Ten years attendance at the same annual conference gives one helpful perspective for measuring trends. Last week I had just such an opportunity to measure the impact of social media on a conference community. The National Association of Biology Teachers conference (NABT) is an annual conference of high school and college biology teachers. It’s a smallish meeting – roughly 800 people – who gather to participate in posters, sessions, and workshops. “Teaching and Learning” is the mission and a fierce dedication to their students is the common bond. It’s a wonderful group and I always enjoy being in their company.
Although networking is a strongly stated goal of the assemblage, I’ve been struck by the lack of social media use amongst this community. There is a robust online community of AP Biology teachers (facilitated by the College Board) who regularly share updates, questions, and suggestions – but that’s just one small segment using just one (relatively blunt) tool. In past years, there have been attempts to inject a little social media sauce to the proceedings but they were tepid and never quite took. A few hardy Twitterers, one or two ardent bloggers capturing the essence, but in past years it sounded like crickets out there to my lonely twittering posts.
This year, however, was different. A vibrantly hard working Twitter crowd seemed to emerge out of nowhere, documenting the scene and tweeting the sessions. Hashtags abounded. Blog posts were thoughtful. Someone started an open Google Doc for posting notes from the session. An NABT tagboard surfaced to showcase the Twitter productivity.
Not only did the Twitter stream bring me in contact with many new teachers, it was an extremely useful way to make sure I was covering the right sessions. You know how that goes at these conferences – so many good sessions occupy the same time slots – how best to decide which is the best fit for you? What I quickly learned to do was pick from the program description then, once there, monitor the twitter stream to hear what was happening in the other sessions. If the reports showed a session with a better fit for my needs, I would politely shift locations. If there were multiple best-fit sessions at the same time, I could always go to the Google doc page to pick up the notes from a fellow traveler. It was a handy ways to graze and make sure to capture the bounty.
So what made the difference this year? How did we move from the social media desert to this rich harvest of interaction and sharing? I definitely noticed a greater number of younger members in attendance….hmmm. I hate to make the ageist mistake. Was it my imagination or were there more attendees sporting tattoos (thank, Ilona – @mikoartscience – for pointing this out. Even from a distance you are remarkably perceptive!)? Is there a correlation between Twitter-use and Tattoo-display? Mostly, I suspect it was a classic Malcom-Gladwell-esque tipping point: enough experienced Twitter users to lead by example and provide sufficient value so that less experienced others found it worth the effort.