Monday, April 22, 2013

Making Conferences Not Suck

Every year I go on this whole thing about conferences. So far, my favourite has been NetHui. The biggest thing it's got going for it is the fact that it has an incredibly low barrier to entry. $40 for 3 days of conference goodness is a brilliant thing. The conference does still essentially suck as Internet NZ try to tell us just how much they're doing by funding, what so far, are horribly flawed projects.

When I say horribly flawed: last year they were on a great big giant "Computers in Homes" buzz which failed on several points for me. No real regard to user investment i.e. A recipient only had to get 20 hours of training in order to gain what's essentially a free computer. Internet would only be subsidized for 1 year. The computers are pre-installed with Windows (and from what I hear, the support vendors are protective about keeping them this way) which to me indicates a lack of thought in terms of the opportunities being afforded to their user base.

I was considering going to ULearn - NZ's biggest e-learning conference (probably the biggest education conference in NZ). And then there's barcamp... which I find I'm never all that enthusiastic about.

I actually really hate un-conferences. I know... they're trendy and great and brilliant and everything but... they fail on a couple of points.

  • No matter how unstructured they're supposed to be, someone ALWAYS has that whiteboard marker or controls to the projector or is standing at the front while everyone else is sitting. The discussion becomes about reinforcing their points.
  • They just don't work. Given the differing communication styles between males and females, you often get that scenario where females are sitting there swapping arms as they've now been holding at least one arm up for the last 10 minutes while males generally butt in when they've got a point to make. It's not a balanced discussion.
Which all leads to the fact that it would be better and more honest to admit to having a facilitator for a discussion. In fact, make it a general rule that the facilitator is not there to join in the discussion but is rather, just a facilitator. So someone who can tell people to wait their turn...

I also usually go to educamp. This is a one day unconference which, funnily enough, I don't really participate all that much. Instead, I go for one thing. Something they refer to as the "Smackdown". I think the name is more than a little naff but it occurred to me tonight as I was watching TED videos that this would be a brilliant format for finding people with things to say.

So the concept is this: People sit around asking for access to whatever spreadsheet they're using to keep track of who's talking and when it's their turn. They get up. I think they have something ridiculous like 3 minutes to do a talk on something.

The problem with TEDx events... Firstly, their advertising is terrible. I knew one was coming and kept an eye out for any sort of information but missed it. I would have loved to have gone only.... well the second reason TEDx events suck... I know that tickets are likely to be really horribly expensive. And thirdly, chances are I'd be missing out on great talks in favor of another great talk...

So what if you could make it not suck? Take the "Ideas Worth Spreading" concept, and quite short talks (I'd say 5 minutes with a few 15 minute sessions) all done in a single hall/auditorium. It'd have to be the same old proposal for presentation type set up - the spreadsheet really is a bit of a pain - unless you had quite specific "soap box" sessions. A chance to get up and talk about what gets your juices flowing.

After which, you could then essentially vote on the people you wanted to hear talk in depth on their subject, and the conference could then evolve from there. Or... not. It could just be the short talks. Perhaps the guides could just contain the name of the speaker, their subject and a URL for more information.

Just think. The cost could be kept right down. Make the food user pays and offer it to a whole lot of different mobile food vendors. One auditorium (this could potentially be done in a school hall or the like). Some small printing costs... Charge $20 for the day. The smallest of all the issues I think would be finding people doing interesting things to make life better...

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