Saturday, February 3, 2018

Week 2. Thoughts on NOT attending conferences

I am really looking forward to reading what others say in response to this #CCCWrite prompt... although I had to ponder for a few minutes whether it was even worth writing something because I am one of those people who does not get travel support from my school. And, as Michelle mentioned in the prompt, conferences are EXPENSIVE.

People talk about the "digital divide," and it is very real... and in the academic world, the "conference divide" is also very real. I know, because I'm on the other side of that divide.

Last summer, I paid out of pocket to attend a conference, and I was glad I did (I went to Domains2017 and met many good online friends in person for the first time ever!), but I could do that only because the conference organizers worked hard to keep the registration fee very low; it was just $199 (but then of course there was all the airfare and the always-expensive hotel; the whole thing cost a lot of money, or what was for me anyway a lot of money).

The other conference I really wanted to attend, InstructureCon, had astronomical (for me) costs for registration and for lodging; there was no way I could attend (early bird pricing for InstructureCon this summer, just the registration: $650... OMG!). People from my school do go to InstructureCon every year, but I am not one of them.

And that's what I want to write about here: my thoughts about NOT attending InstructureCon, thumbs up and thumbs down.

Thumbs UP: Power of Twitter. I am so so so so grateful to people who tweeted during presentations, especially Linda Lee (look at this fabulous stream of her #InstCon tweets). I am glad to say that there were a lot of people who tweeted during sessions, and some people were so kind as to ping me for items they knew I would be interested in (and there was a TON of stuff I was interested in). As my contribution to the conference remotely, I made an InstructureCon Twitter widget. Of course. An #InstCon Twitter Widget in Under 5 Minutes

Thumbs UP: Live Streaming. I was able to enjoy presentations by Josh Coates, Jared Stein, and some others thanks to the live streaming that was available. I blocked out time to do that, and it was time well spent. When I was watching the live streaming AND participating in Twitter convos at the same time (thank you, Phil Hill!) that was really fun.

Thumbs DOWN: Keynotes without streaming. Given that I was hugely interested in all three keynote speakers (Jewel! Sheena Iygenar! Scott Barry Kaufman!), not being able to watch streaming for those speakers was so frustrating. I repeat: SO FRUSTRATING. I guess when you negotiate with people who are on the speaker circuit, they make that a condition of presenting. But hey... remember books, people? Because I was not allowed to watch those keynote speakers, I opted to read books by all three of them. And so for the grand total of $35, I was able to learn far far far more than I would have learned from listening to them speak at the conference. These books are all excellent, with so much wisdom not just about teaching and learning but also about life. Highly recommended!
Jewel: Never Broken ($11.99)
Sheena Iyengar: The Art of Choosing ($9.99)
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire: Wired to Create ($12.99)

Here's a slide from Scott Barry Kaufman's keynote:

Thumbs DOWN: Privileging face-to-face. I know the word privilege is being invoked in a lot of contexts, but that really is the right word for the problem here too. I don't just mean the economic privilege of being able to attend a very expensive conference; I mean the fact that people invest so much time and effort in that face-to-face event, while not investing time and effort in the kinds of interactions we can have online at the Canvas Community. Don't get me wrong: I love the Canvas Community, and I am so grateful (SO GRATEFUL) for the huge investment Instructure makes in the Community and the awesome team that Scott Dennis has put together. It is now one of the main places that I hang out online every day. But as someone who is very active there, I did not see much of a bump in Canvas Community activity during the conference or afterwards. Canvas is software for learning online, right? So it's a weird sort of irony: people are going to an expensive face-to-face conference to learn about Canvas (and by expensive I mean the expense of money AND time AND energy), while not taking full advantage of the online Canvas community.

Why is that........???

Those are sincere question marks, because it is something I do not understand. I totally had fun at the Domains conference, but the people I met there are people I do interact with online, many of them every day. So meeting them face-to-face was totally fun, yes, but it didn't really change our working relationship at all; the basis for our working relationship is our ongoing online connection.

