The Cognitive Surplus of a conference revisited

We were offered a vision of how the academic conference might be re-imagined with the final words of the 6th Designs on E Learning conference held at Savannah College of Art and Design. Owen Kelly, from ARCADA in Helsinki, Finland, where Designs will be held in 2011, gave an outline of their plans for the next meeting, which if they come to fruition sound really interesting and a real challenge to the traditional format of papers presentations and lots of talk over lunch.


The idea is that the conference will last for 6 weeks, with a long initial period of online interaction culminating in the actual f2f event. Presenters will be asked to upload their papers and presentations well in advance of the conference, and the participants will be able to interact with them, post comments, read and absorb them etc well ahead of time. At the conference itself, the presenters will give just a short outline of their work and then lead an in-depth discussion of the issues it raises. This promises to really engage the audience, and should lead to a much deeper debate than usual.

ARCADA Helsinki

All the sessions will be webcast live – this could be tricky if they really are going to go for an interactive discussion – and will have a live feed in from the online audience to ask questions directly.

Talking to Owen afterwards they really seem committed to this vision, and we discussed that perhaps the presenters could give the traditional paper as a webinar before the event, and that we could hold other webinars after the conference to keep the discussion going. We also thought that if it was presented as a real opportunity for the presenters to get peer feedback on their work it could be sold to the management who might otherwise question the challenge to the traditional format.

I think this has real potential, and could help to bridge the gap between the ‘unconference’ style event and the more formal one.

We also had some great discussions with Keith Bailey from Penn State and the SCAD team about how to make Designs part of an ongoing process of establishing a more solid pedagogy for art and design. A key part of this was the idea for an open journal, and that we would also collaborate on a project to imagine what a ‘virtual open studio’ might be in our disciplines – rethinking the VLE/LMS with an art/design twist. We had a good breakfast brainstorm on this and started a Google doc on what it might be; more on this in another post shortly. This should link the conference to an actual open source product, and to a reification of the production of the conference too, all good stuff.

All this adds to the debate James Clay and I started on the cognitive surplus of a conference and conference formatting.

In my own small way I tried to experiment with the presentation format as well, I had a fairly long session of 45 minutes for my ‘paper’, so gave a 20 min ‘talk’ and then broke the audience up into small discussion groups to brainstorm a question that related to my talk – and a question that I wanted some answers to. I asked them to talk about what ways might web 2.0 enhance reflective practice, and to sue examples from their own experience. We made a public Google doc and allowed everyone to post their ideas to it. This worked ok; although a MAJOR bug was that the ipad does not support Google docs unless you download an app, which we only discovered during the session. And as lots of the participants had ipads not laptops, his hindered our ability to collaborate. But as a concept it worked really well, the participants really engaged with it and the discussions were really active. Proof of the pudding was that most of them stayed on after the session ended to carry on their group discussions and I had to virtually force them out to go to lunch – now that doesn’t normally happen at the end of a sessions! And of course, we created an artefact of the session, which everyone could share and contribute to.

How else might we rework the conference presentation format??

13 thoughts on “The Cognitive Surplus of a conference revisited

  1. If you’re in brainstorming mode and accepting all sorts of weird ideas, then how about this: if one one of opening keynotes is to get passions rising, how about getting a VJ to provide the visuals for the keynote speaker, in part based around keywords, keyphrases and key images provided in advance by the speaker.

    A similar approach could work for a summary keynote at the end, where the VJ works with images and phrases from presentations given over the preceding days?

    The aim of this approach would be to use the visual presentation scheme not so much to communicate information, more to influence an emotional connection with what the speaker is saying…

    Just a thought;-)

  2. thanks james
    the blog format is great as it extends the workshop beyond the conference… wonder how it would work if every session had a moderator/scribe/journalist who captured the essence of the session and the discussion and posted it up on a conference blog in real time…
    google docs worked well in this instance because we wanted to share and brainstorm ideas and try to produce something, it went down really well

  3. @tony
    now thats a seriously cool idea; i’ve seen vj’s at clubs etc and its really interesting experience, and hae played around with using images that reflect a text rather than describe it a lot in my own practice as a photographer. I think you would need a couple of people to run it so that the workflow of getting images up in time with the presentation would be quick enough – be interesting to write an algorithm that might be able to find images/sites based on live transcripts of the talk maybe
    i nominate me and doug belshaw to vj at alt-c 2011!!

