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There is a great number of leaning and development events held each year; I'm lucky enough to attend a few. However, deciding which events to attend can be a challenge. The decision is even more difficult for individuals with limited budgets, who may only be able to attend one event each year. Add on having to effectively sell the benefits of attending to your supervisor in order to get approval. How do you decide which conference offers the most value without really knowing what the experience will be like in advance?
This past week I attended the American Society for Training and Development's 2013 Techknowledge Conference and Exposition in San Jose, California. What follows is a summary of the conference, as well as some of the unique aspects of the event. Not only may this recap influence your decision to attend the event in the future, but also provide selling points when it's time to request approval.
TechKnowledge is a conference geared toward learning and performance professionals who are involved in design and delivery, management, and/or strategy of technology and learning. This year, more than 1,200 people attended the conference. While a large group, TechKnowledge's size pales in size and scope when compared to ASTD's International Conference and Exposition (ICE), which last year had almost 9,000 attendees.
TechKnowledge attendees generally come from the United States. While there are international attendees, the conference does not specifically cater to an international audience.
TechKnowledge 2013 featured more than 100 educational sessions, with five to seven concurrent session options available at any given time. Concurrent sessions can be a challenge, as it can be difficult to decide which sessions to attend.
ASTD does provide options to assist attendees with planning their schedule. They break down the programming into tracks for specific technology areas, including:
One thing that was helpful at this year's conference was that many sessions were repeated, so if you couldn't see it at the original scheduled time you might be able to catch it at another.
This year more than 70 companies were featured at the TechKnowledge exposition, most of the organizations present provide technology-based services for learning and performance purposes. If you needed to find vendor support for your organization's technology-based learning, the best place to start would be the expo. In addition to the standard vendor booths, the expo also provided space for the exhibitors to conduct sessions during which they demonstrated their products in action.
The size of the exposition is fairly easy to manage. It took me only about 20 minutes to walk through the expo during my first visit, and that included stopping at a few of the booths.
Location is another thing to consider when you attend a conference. While geographic consideration is a consideration—especially for conference downtime—I'm more concerned about the actual location of the event and how it may impact my experience.
TechKnowledge was held at the San Jose Convention Center. What I liked about this was that the two official conference hotels were actually attached to the convention center. There are times during a conference when attendees may want to take a break and recharge, or simply drop something off in their room. This was easy to do at TechKnowledge as both hotels were a short distance away. You could easily slip back to your room and get back to the conference in the time available between sessions.
However I was less impressed with the size of the location. It seemed in some spaces too big for the event. There were more than 1,200 attendees at the conference, but it rarely felt like it. Because the hallways and conference spaces were large, the conference often seemed small because things were spread throughout the large space. It was only during the General Sessions—when most attendees were in a single space—that the scale of the event was evident.
TechKnowledge featured three keynote speakers (one for each day): danah boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft Research, Nick Bilton, lead technology writer for The New York Times' Bits Blog, and Rives, designer of interactive narratives for grown-ups.
danah boyd is also an academic and a scholar whose research examines social media, youth practices, tensions between public and private, social network sites, and other intersections between technology and society. She spoke about how technology is radically changing the way we work, and the organizations we work in. She focused on the youth of today joining the workforce, and the impact that will have on organizations that have only looked within for information and skill building opportunities. As an example, boyd shared how coding skill development has changed. Skills that were once learned by reading a book and practicing on your own are now learned collaboratively, not just with others from your own organization, but from employees of competing organizations. A common theme of many of her comments was that we need to meet and forge relationships with people that are NOT like us in order to grow and learn.
Nick Bilton is a columnist for the New York Times and a lead blogger covering technology, business and culture. He is also the author of the book I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works. Bilton spoke about the technologies that are disrupting organizations. Some examples shared were wearable computers and sensors, 3-D printing, mobile banking, and flexible devices. These technologies, along with social media, represent a generation of people that want to create and be part of a community. It will be important for organizations—and learning professionals—to be a part of the conversations in order to better connect and understand workers.
