it and went ‘nah, it’ll be fine, it’s a modern science museum and they’ve promised wifi, it’ll be fine…’

  7. Your lack of connectivity really strikes a chord, although my (recent) situation was different: I had a total tech fail at the AoIR conference – laptop died on the first day, closely followed by malfunctioning iPhone.
    It was a good conference, lots of interesting papers, I met some great people etc. but without being able to connect online as well as f2f I almost feel as though I wasn’t there!
    It was strange to read the twitter stream afterwards, feeling as though i’d missed out on the event despite having attended. Made me realise just how integral my online connections have become at conferences, both in terms of engaging with my wider network (who didn’t attend) and – more significantly to my mind – the ‘bonding’ that takes place through communication with other delegates via Twitter. I really do feel as though I missed out on some of the more social (and potentially rewarding) aspects of the conference purely because I wasn’t part of the back-channel…

  8. Awesome you have done great job thank you n addition, I’ve come to rely on permanent connectedness, and it makes me uncomfortable when I get disconnected. Like many of you, I am at a conference or in a meeting abroad two a three days every week and it becomes difficult to balance that with work and family obligations when the connection disappear

  9. Amazing post you have left here. It was strange to read the twitter stream afterwards, feeling as though i’d missed out on the event despite having attended. Made me realise just how integral my online connections have become at conferences, both in terms of engaging with my wider network (who didn’t attend) and – more significantly to my mind – the ‘bonding’ that takes place through communication with other delegates via Twitter. I really do feel as though I missed out on some of the more social (and potentially rewarding) aspects of the conference purely because I wasn’t part of the back-channel…

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