Why an online conference?

On Monday I published a post about the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2010 Online Conference which will take place in November. In the post I name checked James Clay, ILT & Learning Resources Manager at Gloucestershire College, who will be the conference blogger. James has kindly agreed to write a guest blog post for us on why he’s taken on this role and why online conferences are becoming increasingly important.

James has been with Gloucestershire College since November 2006. He is responsible for the VLE, the use of learning technologies, e-learning, the libraries, digital and online resources and the strategic direction of the college in relation to the use of learning technologies.

In 2009 James was awarded the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) Learning Technologist of the Year Award.

James can be followed on Twitter and by reading his e-learning Stuff blog.

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Over the years I have attended many conferences, online and in physical locations.

This November JISC are running their fifth online conference, Innovating e-Learning 2010. For the third year running I will be the official conference blogger, adding my thoughts and opinions on the conference and posting tips and advice to those new to the format. I really do enjoy attending these online conferences and find they do challenge me and my assumptions, make me think and influence my practice.

A bit of background perhaps may be in order.

At the 2006 JISC Online Conference I presented a piece entitled Mobile Learning on the VLE.

This was seminal piece of work that has had an impact on a lot of what I have done since. It was a key factor in my involvement in the MoLeNET programme and a bit influence on how I view the use of mobile devices to enhance and enrich learning.

I really did enjoy not just presenting at the conference, but also taking part as a delegate in the other presentations. One of the key factors for me was the depth and breadth of discussion that took place, something that is often “missing” from a physical conference. This discussion was textual and asynchronous and took place over a day or so rather than in the few minutes for questions you normally get at a physical conference.

2007 saw me jointly present with Helen Beetham, more of a challenge, but I presented from Weston-super-Mare, whilst Helen presented from Devon. At various online conferences I have attended people have been able to present from all over the world. Any conference is going to have an impact on the environment. With hundreds of people travelling hundreds (if not thousands) of miles this will contribute to the carbon footprint of the event. Now it has to be said that an online conference can help reduce the environmental impact of an event. If you are like me you probably have a laptop with you at a conference, so if you are staying at home or in the office and using the laptop at the online conference this will have a negligible impact on the carbon footprint as you would be using the laptop at both kinds of events.

2008 was my first as the official conference blogger. This was a big change for me, as before I could focus one day on presenting and then enjoy the rest of the conference. As the official conference blogger I was expected to help in the build up and blog over the conference. I think when asked to do this my own e-Learning Stuff was only about a year old (though I had a blog in my previous role before then) and blogged a few times a week, so at first I wasn’t sure exactly what was wanted. I knew I would need to blog a quite a few times a day, so this was quite a challenge. I also had the “day job” so needed to fit it all around that too. So after much thinking, I really threw myself into the role, and as well as using text, I also made use of audio and video. I made short videos and uploaded them to the blog. Some of these videos were edited and put together in advance.

Others were shot during the conference (sometimes on a phone) and uploaded within minutes of taking them.

These video summaries were appreciated by the delegates as was my textual commentary, advice and help.

So perhaps it was no surprise that in 2009 I was invited back again as the conference blogger.

So here we are back in 2010 and once more I will be blogging at the JISC Online Conference.

So what is it about an online conference?

For me the main reason for attending an online conference, as well as the excellent presentations, is the engagement between the delegates. Most physical conferences I have attended have in the main been passive affairs, I sit, I listen, I think, digest and reflect. Discussion and debate does happen at these conferences, but usually informally over coffee. At the online conference the debate and discussion takes place using a textual asyncrhonous discussion forum over two days. As a result it allows for reflection, it enables delegates to refer and check other papers and sources, and for all delegates to read that discussion and if they want to, add their own comment.

Other reasons why I like online conferences, is that I can attend the conference even when doing other things. I can still attend meetings, see people in my office, teach, even go to other places. At the last two online conferences I have had to go to London during the week of the conference, and have using 3G and coffee shop wifi hotspots continued to take part in the conference even though I am away from my desk.

Having said all that it is useful too to make time for the conference, shut the office door, work from home for a bit, wear headphones, move to a different office, work in the coffee spaces in the college or university.

You can see presentations again, you can ignore them and (virtually) walk out without feeling you may be offending someone as their talk doesn’t relate to you as you thought it did.

Unlike a physical conference, the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2010 Online Conference remains open for reading until the 31st December to allow participants to catch up on what they missed. So unlike missing the train to a physical conference or falling ill, it is possible to still get a lot out of the online conference.

There are advantages to attending the conference, but reduced travel and accommodation costs, no travel time and no need to leave the office, are additional advantages.

Of course the real value of the online conference is the programme, one that will inspire and challenge you. It has variety and interest.

So if it is proving difficult to attend all the conferences you want to, one you shouldn’t miss is the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2010 Online Conference.

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