I’m back home, after an exhausting and exhilarating three days in Orlando at the 17th annual Sloan-C Online Education conference. There were 1,488 attendees (from 25 countries and 47 states) and 600 virtual attendees – for me, this was my first Sloan conference.
I spent some time on the plane ride home, reflecting on the experience and concluded that, overall, it was excellent. I met some very interesting new people, reconnected with old friends, heard some terrific talks, and gained quite a few new gems. Highlights for me were the Lee Rainie and Howard Rheingold keynotes (fabulous) along with the random invigorating and refreshing conversation with a stranger over coffee or in the elevator.
The sessions themselves were very good (and plenty to choose from). Despite Sloan-C’s beautifully crafted and color-coded program, I did have trouble ferreting out the worthwhile from the ho-hum. The organizers explained that they vet the conference submissions carefully (and they receive more abstracts than they accept), but it’s tough to know from the descriptions whether or not the talk will suit your needs. Part of the problem is due to the still nascent language forms we use to describe our online work – words like “virtual”, “online world”, “interactive course design”, “learning platform”, and “cognitive presence” mean different things to different people. One suggestion for next year would be to require all presenters to create a short (30 second) video of themselves, describing their session. These videos could be posted on the conference site so that attendees could view them, in advance, in order to assess what the session will be about. You could think of the videos as “advertisements” for the session to come.
Our session – Active Learning in Virtual Worlds – was webcast and the organizers did a terrific job of setting that up, guiding us in advance (and there at the conference), and generally managing the technical details. Very smooth.
One thought I had is that all three of the keynotes (Rainie, Green, and Rheingold) left me wanting more – more information, more depth, more specifics. I wonder if the keynoters could be encouraged to bring along a lieutenant, or someone else from their organization, who could give a concurrent session or two, as follow-up, to the more macro level message provided in the keynote? For instance, if Caleb Green brought along someone from Creative Commons to give a practical, hands-on, how-to introduction to Creative Commons licenses and how they work.
The twitterverse was hopping at the conference and the twitter feed monitors in the hallways were a nice touch, but why not have a BIG twitter feed in the exhibit hall and big ballroom (where the plenaries were held and the meals eaten)? Similarly, Twitter handles on participant name badges (and in the program participant list) would have been a nice addition. And how about a live Flickr feed (I saw a lot of attendees with pretty spif looking cameras, snapping pictures in sessions).Crowdsource the conference documentation!
How about inviting a panel of live bloggers (5 or 6 of them perhaps), specially commissioned by Sloan-C as on-the-spot reporters to give their added insight and reflection to the sessions? For example, Eirc Kunnen, from Grand Rapids CC, did a fabulous job of blogging the conference throughout.
Thinking more about the in-flux language we all use to describe our work and hitchhiking on Howard Rheingold’s “lexicon for the course” idea, it would be useful for Sloan-C to create a lexicon wiki – specifically for the conference – where the participants actively work to clarify and codify the language we use to explain our field. By conference end, we might have something useful 😉
If the exhibit hall vendors are a representation of the direction of things, what I saw there was… online testing solutions, online course creation partners, test proctoring services, lecture capture systems, hosting services, tutorial companies, online education tool vendors, OER creators, and educational publishers (undoubtedly a different division than the textbook groups that populate most academic conferences). I was very impressed with the way that the conference organizers worked with and showcased the vendors. The vendors make much of a conference like this one possible and their generous support of a meal here or a cocktail hour there was broadly and graciously acknowledged. Many events (including the poster session) were held in the exhibit hall in order to increase their traffic – smart move.
While I loved the electronic poster session, the set up was a bit congested, making it tough to move from one poster presenter to another and impossible to stop and have a good conversation. While it’s smart for them all to have their work on laptops, it would have been helpful for them to also have a more easily read poster to accompany them in their spot so that you could see, at a glance, what they were all about.
On the shuttle ride to the airport, I sat near Burks Oakley – Chair of the Awards Committee and member of the Sloan-C Board of Directors. We had a delightful conversation about the conference, its history and future direction, and he listened to my small suggestions with great interest (thanks, Burks).
The ultimate personal assessment for me – would I go to the conference again in future years? You bet.