Learning 2012: what worked, what didn’t, even better if…?

Learning 2012, held in late October in Florida, was my first experience of a non-UK conference (in fact my first trip to the USA!), and it was quite an experience.

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.

What worked

  • 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.


12 thoughts on “Learning 2012: what worked, what didn’t, even better if…?

  1. dames20

    Hi Stephanie-interesting post, especially from one of the ‘super’ conferences! From your post it seems like they over stretched themselves with their offerings regarding tech and session formats. Did they provide free wifi for the conference? I agree that for a conference of this size a dedicated twitter team would have been helpful, and the lack of people using the app suggests that it was not providing people with the information that they want.
    I hope that you are going to post about the trends and topics that were discussed there!

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Hi Damian,
      They did indeed provide free wifi – although it rarely worked for me during the general sessions when all 1600 of us were in one room, hence my lack of tweeting at those times. The point about tech is a good one though: something I didn’t mention above was that there were moments of ‘tech for the sake of it’, in particular two occasions where we received live video – with dodgy audio, making it hard to follow – of two people standing in the next room… I applaud the ambition of the organisers on the whole but think that quality, not just quantity, needs to be considered.
      I will indeed be posting about some of the sessions/content from the conference too, hopefully over the next week. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Kate

    Really good post Stephanie, so interesting to hear an insider’s view of the big US conferences. It’s great that they were ambitious with some of their initiatives – and I really like the idea of the keynotes in a ‘fireside chat’ style – but a shame that they weren’t always executed that well. As someone following the back channel remotely, I was surprised at the lack of official tweeting etc. Seems the organisers can learn a few things for next year – so looks like you’ll have to go back again to see if they’ve improved 😉

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Thanks Kate. I agree that the ambition is to be applauded, and there are definitely some ideas that the UK conferences might want to try out. Hopefully the constructive feedback from attendees will help the organisers build on those ambitious initiatives next year. And, yes, I’ll be more than happy to volunteer my tweeting or other services next time! Thanks as always for reading and for your comment, Kate.

  3. Rlucas

    Great observations Stephanie. I really like how you covered what could have been better in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Also agree with your thoughts on what didn’t work so well. I was disappointed to miss some of those sessions you described, simply because the room was so overcrowded. I think that some of those sessions should have been added to the real-time content and repeated, because they were so popular the first time. Having meeting organizers notice and cull those events out, then publicize them better as you suggest would make a lot of sense.

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Thank you! I definitely want to provide balanced and constructive feedback, so I’m very glad that’s how it comes across. I actually think yours is a really good idea. In fact, the app could have been used to take this further, using the polls feature more to get a sense of which sessions people were planning to attend that day and then as you suggest limiting the number of attendees and running the session again in a real-time slot. Great idea. Overall, lots of successes and potential for the organisers to build on for next time!
      Thanks for dropping by, reading and commenting.

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  5. sheeringa

    Hi Stephanie – the “real-time hub” is really interesting. Gave me some ideas for the potential of real-time hubs during internal workshops. Having never attended that large of a conference, I like seeing it from your perspective – gives some great insight should I choose to attend one in the future. Great blog!

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Hi Sara, thanks so much for your comment. There’s definitely a lot of potential in the real-time content idea, and I’ll be interested to see whether/how other events or organisations adopt and adapt it. In fact, just having some ‘space’ in a packed schedule, not pre-filled with content, can be a good thing; it allows people the time they might need to rest their brains and reflect on everything so far – or just to sit down and chat more informally with other attendees, which is often where some of the most valuable takeaways at an event come from. Thanks again for reading and commenting! Stephanie

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