With Canvas, though, I know that many Canvas users (and many InstructureCon conference-goers) do not participate in online learning networks, relying on face-to-face events on their campus and on conferences for their professional development. That is definitely the case at my school anyway, where PD is almost entirely about face-to-face workshops and conferences. What would it take to shift some of that time and effort from face-to-face to online learning...?

I personally see so many benefits to making that shift, and just for examples of how powerful it can be, here are links to post streams at this blog which reflect my past participation in some great networked learning online like Connected Learning (that was a hugely important experience for me!), Rhizo15, and HumanMOOC. And now the Reflective Writing Club!

And yeah, ultimately I am being selfish here... because I know I would be learning more and having even more fun online if more people were bringing their knowledge and experiences to the online space. We can connect up and share without expensive airline tickets and hotel reservations when we are learning together online. :-)


  1. Laura, I’m so glad you chose to write this. I am very aware of the inequities around conferences and I was hoping this promp would bring various issues to the surface. But you’ve gone even further and pointed out some amazing points about how online interactions can transcend space. Great points. Thank you. I’m going to InstructureCon for the first time this summer. I will give back by Tweeting (the least I can do.)

    1. Oh, that is so great: you know I will be reading those tweets, Michelle! And I can officially deputize you to give big hugs on my behalf to all my Canvas buddies. You are going to meet such fabulous people there! Yay!!!

  2. Thoughts?

    Hi Laura,
    As usual you have a several interesting observations and questions here. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I think, for me, the biggest theme isn't restricted to conferences. It is about equity more generally. The Internet and communication technology have allowed us access to a much larger, richer world. This provides opportunities for remote people but it also give employers access to a richer pool of employees, students access to teachers and massive online communities access to large numbers of other people who share a common interest. When done right, face-to-face and online are complementary. When people choose to only interact locally, face-to-face they hurt the remote world but they also miss out themselves. And, I agree; the digital divide is very real.

    Conferences are expensive for the people who attend as well as for the hosts. Although Instructure does a lot to keep the cost of Instructurecon low, we do not make any money on the event. If fact, the opposite is true. Personally I am grateful for all the opportunities that remote people do get (free of charge). Where possible, keynotes are streamed, all sessions are streamed (albeit asynchronously), and attendees are encouraged to share online (Twitter, community). That being said, there are contractual and economic reasons we can't make everything free online but we do the best we can. I'd argue that while there is room for improvement, we can do better, I'd rather live in a world with face-to-face conferences, with their inherit problems, than is a world without. :)

    Thank you for the shout outs to the community and the community team. I can't take personal credit for all their awesomeness but I can thank you on our behalf. One of our goals is to make the community like an Instructurecon that runs all day and all night, all year around. We try to encourage people to keep the "conference magic" going, both by interacting with conference content and presenters after the fact as well as contributing themselves, during the conference and after. We try to provide additional little windows into the event for people who can't attend and for those who can and are willing to share ( My favorite are the photo streams that people contribute. I can't wait to see what people add to the 2018 space - hopefully they will start talking and planning long before the actual event. Can we do more? Yes, I think we can and we know you'll be there in spirit with us as this summer rolls around.

    Thank you again for your passion, transparency and integrity.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Scott! And I wasn't calling for an end to conferences, but rather just trying to figure out what are the motivating factors that lead people to invest so much (money, time, energy) in the conference while not seeing online "events" as having the same value.

      That's the problem I face all the time as an online teacher too, of course; there are many (MANY) academics who do not value online courses simply because the courses are online and for no other particular reason. Even when people might be using an LMS like Canvas, and even using it enthusiastically, that does not mean they have come to see the value of creating their own online presence and the value of participating in professional development / networking online.

      Re: keynotes. I have no idea what the selection criteria are, but I would say that if they ARE willing to stream, that would be a plus in the selection process in terms of reaching that wider audience. (But in a sense it worked out great for me; those books really were super, and the InstCon event bounced them right up to the top of my reading list for the summer).

