Go Forth and Amplify!

Alan Cann is a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester. In recent years he has worked on developing new approaches to learning materials involving Web 2.0 technologies and is particularly interested in the educational affordances of social objects and socially-constructed knowledge. He blogs at Science of the Invisible.

Last year he organised an amplified staff development session (Learning and Teaching in the Sciences Conference) at the Student Learning Centre at the University of Leicester. The event was a great success and Alan has agreed to share his top tips with us.

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An enormous amount of time, effort and money is poured into training sessions within institutions. In some cases, there may be good reasons why these events need to be closed and secretive, for example commercial sensitivity or patient confidentiality. In the vast majority of cases however, the hosting institution has more to gain by sharing the collected knowledge around such events rather than keeping them quiet. In the past, there would have been a considerable cost element involved in such an undertaking, but this is no longer true. What remains is a closed culture where many institutions lack transparency, which is self-harming rather than conferring any institutional advantage.

Amplified events utilize freely available online social networks to record and relay discussions from a physical event to a much larger online audience. Through the generation of an online thread, amplification also permits two-way discussions between local and remote participants. With the prevalence of wifi and 3G networks, and increasing ownership of internet-enabled mobile devices, amplifying training events is a fairly simple task which involves more cultural than technical challenges.

I was involved with organizing my first amplified event in 2009, although since then I have been involved with much bigger events such as the Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C). Almost irrespective of scale, a simple checklist will help to ensure the success of such a venture:

Start early
Effective amplification of an event requires momentum, so it is important to start early. This means talking publicly (and encouraging others to do the same) about the build up to the event; booking, directions, expectations, etc.

Agree a tag and/or hashtag
As explained in the background section above, tags are crucial to amplifying events as they enable the aggregation of what would otherwise be disparate information. For most web services, blogs (such as WordPress or Blogger) or photo sharing sites (such as Flickr) a simple alpha-numeric tag is sufficient. For Twitter, it is useful to prefix the tag with the hash character (#). The important thing is that the tag is both unique to the event (so that only items related to the event concerned are aggregated) and short (so it is easy to input).

Promote a unique tag and/or hashtag
Just having a tag or hashtag is not sufficient, participants (and potential participants) need to know about it, so advertise it as widely as possible as soon as possible.

Build a network
It might be that the event concerned has a number of people involved who are already part of an existing network, that is to say they already know each other, perhaps in-person, or perhaps through interacting online. This means it will be more likely that they will be comfortable with interacting with each other at the event and reduces inertia and generates momentum. To build a network, look out for who is using the tags or hashtags (set up alerts via RSS or FriendFeed) and start conversations.

Be inclusive
If a network is already up and running it can be a bit intimidating for newcomers if they are not used to interacting in this way. Inclusivity should be encouraged by simply being welcoming and friendly to newcomers (just as would be done in person).

Get permissions
Getting permissions from people applies largely to photographs. If you are going to be posting photos of people online (which will be discoverable by search because the event is so well amplified) make sure you get people’s permissions. The easiest way to do this is via booking form or sign in sheet with a check box for people to opt out and an instruction for them to make themselves known to the organisers at the beginning of the event so that it is clear who does not want to be photographed.

Display the amplification on screen
It is unlikely that everyone who is physically present at an event will be participating online too. Therefore, in order to help everyone see what is going on you can project onto a screen a site which provides an up to date summary of everyone’s contribution (we used http://twitterfall.com/ but other free sites provide similar functionality). To enhance the experience for those who are participating online but are not physically present, also consider streaming video of what is going on in the room (e.g. http://www.ustream.tv/).

Use an aggregating site
An aggregating site, such as a Friendfeed group (e.g. http://friendfeed.com/solondon) or a Facebook page (e.g. http://www.facebook.com/ALTConf) can be used to collect all tagged information into one stream; tweets, blog posts, photos, etc.
Collect and archive the data for analysis before it disappears
Information on Twitter is only retained for a finite period so it should be recorded before, during and after the event (e.g. TwapperKeeper) so that analysis of the data can be performed.

For an amplified event to be anything other than ephemeral, it is important that as much of the online data as possible is captured and written up in some form after the event to achieve permanency and lasting impact. For this reason, all participants need to be informed and made aware of the public nature of the online discussions and data collection via any hashtag. However, a Twitter hashtag provides a convenient means of allowing any participant who wants to attend the physical event and to have conversations online but not to have their data collated to opt out without isolation.

Go forth and amplify!

2 thoughts on “Go Forth and Amplify!

  1. Minor comment…

    Allowing an opt out when getting permissions for photos is a big pain to be honest – keeping track of who can and cannot be photographed. Better to simply say on the registration form, “By signing up for this event you agree to have your photo taken and used”.

    At our symposia, we tell people who prefer not to be photographed to sit on one side of the auditorium and we do our best to steer the video and still cameras away from that section – but we don’t make any promises.

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