OU Online Conference: What did they learn?

The excitement of IWMW meant that I missed pointing people to Martin Weller’s feedback on the Open University Online Conference: How to organise an online conference.

Martin and his team organised the Open University annual Learning and Technology conference: Learning in an open world in June. The event took place entirely online and was a really groundbreaking event. For my thoughts at the time read Learning at an Online Conference.

Martin and Karen Cropper have now created a template for use by those thinking of running a similar event, and it’s a very useful resource. It covers the planning techniques, technologies, structure and communication mechanisms they used for the event

Probably the most interesting part of the post is the issues section. As a wise person once said “mistakes are our friends – learn from them“. Martin mentions access issues to Elluminate, microphone quality or speakers and how communication within his internal group could have been better. Although he touches on some more ‘cultural’ issues e.g. “Some attendees commented that they found it difficult to isolate time and space when at work, as people assumed if they were in, they were interruptible” he doesn’t really discuss how attendence could be improved – there were around 80 people max in the sessions I attended, I think they had room for 300. (Note the stats show that there were 202 attendees in session 1, but still there is room for improvement.)

His follow up post OU conference – areas for improvement puts a little more meat on how we can make such an event more seamless.

A few choice ideas include:

  • Ensure that speakers have good mic and earphones and have practiced in Elluminate beforehand.
  • If speakers are in other locations, we need to have a way to contact them outside of the platform in use, if they have not got their sound on or are having problems connecting.
  • We need an agreed signal to bring to a close – the online equivalent of the 5 minute warning or card held up at conferences.
  • It is worth including regular breaks in the programme for informal chat and a chance for ‘comfort breaks’. This should be good practice anyway in relation to looking at the screen for long periods and also the issue around comfort when wearing headphones for prolonged periods.
  • Run more open, discussion based sessions, not just purely presentation based ones. As it was experimental this year, we were trying a number of different things so experimenting with the format seemed like a tweak too far, but we could do more than straightforward presentations.
  • Have a specified technical support team with clearly defined roles. As this was an experiment this year, much of the knowledge resided with the two central organisers, but as it becomes accepted practice, readily defined roles can be allocated.
  • If bandwidth and technology allow include video and/or pictures of the presenters (and audience) as it makes the experience feel more personal.
  • Presenting virtually requires slides to be more engaging than with a live audience and for the speaker to encourage interaction. We will produce a set of guidelines for virtual presentations to aid presenters. Also insist on receiving slides beforehand as uploading was not always straightforward.
  • Run some hybrid sessions – for example have a number of rooms on campus where the conference is presented on a screen, with refreshments available so people can drop in. This would give some of the physical presence a traditional conference benefits from and may overcome some of the issues in people allocating time to it.

Martin has also published a post entitled OU conference – evaluation which gives some statistics for the event. The evaluation took the form of a questionnaire of attendees in surveymonkey, statistics from cloudworks, analysis of twitter users adopting the #OUConf10 hashtag and analysis of the elluminate sessions.

Interestingly 50 of the 102 people who replied to the survey would not have attended the conference if it had not been online. I filled in the survey and was one of these people. I expect that they actually got quite a different audience (e.g. a lot more international attendees) from the ones they’ve had in previous years when it’s been a face-to-face conference.

One of the main issue raised by attendees was separating out the time to attend an online conference. I’d agree that this was a big one for me. I have thought that if events like the Institutional Web Management Workshop were to move more in this direction there might be a place for ‘hubs’ or local venues at which people could meet up to watch the event together. Thus separating the conference from work and still retaining some of that networking factor.

I’m pleased to see that Martin intends to look in more detail at the “cost and green comparison with previous face to face versions of the conference“. I think the results should make interesting reading.

Well done again to the OU team for a pioneering event. A great start and I’m sure the conference will only get better!


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