Learning at an Online Conference

Yesterday I attended the Open University annual Learning and Technology conference: Learning in an open world. As I explained in an earlier post (The Totally Online OU Conference) at some point the OU team made a fairly radical decision and decided to hold the entire conference online. So was it sink or swim for them?

I’m sure there were many successes and just as many failures but from my minimal experience of the event I’d have to say that it was a journey definitely worth taking. An interesting observation was made by one of the OU team in the final talk (given by Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame, more on that later):

I wonder how you feel Jimmy when people say negative comments about Wikipedia. I think it is always easy to knock things and we have even seen that yesterday and today with people being cynical about what we are doing with this conference. Yet it is much harder to pioneer and take action in a positive way to make things better.” (sic)

The conference organisers Martin Weller, Karen Cropper and Janet Dyson have bravely pledged to use the online assessment and their own experiences of how it went to write an analysis of the process and a guide for others on how to organise an online events. I think these will prove to be invaluable resources as the public sector move into a time of serious justification: justification of travel costs, environmental costs, time costs and any other costs it might incur. For us transparency, collaboration and efficiency are very much the words of the day, and the OU Online Conference ticked all these boxes.

So what were the interesting bits for me?


The OU chose Elluminate as their Webinar software of choice. I’ve used Elluminate a few times but only as a presenter so it was interesting to see it from an attendees perspective. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the Tuesday session but I tuned in to the Open Teaching session first thing on Wednesday morning.

The OU team did a great job of keeping the audience engaged before the session by providing notes on audio testing, getting ticks and crosses from people on whether they’d attended the previous day and asking people to introduce themselves and where they were from. I was amazed to see that there were people from afar-a-field as Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, Latvia and Spain. It was a real multinational audience.

The general structure of each session was 3 lots of OU speakers (15 minutes + questions) followed discussion and an external speaker. Tony Hirst from the OU gave a great opening talk on Creating open courses, his presentation was clear, interesting and visually stimulating. I think as a webinar presenter you have to make an effort to be even more animated than usual as people can be so easily distracted. You also need to be quick to notice problems and receptive to your audience, even though you can’t see them. I noticed this in the next talk on Digital Humanities & Classics Confidential given by Linda Wilks and Elton Barker. There were quite a few sound problems and a lot of delegates were talking about this in the chat facility, but the speakers didn’t pick up on it. It didn’t take long before a few of the 70 participants who’d been in Tony’s session had dropped off the edge. An online audience is very fickle. Closing a session is much easier than walking out of a room!

Joe Smith who gave a great presentation on Open to knowing about climate change checked that his audio was OK before he started, getting a show of hands from the audience. There were 5 or so OU moderators in the webinar/room and they made a great team effort with the Q&A,. They handled both audio questions from people who raised their hand and twitter and chat questions. However the session over ran quite a bit. It seems that when there is no-one physically there to wave a “times up” sign speakers can just go on forever!

The intention had been to move delegates into breakout rooms to discuss different issues but it seems that on the previous day there had been a lot of confusion about how to get into rooms and then back to the main webinar room. This was abandoned in favour of a more general discussion. Credit to the OU team, they were very receptive to how things were going and quick to change their plans.

As I mentioned earlier in the post I also tuned in to tail end of Jimmy Wales’ talk on openness and Wikipedia. He was unfortunately fighting against the England Slovenia football match and a high level of network usage but he did a great job. I probably wouldn’t normally get to hear and converse with such a high profile speaker and to do it without having to get on a plane was fantastic stuff.

All playbacks of sessions are now online.


Cloudworks is a site for “finding, sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas, experiences and issues”. Although I didn’t realise it at first it was actually developed by the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University. (It is part of the Open University Learning Design Initiative and is funded by both JISC and The Open University.) Cloudworks is very focused on enabling discussion, connecting people, encouraging sharing, establishing communities etc. As the intro explains:

Unlike many existing educational repositories, the emphasis is on building a dynamic collection of ideas and experiences; via a variety of educational content (learning designs, case studies, resources and tools) plus active discussions about the use and effectiveness of this content in different contexts. The voice of users of the site, their experience, reviews and reflections on the content of the site is a central feature….The target audience is practitioners in HE and FE, although the site may also be of interest to other formal and informal educational sectors. We accept that there will be a higher percentage of consumers than contributors, however over time we hope to increase the level of engagement with the site, encouraging a larger number of educators to share and discuss their ideas and practice.

It does seem like a well thought out resource and I’m sure users gain confidence the more they use it. However there are moments when it’s a little intimidating. There were so many urls banded about that I did start to feel dizzy at one point. Groups of pages seem to be listed under cloudscapes (there are also content, cloudstream, clouds and tweet divisions) but all individual items are assigned numbers rather than longer descriptive. There are obvious advantages of this but as a person just popping into a few sessions I did feel a bit overwhelmed.


I really enjoyed the sessions I had time to sit in on. Unfortunately distractions are a problem and I had 6 phone calls during the morning session, I’ve never been so popular! In one of the sessions I was in there was an interesting discussion about how people were experiencing more interuptions at work than home. Someone commented “strange that you have to not be at work to work“.

If I was to attend something like this again I’d try and focus more and make sure distractions like phones were out of reach. There is still a lot more to say about the content of the day but I’ll leave that for the time being. I’m sure those at the OU have a lot to digest about how the event well but if it’s any help to them I think they are on the edge of something big…

Further Resources