Conference Season Here Again: What Have We Learned?

The autumn tends to be a time when many organizations hold conferences and this year is no different. What is different is that we are now in hybrid modes and questions remain about what we’ve learned about learning in a pandemic-affected world.

Looking at my calendar I see a number of large events coming up that would be called, in ‘beforetimes’ (pre-2020, COVID-19 pandemic), conference season. This year, like the last one, what would be a time of travel is one of sitting in front of my laptop screen hoping that I get the kind of experience that makes it worth the time, money, and attention.

My expectations are mixed.

As I wrote in a series last year, online conferences in a time of pandemic are fraught with issues that aren’t as explicit in face-to-face events. That’s not to say that they are necessarily worse — online events are sometimes superior in certain areas — but they do require a different way to organize.

The New + Next Normal

Online events are no longer going to be novelties, but the norm. While we will certainly long for face-to-face (f2f) events, the notion that we go back to an either/or approach to learning in groups (online/f2f) is very likely gone. This isn’t hyperbole, but based on four (plus one) radically changing realities.

1. Technology. Widening availability of high-speed broadband Internet and far superior hardware and software (either mobile or tablet/computer) has made it far easier to learn at a distance. Zoom and its peers are far more stable, clear, and easier to use for complicated tasks than what existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. Technology (Part 2). The online learning platforms and our collective ability to navigate them, including improved presentation skills among attendees has made a big difference. While some conferences rely on the same tired PowerPoint-driven plenaries that we had in beforetimes, some are changing things up. We have the means to make more engaging experiences.

3. Costs. These technological solutions come with many costs. With mobile handsets routinely running over $1000 (plus connection fees), the costs to upgrade other hardware, and professional-level fees for services like Zoom, many organizations have invested in the means for their staff to access online services and hope to see those investments pay off.

4. Costs (Part 2). What we’ve also come to learn is that f2f events can be expensive. When you factor in registration, travel costs, and time to travel into the equation, conferences are expensive. They need to pay off. I’d argue that among the biggest benefits to many f2f events are both the human connections we make and the transitional moments that come from waiting for a flight, drinking coffee at a break, or reflecting at the end of the day in a hotel room. These benefits are (mostly) lost or substantially reduced for online events.

5. Climate Change. It is here. It’s been here for a few years, but now the evidence and the visceral sensations of climate change effects are now evident in our lives. It is becoming increasingly indefensible to travel for conferences without a sense that it will be worth the effort and the effect on the environment.

The new and next normal for conferences will be some variant of hybrid-like learning and for using technologies differently. But what does that mean?

Conferences Fit for Purpose

Great designs are fit for purpose. Great workshops and online learning events don’t just happen because we have content and tools, but because they are well-designed.

Learning and educational design happens from three directions. It comes from the conference organizers and presenters, the attendees involved in the event, and the registrant (learner) themselves. Sometimes we fit all three of these roles.

As an organizer, it’s about creating formats and spaces that allow people to engage with content. As participants, it’s about coming ready to learn and actually engaging with the conference itself — participating when it is required.

As a learner, it means creating systems to support paying attention, integrating lessons and applying it. It’s also about demanding more from ourselves and those around us.

This might mean using tools better to chat, engage, and share ahead of time, in real time, and after the conference (e.g., LinkedIn groups dedicated to the event, Slack channels). This might also meaning using tools to engage and connect people at live events. It most certainly means complementing live events with some kind of live-streaming or recording.

Conference Designing for What’s Next

Do you have a plan for what is to come? Do you know what you’re asking from the conference? As conference organizers do you have an idea of what your attendees want and need and are you prepared to do what you can to deliver that?

Conferences are evolving quickly just as learning is. Real-time, asynchronous, and hybrid models of knowledge sharing and exchange, learning, and exploring are now more possible than ever. The tools are improving as are the platforms that support them.

If we are to make the most of them and take up the very real charge and need to learn, we will need to take advantage of what’s before us and make this upcoming conference season different than any other before.

That’s what I intend to do (I’ll report back).

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash and by Headway on Unsplash

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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