      And the photos were a blast! People AND pandas! I really enjoyed all the content that was coming out from Keystone digitally, and I will be enjoying it again this summer I am sure. :-)

  3. Thank you for so eloquently summarizing the need for more online components to conferences. In addition to the cost issues, some folks also have home situations or health issues that make it difficult to travel. Providing more online conference options would be wonderful (especially for online related content). It always struck me as funny that the conference for distance education are generally face-to-face. On a side note, Kudos to @ONE for Digital Learning Day!

    I have attended some online components for conferences and they're a great alternative. But, I think we could do more to develop online conferences. Just like with online classes; it's not enough to "just do the same thing but online". We need to redesign the format for online.

    For example, we could watch the keynote. But, then instead of discussing in the hallway, we could build in either synchronous Zoom rooms or asynchronous Canvas discussions. How awesome would it be if those discussions were in a place where we could keep talking about the topic well past the end of the conference. Often, the discussions end at the end of the conference. This would add value for all participants (both online and face-to-face).

    Like you, I'm not advocating for ending conferences, but rather for augmenting them to reach more people and lead to deeper discussions. The online modality has a lot of untapped potential!

    1. UNTAPPED POTENTIAL: That is definitely what inspires me here also, Suzanne! And it's really the same way that I feel about online teaching also. Instead of seeing online courses as just something as a kind of consolation prize for students who are "deprived" of classroom classes, I see them as being something very different, inherently valuable, exploring new ways of learning, sharing, connecting. Sadly, the lack of progress overall in the acceptance (i.e. real acceptance, valuing) of online education probably goes hand in hand with the heavy reliance on face to face conferences. In the same way that people are understandably reluctant to experiment and take risks by trying new things with classes (wanting to stick with something tried and true, something they are comfortable with: the classroom), it is also true with conferences. The weight of tradition is heavy! But I am glad to experiment and take risks in the name of trying new things to learn more, both in teaching online and in professional development too! All my own online teaching is based on that model of asynchronous / iterative learning over time, which is very different from the synchronous / get-it-now learning which is what much of conference and classroom learning is based on.

  4. "What would it take to shift some of that time and effort from face-to-face to online learning...?" I so agree with this, and the great comments here offer solutions. Coming form a very rural area, we can't even get to an airport without cost. I also appreciate the many educators who consistently share resources in websites and blogs -- and even if they have books to sell. There are many online conferences too: 4Tvirtualconference
    Global Education Conference Always appreciate your critiques -- they are positive and solution oriented.

    1. Same way for me too, Sheri! I live in a very rural part of NC (and I am so spoiled by that now; I don't think I could ever live in a city again), so getting to the airport is a trip of its own. I'm not sure what it would have felt like living in such a remote place 20 years ago, or even 15, but we've been there 10 years now, and I feel more connected and energized by colleagues every day than I did even when I was "really" at school on campus. :-)

  5. On the subject of the lack of community involvement during a conference... I absolutely love tweeting during keynotes and sessions while at a conference. But that's because I can take a few seconds every couple minutes to tweet. I have no idea how the folks who live-blog manage; perhaps they have a better mental gearshift to swap between paying attention and documenting.

    But the interfaces provided by community sites, they just don't work well across time-intense (and sadly Wifi-poor) environments. And I have NEVER ended a day of sessions feeling "wow, I really am motivated to spend MORE time posting about this!" No, typically I feel like "do I have to eat dinner in public? Can't I just fall on my face and sleep?"

    But maybe that's just me.

    1. Hi David, the live tweeting is much appreciated! What I was thinking was more the lack of an after-conference bump.
      And you are right about the wifi; I remember that being a problem people had. And that the rooms were even too small for all the people who wanted to attend sessions!

  6. Wow! Just wow! I had no idea there were SO many on-line learning communities. Thank you for sharing these thought and resources! I am so happy to know you!

  7. There is always something/someone to connect with and learn from online. Just like conferences have hashtags that help yo connect, there are some educational projects and movements you can connect with via hashtags. For example, I can always find something help at the #TTOG hashtag stream at Twitter; that's how I connect with others "teachers throwing out grades"
    #TTOG at Twitter
    It's very nice when you can find a hashtag to affiliate with. :-)


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