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Blended conferences
current technologies may transform meetings and events as well as education

By Lisa Neal / April 2002

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Based on the number of e-mails I've seen recently offering extended deadlines, it seems that a lot of conferences are not attracting as many submissions or advance registrations as they'd like. It made me wonder if conferences are evolving in a way that parallels corporate training in that dwindling enrollments, budgetary pressures, and new technologies have led to an interest in online alternatives. As the same factors loom larger for those who plan meetings and events, will the concept of "blended conferences" emerge?

I can track much of my professional career by conference attendance—absorbing as much wisdom as possible at the early ones and eventually networking and presenting with relative ease. I find conferences a source of ideas and inspiration, as well as a way to assess trends and the state of the art. I like writing conference papers and giving talks, because it forces me to reflect and think clearly about a subject. The conferences I like best are the ones where I know a lot of people and meet new people with interests similar to mine. I collect business cards and stay in touch with people, and have even made some close friends at conferences.

Today's lower attendance levels—caused by security issues and the economic recession—concern many of us who savor the learning opportunities conferences represent. Now, these circumstances have brought us to a crossroads where the basic model for conferences is being reexamined. For example, instead of being multi-day events at a convention center or hotel, some conferences are conducted online. Many more take a "blended" approach, using technology for submissions, registration, and advance programs, pre-conference activities, and broadcast or archive sessions.

To look at the effectiveness of online or blended conferences, you first have to consider why people attend conferences in the first place: To learn and network. They're a break from work, and they offer a chance to meet people, get new ideas and insights, reflect, have a change of scenery, and eat good food. These are the same reasons employees like off-site training. Conferences are also an immersive experience where people focus on conference activities and other attendees while professional and personal concerns are largely left behind. Conferences foster a sense of membership or belonging in a professional society or discipline. None of these attributes requires technology.

Moving conference activities online

Methods can be developed and refined for integrating online and in-person conference components in a kind of blended-learning approach. Teachers are well aware of the advantages of combining online and classroom activities: Pre-class activities reduce the quantity of in-class time spent covering basics, and they help level the playing field on which students tackle a new subject. Classroom time is spent on activities where face-to-face contact is most beneficial. In theory, these advantages can be applied to conferences.

When conference Web sites link to abstracts and papers, attendees can plan their schedules better and prepare for sessions. Both attendees and people who can't attend the conference can participate in e-mail discussions, virtual meeting places, or discussion forums. One blended-learning-like result is that actual conference time is used more efficiently. ASTD for example, has successfully implemented some of these components for its annual conference.

CHI 2002 offers CHIplace, where anyone can set up a profile, see who else is there and what their interests are, preview and comment on papers, and discuss conference-related topics. I'm sure the most heavily accessed part is the personal profiles. I especially like the feature that generates random pictures of participants. It's similar to the serendipity of running into someone at a conference break.

Moving conference sessions online

Some conferences Webcast sessions, which is not unlike COMDEX's broadcasts of popular sessions to overflow ballrooms. Some conferences archive sessions online as well. When I consider the benefits of Webcasting and archiving, I am reminded of my experiences teaching online: In general, it's hard to engage both present and distant audiences. The one time I was Webcast while presenting at a conference, I had trouble ignoring the cameras and focusing only on the audience. Then there are the speakers who present by videoconferencing to a "live" audience, which rarely is the same as being there for speaker or audience. However, I imagine the people "watching"—hard to call it participating—these sessions think it's better than not being able to listen to the talks at all.

Putting a conference online

How can fully online conferences be made effective? Ultimately, the answer parallels the familiar e-learning/classroom debate: Rather than trying to figure out how to reproduce a conference as an online event, we should try something different online that exploits our delivery technology's capabilities for superior results. Cost, comfort, and convenience are potential benefits of the online format.

How much are people willing to pay for an online conference or online portions of an in-person conference? Online conferences and seminars are usually free, although I have seen a few charging high fees. There is a cost to using technology, and conference organizers may fear that, in using a blended approach, they lose attendees who prefer to participate online. Over time we'll find out if online programs provide a viable option for those who wouldn't otherwise attend a particular conference at all, or if these programs are most successful at getting people excited about in-person attendance.

The future of conferences

Let's go back to my original list of reasons people attend conferences in person: education, networking, break from work, chance for reflection, new ideas, a change of scenery, good food, and a sense of connectedness.

I got my job by networking at a traditional conference, and it's hard to imagine replicating that experience online. And what's the likelihood of an online conference giving you a break from work and a chance for reflection? Limited, at best; in fact, the opposite is probably true. Because online conferences are typically crammed into existing work hours, frustration and fragmentation are the likely outcomes. The change of scenery and good food I can get on my next vacation. But the sense of membership or belonging is harder to acquire online. In-person conferences excel at promoting connectedness, scheduling breaks and receptions to increase physical presence, and using badges, t-shirts, and bags for a sense of inclusion.

Where can technology help further? At any multi-track, in-person conference, it would be great to know more about what you missed. I'd like to be able to replay some sessions, although I understand the dilemmas organizers face in determining how to price those capabilities and offer them in a way that doesn't lower registration numbers.

Since I'm not great at standing up during sessions to ask questions, I'd like the opportunity to make queries online and see others' questions and answers. Presenters, attendees, and people participating at a distance could all use such a resource. While the prospect of piled-up work and full in-boxes may inhibit participation in post-conference discussions, extending the conference experience online may be the best way of increasing conferences' relevance back in the "real" world.

Based on where technology is now and how people and organizations respond to technology-delivered courses, I don't believe that online conferences are a substitute for on-site ones. Online conferences may be valuable for what they do offer: more diversity in the participants and more flexibility to reflect on and apply concepts. Current technologies, even telepresence, cannot replicate the immersive experience of in-person conferences.

We are still at an embryonic stage in the application of technology to conferences. Conference organizers are experimenting with and evaluating different approaches; the results to date have been interesting, as have been the diversity in their approaches. People's expectations of and comfort levels with technology change over time, and this, in conjunction with further experimentation and innovations, may be what ultimately leads to new and more successful models for technology-enhanced conferences.


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