The sheer scale of Learning 2012 – 1600 people, attending 200 sessions, over four days – was very different from conferences I’ve attended in the UK, and just being there was a learning opportunity in itself, even before considering the content of the sessions. I’ve been reflecting on some of things that worked, some that didn’t work so well, and some improvements that I think would make it even better in future.
- For me, the most significant aspect of this conference in terms of distinguishing it from others was the approach to the keynote sessions. Ordinarily, a keynote consists of a talented speaker standing on a stage and delivering a well-rehearsed speech for an hour, followed by some Q&A if there’s time. Learning 2012 took a different approach, with organiser Elliott Masie adopting a talk-show-host role; each keynote session included several guests, each of whom settled into a comfy armchair for between 15 and 45 minutes to be interviewed by Elliott. I really liked this structure. The shorter slots meant – as Elliott pointed out – that, if one particular slot wasn’t of interest, it wouldn’t be long before the speaker and topic moved on. The interview format kept the pace up and ensured that each conversation was brought back to learning before wrapping up. The conspicuous lack of PowerPoint (replaced by photos, videos or diagrams at key points) and the informal set-up with armchairs instead of a lectern encouraged an atmosphere of conversation and discussion.
- I also loved the conference guide. It’s available online as a PDF, but the slightly-larger-than-A5, glossy, spiral-bound printed version that we received on arrival really worked for me. The size is much more convenient than the A4 programmes often provided, and the glossy finish meant it was durable and survived in tact despite being shoved in and out of my bag dozens of times every day. The three-day schedule overview at the front combined with a detailed schedule of options for each timeslot was easy to work with and ensured I always knew where I could, or should, be. I’m a thorough note-taker so used a separate notebook rather than the pages provided in the guide, but this was another nice touch. And I just liked the design: the cork-board and Polaroid idea obviously appeals to my more analogue side!
What didn’t work
- I think the biggest disappointment I had was around the format of sessions. I was excited to see in the conference guide, before the event, that there were 16 different session formats, from ’360 view’ panel sessions and structured discussions to learning labs and mentoring sessions. The fact that the organisers and facilitators or speakers had taken the time to establish and ensure a spread across these different formats was a really encouraging sign that this would be a change from the more lecture-style sessions that are often the result of practical considerations. Unfortunately, for me Learning 2012 didn’t really deliver on this promising start. I attended three ‘discussion’ sessions which were delivered in rooms set up in the traditional theatre style, with a screen at the front and rows of chairs filling the room. All three of these sessions suffered as a result: two of them were in too-small rooms, which meant those people sitting on the floor struggled to participate in the discussion, and in all three sessions the room set-up meant that things defaulted to an audience-participation Q&A instead of the structured, facilitated small-group discussions that had been promised. I fully appreciate that there are resource limitations for conference organisers to work within, but perhaps Learning 2012 was a tad ambitious in the number of different session formats advertised.
- The Learning 2012 app was also not as useful as I’d anticipated. I downloaded it before flying to Florida, and took some time to complete my profile and include Twitter, blog and LinkedIn URLs so that people could easily connect with me during or after the event. Unfortunately, very few people did the same – even amongst the speakers (who were highlighted in a separate area of the app) – and after the first five or six people that I tried unsuccessfully to look up, I switched to searching directly in LinkedIn instead. During the conference, I did use the agenda within the app, to identify the sessions I wanted to attend and create a personalised schedule – but I was equally happy to use the printed guide to decide and follow my schedule. And I also completed the single poll that was included in the app, but never found any way to see the results of this poll. I wonder if again this was a victim of over-ambition: in trying to do too many things (and without the organisers pushing people towards the app during the conference itself), the app ended up not really delivering on any of them.
Even better if…?
- A new feature for this year’s conference was the inclusion of real-time content. About 15% of the schedule was left blank, for conference attendees to suggest, organise, present, facilitate, curate, share and attend. A ‘real-time hub’ was set up in the main networking area of the conference suite, with a large white board for people to suggest topics and a dedicated team to help turn those suggestions into sessions. In theory, I really like this idea. And, although I didn’t attend any of the real-time sessions, I hear that on the whole they worked well and proved valuable. But when I stopped to think about why I hadn’t attended any, I realised it was because I just didn’t really know what was going on. I’d look at my schedule, see there was a real-time option, but wouldn’t have information about the topic – so I’d go to a scheduled session that had a description instead. I think this idea would have been even better had there been a little more thought given to communicating updates. Notes on a whiteboard and sketchy notifications within an app just didn’t keep me updated enough to make me prioritise these sessions. Twitter and the daily general sessions were two forums that could have been used for this purpose, but weren’t.
- And Twitter itself was a real missed opportunity for Learning 2012, in my opinion. Yes, there was a hashtag and there were a lot of people tweeting from across the sessions. But here’s what I think would have increased the impact of Twitter on the conference. First, the organisers @lrn2012 should have tweeted more: the ‘official’ presence in the backchannel was very small, if there at all. Obviously the organisers are running around keeping things on track during the conference itself, but even a series of automated tweets about the different sessions or speakers would have given them some presence on social media during the event. Second, a coordinated approach to the backchannel (a ‘Twitter team’ like those working at the UK’s Learning Technologies and Learning Live) would have been a big plus point. Admittedly having a designated tweeter in each session would be a challenge at a conference this size, but certainly possible for the general sessions and some of the most popular scheduled sessions. I was part of the 30 Under 30 group who were lucky enough to have ‘extra access’ to many of the keynote speakers at breakfasts and lunches; many of us were tweeting throughout the conference, so perhaps we could have been part of a more coordinated approach to backchannel tweeting. (I’m going to blog more about the backchannel in a separate post, too.)
Overall, it was a good experience and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to attend Learning 2012 – but I always think it’s worth reflecting on possible improvements as well as aspects that made it work. I’d be really interested in any thoughts from other people who attended last week.