  4. These are really cool ideas, I like it!
    I always think that if I am getting the papers in the conference proceedings, why should people ‘read’ them out to me in a conference. It would be more interesting to get people discussing common issues…identifying group of people they could come together with during the f2f event to achieve something more than giving a paper. Let’s make conferences personal! Yes, I like it.
    I think that goes better with my style. That’s probably also because I prefer smaller events. I enjoy the familiarity. I prefer talking to a smaller group of people than talking at a larger number of individuals who I have no idea who they are or what they are thinking!
    Below are a couple of links regarding what we have done this year in the PLE conference. The idea was to challenge formats – from keynotes to poster presentations. Graham Attwell summarised the experience quite well, so I’ll share his posts 🙂

    Crowd-sourcing the keynote -the unkeynote –

    2nd keynote – a game –

    Session chairs chosen formats (because although we asked for alternative formats most people submitted for traditional formats

    P.S. the other thing I have been thinking about lately is the following:
    how can we improve the format and engagement with an open access journal? I mean…it’s good. I think we have to go down this route (openness, accessibility, sharing etc), but putting pdfs online is just transferring what we already do in a physical environment. Again, this is probably just me, but I think online publications are yet to be invented. When it comes to visual arts – I am not sure they are well served in this field.
    Right now online journals are mostly replicas of what we have been doing for centuries…just in a more open way, which is already really, really good.
    But I think we can do more… I just don’t yet know what…!

  5. Pingback: Keynote VJing… Supporting Spoken Word Events With Live Mixed Visuals « OUseful.Info, the blog…

  6. There has been quiet a bit of work on social reporting and amplification of conferences.

    My own thoughts

    There are some further things to think about.

    Who does it and what is their motivation? With some non-academic conferences the organisers pay people to do this. Do not underestimate the work required, you can’t really attend the conference as a delegate AND do this role. From my experiences as the JISC Online Conference Blogger it is hard work and that was an online conference!

    Why do we need to do it? In other words is it a real need? Do people want it?

    Also it is possible for the presenters to do this as we did with the VLE is Dead last year.

    Have a look at FOTE10 for an interesting approach to amplification of the conference.

  7. These are really pertinent questions James.

    To start with – yes, as you pointed out, it is a lot of work…but with it also comes new learning opportunities as a reward.
    Again, it is so much easier to sit in a room and absorb all the info that is given as we were a sponge…in the same way it is much easier to talk for 50 minutes (most times people get so excited with their own voice they even go over the time!) and then allow a question or two at the end.

    But I honestly think there’s a need to try new things. To make things more engaging and meaningful for the individual. Yet, this is not to say that this need is felt by everyone, I’d even dare say by the majority, just in the same way that many students are ok-ish with unpersonalised lectures. For many this is all they have experienced , this is how ‘things get done around here’ and they will comply with it until they experience something different.
    That’s when things change most times: when we see that there is scope to do things differently with the same quality, then we start demanding more…because we have seen them happening

  8. @james and @christina
    I think it is worth the effort, as i said in my earlier post, you could treat it like producing a daily newspaper of the conference – PLENK is producing the ‘daily’ of the course which pulls together all the relevant blog posts, tweets etc. And we could use journalism or learning technology students to do the work of reporting from each session and curating the ‘publication’ – cover their expenses and give them free passes to the conference in return perhaps, or pay them a reasonable fee.
    After all, if people think its worth publishing the conference proceedings in a big fat book that probably hardly anyone is going to read, then surely it must be worth capturiong the essence of the event itslef and some of the ‘eventedness’ of it in a live, digital publication
    Making the thing itself would be a worthwhile exercise just to learn how to do it!
    We could put together an editorial team, with reporters in each session, photographers and videographers etc and really make it sing!

  9. I love the idea. I’m all for social reporters at conferences.
    It will also enables those you can’t make it to feel they are also benefiting from it. Sharing experiences is, after all, the goal of a conference.

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