Monday, 2 March 2009

Online Conference

Two of my eLearning Predictions for 2009 were:
#5 - Virtual Classroom Tipping Point

... we've reached a point where virtual classroom training is no longer seen as inherently inferior and a lower value ... 2009 will be the year when we realize that we should be justifying any in-person training.

#11 - Micro Virtual Conferences

The move towards acceptance of virtual classroom means ... acceptance of online conferences ... we won't have time to go for several days ... in between a full online conference and something that's a few sessions.
Already this year, I'm seeing a lot of this ...

And I think there's a fairly substantial implication for workplace learning organizations...

Online Conference Associated with Major In-Person Conferences

It was interesting to see that ASTD TechKnowledge offer an online conference. The experience sounds like it was okay (TK 09 Virtual Experience). They opened that up late in the process. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if they had offered it earlier. Would attendance have been even lower for in-person?

And I'm not the only one: Online conferences - the future is now.

Both talk about: great value.

Online Conference on Conferences

I was asked to participate in a recent online conference: AACE - Spaces of Interaction: An Online Conversation on Improving Traditional Conferences. The event was held purely online with sessions spaced about 6 hours apart, 3 times per day, for 3 days (9 total sessions). They were recorded. And there was a discussion group.

Think about how having it as an online conference allowed:
  • Narrow focus
  • Attend without interrupting my job.
  • Get people involved who would never participate in-person in such a narrow topic.
  • Organize quickly
  • Low cost
Side note: It was somewhat ironic to hear all the discussion about how to improve "traditional conferences" while we were participating in something that was not really traditional - but was fairly effective.

New Organizers and New Designs

Now, I'm not saying that there's anything new about holding an online conference. The eLearningGuild has been doing this for years with monthly, for-fee online conferences structured around particular topics. These are held over two days with a structure very similar to in-person conferences. Part of the reason that the eLearningGuild structures their online conferences to be similar to in-person conferences to make it more obvious that it's similar and thus is worth the money.

Once you go to an online conference it suddenly allows all sorts of new conferences, new organizers and new designs to flourish.

I've really not spent a lot of time looking at different models, but it seems like there are several common design questions that come into play:
  • Number of Sessions - You can go anywhere from Single Event Webinars (e.g., Tapping the Social Grid) to complete conferences with many sessions across many topics.
  • Tracks - Is there a single series or do you have multiple sessions at the same time?
  • Synchronous / Asynchronous - Do you design for live sessions or more for recording and viewing later with interaction pushed to discussion groups?
  • Schedule - When in the day do you schedule your sessions?
  • Spacing - Do you block sessions to occur back-to-back or do you leave room for discussion and work to occur in-between?
  • Exhibitors / Sponsors - How do you integrate exhibitors and sponsors? Are there demonstration sessions?
  • Discussion Mechanism
  • Networking
  • Start-up Support / Training - How do you help participants participate effectively?
  • Conference End / Follow-on - What do you do at the end?
Targeted Online Conferences

When I did my online session Tapping the Social Grid - I primarily focused on establishing 1-to-1 conversations. I probably used the phrase "30 minute conversation" more than any other phrase. But what get's me excite about online conferences is that we can easily make this a many-to-many conversation.

If you look at what we are doing with SharePoint in Corporate Learning - Free Micro Virtual Conference, the reality is that I've tapped into the Social Grid to find people Using SharePoint. We are turning that into an amazing online conversation with:
  • High quality speakers / participants (HP, Intel, Thomson Reuters, Administaff, ...)
  • Focused topic
  • More discussion and less presentation
We've structured it to hopefully encourage lots of sharing and discussion.

The bottom line:
I would go have each of these conversations 1-on-1 if I didn't have this way of doing it. We might as well make it many-to-many.
Implication for Workplace Learning Organizations

When you look at the dynamic here, I believe there's an incredible opportunity for workplace learning organizations to become a new kind of organizer as well. I get asked to come speak at various in-house conferences. That's generally a fairly expensive proposition. And I would guess that the number of in-person, in-house conferences is going down right now. Just a guess. ;)

Maybe you can create something much better. Create an online conference. Invite people from outside the organization who share similar issues. Invite the "experts" but reduce the costs greatly by allowing it to occur without travel. You really don't need George, Jay and I to organize these things for you.

Or do you? Literally as I'm composing this, I'm wondering if there's possibly a great new service offering here. Would you like help pulling together an online conference around a topic for your organization?

I know people who are really good at pulling together online conferences. I know how to network to get lots of interesting folks together. I'm sure there are plenty of corporate event organizers who would organize an online conference. But I sense there's something a little different here.

What do you think? Is there need among workplace learning organizations? Is there a new business here?

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