Conferences don't have to be something you just endure. You don't have to be contented saying "hello" to a couple of people you email twice a month, eating some dry sandwiches, and completely forgetting what that guy said as soon as he walked off the stage. Instead, events should be a space to learn, develop, and create two-way conversations about your industry.
That's why we're here to help.
Most professional conferences consist of a series of 20–40 minute presentations followed by 5–10 minutes of Q&A. The issue is that considering what is known about learning & development, there is a question mark over the learning efficacy of such massive one-way communication.
While there has been much research and experimentation in every other domain of education, the conference, viewed as a forum for learning, still largely considers the role of learners as passive receivers of information.
But learning-by-doing is a well-established approach to education. This refers to a theory promoted by American philosopher John Dewey; it's a hands-on approach to learning, meaning students must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn. So, why do we insist on passive, un-interactive learning for working professionals?
But first up, let's see where traditional conferences are going wrong.
The Traditional Conference
I refer to professional conferences where professionals and informed laypeople attend for a day or two and listen to subject matter experts (SMEs) share case studies and insights on best practices. Against this type of ‘professional conference’, Ravn and Elsborg, writing in the International Journal of Learning and Change (January 2011), posit six points of critique:
- Too much lecturing: The focus is on the message that a speaker wishes to convey, not on participants’ learning outcomes, which, consequently, are unclear.
- Too little time for digestion and reflection: Sessions are often scheduled back to back, allowing no time, place or opportunity for reflection on sessions after they are finished. Lack of reflection time potentially affects the recording of learning, the ability to relate the session to one’s own experience and the creation of new learning.
- Group work at conferences is frustrating: Groups are often large, 6–10 people, with no one to facilitate. Often, the purpose is just to discuss a topic for its own sake, rather than produce anything.
- The “workshop” is a misnomer: Parallel sessions are often called workshops. In practice, little work gets done. They are simply the organisers’ way of fitting more lectures in.
- The panel of experts is more one-way communication: A panel is often composed of experts who were not invited to present. The format appears interactive but in reality, many panel discussions are pre-planned. Also, for every question taken from the audience, several panellists get called upon to provide answers. The result is that panellists can echo each other’s points and simply run down the clock.
- The ‘Networking lunch’ has no networking: Simply calling a lunch, a break or a reception a ‘networking event’ doesn’t make it so. Conference organisers typically offer little help to participants beyond the provision of food and drink.
So, the traditional conference tends to lean towards the transfer model, easily recognised as the technique used in traditional classroom learning, i.e. sit down, shut up, and take notes. Basically, speakers communicate information to the attendees, who passively receive this information and absorb it. But this doesn't work in practice.
That's why alternatives are needed. Short, engaging speaker events, like the ones at AntiConLXA, offer a more focused audience, with a Campus experience allowing attendees to interact with other learners on a one-to-one basis. Event attendees are encouraged to walk between events and stalls, discuss with others at the bar and street food stalls, and get involved in the Q&As, all of which contribute to a tactile learning environment.
In the past and even today, much of the education people receive is based on the transfer model. Tapscott (1998) calls this broadcast learning. Tapscott says “the term teacher implies approaches to learning where an expert who has information transmits or broadcasts it to students”. However, this suggests that the mind is like an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. It’s not that simple.
This model and its various assumptions about the human mind have been critiqued extensively over the past decades: the mind is no passive information storage device (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986), tabula rasa (Pinker, 2002), or empty knowledge container (Illeris, 2004).
Towards The Conference As A Forum For Real Learning
Ravn and Elsborg, writing in the International Journal of Learning and Change (January 2011), suggest the following design principles to stimulate learning beyond the traditional transfer model.
- Concise presentations: Presentations should be concise, provocative and properly spaced. This is to provide time for reflection and learning. Research indicates that after 30 minutes of lecturing, audience attention falls off (Bligh, 2000). Indeed, even TED talks are deliberately capped at 18 minutes in length because it is difficult to hold the audience's attention for much longer than this.
- Active interpretation: Participants must be given opportunities to engage in active interpretation and discussion of the information shared by the presentation. They should have time and occasion to relate what they’ve learned to their own professional concerns.
- Self-formulation: The conference should offer opportunities for participants to talk about the interests and experiences that made them sign up for the conference in the first place. If this content is ignored, conference organisers risk producing irrelevant content leaving participants to feel at best, bored and at worst, excluded.
- Networking and knowledge sharing: There should be facilitated processes that help participants find people they are likely to enjoy meeting and sharing knowledge with.
- Competent facilitation: If conference organisers want to stimulate learning in new ways, participants must be nudged to do things which at first may seem odd or contrived. This requires tact, handholding and some measure of charm on the part of a good facilitator who must also be able to create a safe and friendly atmosphere conducive to learning.
So, What's the Alternative?
For each of these principles, there may be multiple techniques that can be deployed. Ravn and Elsborg, writing in the International Journal of Learning and Change (January 2011), list some techniques as follows: