Reading my public blog posts it may seem that all I do is report on conferences after the fact. I generally do take the time to sit, process, reflect, and write after these intensive events and this is the result. I am doing the same for my own research, but it is on a private “backchannel” (more on backchannels in a moment). My next blog post will be about my work in progress, but until then, here is another conference report.
I attended Educause Australasia on May 04 and 05 in Perth, my home city. Educause is a non-profit organisation “…whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting intelligent use of information technology.” And so although it was not entirely aligned with my own research interests, being very-much K-12 focused, it was still relevant because I am a higher education student engaging with information technologies in order to undertake my research and studies. In other words, I am practicing what “they” are preaching, and exploring how the theory works in practice (on a shoestring student budget).
Many of the streams of the conference were obviously aimed towards the “senior decision makers” identified on the conference website blurb. The high registration fees also made this a somewhat exclusive event, and perhaps had an impact on attendance numbers. I was lucky to receive a student registration to the conference, and this enabled me to give a poster presentation on my own work in progress and also be part of a panel presentation entitled Personal Learning Environments: What Works for Librarians, representing the library-user voice.
Our presentation was very well received. I had only met one of the other panel members in person before the conference as we had done our planning as a group over two Skype sessions. During the first session, we set up a wiki site to aid our planning, and in second a presentation using Google Docs which we edited during the Skype call. I then “prettied it up” later on, but kept the slide content the same. PowerPoint/slide presentations are a useful way to structure and plan a presentation, and helps get presenters into “presentation space”. Google Docs is a great way of managing/facilitating this “space” for a group effort, even if it does not end up being used. I edited the slides during the presentation itself based on audience responses to our question, “What do you want to know?” We then revisited those questions towards the end of our “chat”. In fact, the audience were our co-presenters throughout the panel presentation and made it both interactive and dynamic. Our presentation was more of a discussion in this way, and it is a format I would like to repeat.
The image above is taken from the CoverItLive recording of the second day of the conference relayed through http://librariansinteract.info. Using CoverItLive was a new experience for me. I was vaguely familiar with the tool, having heard about it in the blogosphere, but had never used it as a participant. CoverItLive works by having streams of content from a variety of sources fed into the one place for presentation/embedment in a blog/website/wiki/etc. It is also possible to update from the CoverItLive tool itself, and respond to comments/questions from people who may be “listening in” (“viewing in?”) remotely.
CoverItLive was a convenient way to manage a filtered backchannel during the conference. Twitter * was used by many of the conference participants, and although the official #edaust09 tag helped manage the conversations (we trended under “swine flu” and above “Wolverine” at one stage!), tweets were both formal and informal, and sometimes difficult to keep up with. CoverItLive made the conversations (more) manageable for relaying conference plenaries and concurrent sessions. At times I found myself physically in one presentation but following another! That said, use of Twitter enabled a sense of community and comradeship (“I’m on my way to #edaust09″; “Looking forward to #edaust09″; etc.) and helped speed up and strengthen the formulation of new frolleagues and so the combination of the two was very effective for me.
Much has been said about the benefits and disadvantages of formal and informal backchannels during conferences, especially Twitter. It is only recently that they have become more normalised, however, and only a few years ago I would feel very much like a naughty school child “playing up” at the back of the room whilst using them. In my view, participation in a backchannel represents more on-task engagement than off, and a deeper engagement with the proceedings than would otherwise be possible: one is commenting and reflecting in situ for a particular audience. However, I also found backchannel participation during #edaust09 quite demanding and that it represented surface-level learning. I found myself relaying information rather than commenting or critiquing it, and that I had no time to write my own notes. The notes I took were intended for others, and I missed the meta-note-taking that I usually write: the notes about my notes and the jotting of ideas as they occur, sparked by something in a presentation. Many conference tweets were similar: we relayed the main points; made comments about presentation style; organised meet-ups and lunches; and threw in a few quick polls. Critical discussion of issues and themes presented in the sessions rarely occurred. That said, this was not unique to the backchannel: questions were rarely asked “in real life” either. This is where the skills of a moderator, “critical friend,” or provocateur would come in handy – someone needs to ask the hard questions either in real life or in the virtual one, or both.
It was an intensive two days for me, and a very worthwhile experience. The content may not have been new, but the process of participation and engagement certainly was.