Rives (rhymes with weaves) is part poet, part storyteller. He offers audiences uniquely intelligent and creative entertainment. Rives has been called "the first 2.0 poet," incorporating images, video, and text, often involving audience members. During his closing keynote, he did just that, producing a very entertaining session that showed how stories can be constructed and how very powerful storytelling can be. He also showed how today's media technology can be easily integrated into that creative process. One thing missing during this year's general sessions was a presentation by ASTD itself. Usually you can count on Tony Bingham or someone from ASTD to speak on technology trends within learning and development in general. While Tony did introduce danah boyd as the general session speaker on Day 1, I was surprised to see he did not speak of ASTD or the state of technology in our field.
In addition to the general sessions and 100-plus concurrent sessions, there were 20 different pre-conference workshops attendees could participate in for an additional fee. Another programming option unique to TechKnowledge is the Creation Station sessions. These sessions are held in computer labs and involve hands-on use of an application, giving attendees a much more involved experience. The Creation Stations are a very popular programming option at TechKnowledge.
The conference also includes a large bookstore with a huge array of books and materials trainers can use for professional development. There is also a Career Center where attendees could meet one-on-one with a career counselor, participate in speed mentoring sessions, and more.
Networking is also a big part of the conference experience, and TechKnowledge featured many formal and informal opportunities to connect with peers. There was a dedicated space called "The Recharge Station," which consisted of tables with power strips. People could informally go to the space, charge their devices, and connect with others in the space. Some speakers even invited attendees to the space to continue discussions from the sessions. There was also a reception in the expo session that made networking and meeting others a formal part of the conference.
While TechKnowledge isn't the biggest industry conference for learning professionals, it's still a sizeable event that can be overwhelming for first time attendees. ASTD does offer orientation sessions where first-time attendees can get advice and assistance from more experienced attendees.
Looking through the programming available at TechKnowledge, you can definitely see that this is an event focused on using technology for learning. If you're someone that develops eLearning, conducts virtual training, or uses any other sort of technology to enhance learning, this may be an event to consider attending.
I spoke with a large number of peers at and after the conference. Knowing I was writing this piece, I asked all of them for their impressions of the conference. In their responses, I noticed some trends that may help determine if a visit to TechKnowledge may be a good decision to make in 2014.
Social Media. Conference backchannels—in which attendees share and connect information via Twitter during conference sessions—are becoming an expected part of a conference experience. This year's TechKnowledge struggled in that area, as there were at least three different hashtags communicated to attendees. It's bad enough that this happened at a technology conference, but it's the second year in a row that it's happened at TechKnowledge. ASTD really needs to correct this in 2014 to better connect with the growing number of attendees looking to expand their conference experience using social media.
Creation Stations. I mentioned these earlier, and I mention them again here because they were one of the first things people talked about when I asked what they liked about the conferences. These are somewhat unique to TechKnowledge, thus potentially a differentiator when choosing a conference.
Good Entry Point. For a learning professional with experience with only classroom-style training, entering the world of technology-based learning can be intimidating. TechKnowledge offers a number of sessions that provide a low-point of entry perfectly suited to someone just entering the world of technology-based learning.
New Voices. If you are someone who is able to attend conferences more than once a year, you've probably noticed that many of the speakers (and sessions) repeat from one conference to the next. In some cases, speakers and sessions even repeat from one year to the next. It can easily become a situation where you skip a session not because it's not valuable, but because you've heard the speaker's message before. TechKnowledge did a great job this year of bringing in new voices that you probably haven't heard from in the past, yet whose experience is just as valuable.
Here's a brief summary of my recommendations if you're considering attending ASTD TechKnowledge in the future.
ASTD's TechKnowledge, like most industry conferences, opens session proposals to everyone. As mentioned earlier, TechKnowledge does a great job of bringing in new voices that haven't been heard before. One of the best ways to get to a conference is by becoming a speaker; submit a proposal to share your expertise, and if accepted, your conference registration is covered. It's one of the best and most cost-effective ways to get to TechKnowledge in 2014.
If you're looking for a deeper dive into the sessions and learning that took place at TechKnowledge, please feel free to visit my blog, where I regularly curate and share the learning and resources that are shared via the conference backchannel.
David Kelly is the Director for the Center for Learning at ACLD. He has been designing and managing learning programs as an internal learning and performance consultant and training director for over 12 years. Kelly has been a leader in ASTD, serving as a local board member and national adviser. He is active in the learning community, and can often be seen speaking at industry conferences and events.
© 2013 ACM 1535-394X/13/02 $15.00
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