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!


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

Get the most out of the OU online conference

The OU online conference kicks off today. The organisers have sent around a 10 step plan to get the most out of the OU event which its really useful.

They suggest:

  1. Block out time in your dairy to participate in the synchronous Elluminate sessions. See: http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/2994 for the programme with the links to the Elluminate sessions.
  2. Let your colleagues in your office know what you are doing and tell them what level of crisis it needs to be for you to be happy to be disturbed by them (and encourage them to also take part).
  3. If you think there will be too many interruptions in your normal working area, see if you can go to a quiet room or meeting room with a laptop (can you borrow one if you do not already have one?).
  4. As a minimum, make sure you have a set of earphones available and that they work with the equipment that you have and that sound is also working on your equipment. If you think you may want to contribute to the audio discussion you will also need a microphone, also worth testing beforehand.
  5. Test that Elluminate works on your equipment. See: Conference Info: Using Elluminate
    To actively participate:
  6. Watch the pre-conference videos at http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/3959 and comment on the cloud (interviews with Martin Bean, Simon Buckingham Shum, Grainne Conole, Andrew Law).
  7. Join the main Elluminate presentation sessions (see: http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/2994 for the programme with the links to each Elluminate session) and contribute to the questions and debate with text chat and/or audio within the Elluminate session.
  8. Join the moderated breakout Elluminate discussion rooms after each main session.
  9. Watch the multimedia presentations in cloudworks and add comments to the clouds. For the list see: Your Contributions for OU ‘Learning in an Open World’ conference http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloudscape/view/2128
  10. Give us your feedback after the event (at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ouconf10) and there is a cloud for free format feedback: http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/2992

Unfortunately I can’t attend today but hope to pop along on Wednesday. Enjoy!

The Totally Online OU Conference

Fancy attending the Annual Open University Conference? This year’s theme is Learning in an Open World and it is open to everyone, not just OU people. Oh…budget cuts mean you can’t justify the travel at the moment? Well not to worry the whole conference is online only!

This year’s OU conference is the first totally online HE/FE conference that I’ve seen. The event will take place across 2 days (22nd and 23rd June), with the synchronous presentations being held in Elluminate and asynchronous discussion held in Cloudworks.

Martin Weller gives the full details on his blog but the essentials are that the conference divides into four session, each with three OU speakers talking about a specific project. There is then a moderated discussion session where people can go into one of three Elluminate rooms to discuss issues from the talks. After that everyone reconvenes for an external speaker. Elluminate sessions are set to a limit of 300 users (this is because, as Martin explains, managing discussion becomes difficult beyond this). However if there is a huge amount of interest the OU have said that they can investigate alternatives. All the sessions will be recorded and available for viewing after the event.


There is still time to contribute something about your project, work or research (deadline is 7th June). They don’t want papers but are after digital artefacts (so a Slideshare presentation, YouTube video, Flickr photos or another Cloud in Cloudworks will do).


If you are interested in attending one session or more you need to register your interest on the Cloudworks space.

The theme will explore how ‘open’ has evolved in education since the OU’s inception in 1969. They will be looking at projects such like openlearn, cloudworks, Moodle, iSpot. Should be interesting.

I’ll be there…well I’ll be here but I’ll also be there…you know what I mean!

The twitter hashtag for the conference is #OUConf10