Conferencing the Pandemic, Part 3: Content

A great conference isn’t much without content, presenting challenges and opportunities for online learners.

In previous posts, I highlighted some of the lessons learned from four conferences I attended within weeks of one another in October, 2020 providing a unique opportunity to compare and contrast different models, modalities and approaches to learning, networking, and collaboration.

We’ve looked at format and now let’s focus on content. More specifically, let’s look at how content was delivered and how it facilitated engagement with the audience (myself and others) and learning and comprehension. I will not be comparing the specific content itself, simply because it was so diverse and developed by and for different audiences. Instead, I’m interested in how that content was presented as part of a goal of conveying information and sharing knowledge.

As a refresher, the four conferences were:

  1. RSD9
  2. Distributed 2020
  3. The Great Wave
  4. The American Evaluation Association annual conference

The focus of these conferences were, in order: systemic design, remote working (and tools, specifically Miro), building beautiful businesses, and professional evaluation. So there’s quite a diversity to cover in content.

What did that content look like?

Content Format

While we covered format issues in the last post, the matter of format for the content itself is not trivial. As my colleagues and fantastic presentation teacher Sheila B. Robinson would argue, how we share what we share is as important as what we share with others.

How did they do?

RSD9 and the American Evaluation Association conferences were both more traditional academic conferences in that much of the content was focused around scholarly and practice-based professional knowledge sharing. The result was a higher reliance on slides and Q&A approaches. In both cases, the variety of slides and formats were relatively consistent across both conferences. That is to say that the variety of quality and use of visuals was varied from outstanding to dull. Most topic-focused sessions focused on papers were standard in that they were a shared-screen with a small window with the presenter’s face in the top corner.

The Great Wave was surprisingly sparse in the amount of slides used. While some speakers did rely on slides, those that did often had what I would say were the least interesting presentations. What the Great Wave did well was circulate between the use of slides and showing the speakers faces in full-screen (for the live conversations). This made an enormous difference. It kept my attention and worked well. It focused presenters on using narrative more effectively to deliver content and engage the speakers.

Distributed 2020 was largely organized around the use of Miro so it was unsurprising to have much of the content be interactive by allowing attendees to engage with speakers in breakout sessions on collaborative Miro boards. While the opportunity to interact live with software was interesting and kept things active, it did get a little chaotic sometimes when there were what felt like 50 or 100 participants online at the same time. There was too much going on.

The facilitators of the interactive sessions did a good job of providing activities that were straightforward enough for that many people, but that didn’t always make it work. The mistake at times was that the hosts may have confused interactivity (i.e., trying out the software) with real learning. While there were a few things I took away from these more interactive sessions, more often than not I gained a sense of knowing what could be done and less about the specifics of how to do it in part because there was so much action happening on the screen at the same time.

These demonstrations would have been better with fewer people.

Content Reflections

The most useful content I gained at these conferences came from The Great Wave and Distributed 2020. The Great Wave offered me insights into a broad range of design, environmental, social organizing, creative arts, and business strategy areas that it was nearly impossible to come away with nothing new. It was a remarkably strong conference in that regard. Distributed 2020 was immensely practical. I learned many practical things about how to work differently in a remote context, how I could use tools like Miro to accomplish some of this, and what questions to ask (and of whom) when it comes to learning more.

The other conferences provided some useful content although there was little that I felt I took away from the events in terms of specific knowledge or skills.

It is this point that I want to end on because content isn’t everything. While I didn’t get much in the way of great content (which is, I want to point out, a highly personal matter because it depends on what I already knew and needed going into the event) from two conferences, that doesn’t make them invaluable. Indeed, as we’ll explore in the next post: conferences that excel deliver much more than content.

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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