Overall I would say the ACRL/CNI/EDUCAUSE Virtual Conference was a successful online event. Like every conference, the keynotes and presentations were somewhat uneven. However, the technology worked quite well and made for a fairly seamless learning experience. Here are some thoughts and suggestions:
This was a joint conference between three organizations. I would question what CNI and EDUCAUSE did to market this conference to their memberships. Did their members get the request for proposals? Were they invited to register? I ask this because most of the sessions were populated by librarians. I believe we had very few information technology, instructional technology, or other academic support professionals in attendance. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly love conferencing with my fellow academic librarians, but I think having colleagues from outside the library would improve the conference experience. We can certainly benefit from professional diversity.
If you’re going to attend a virtual conference, please invest in a microphone. At F2F conferences the norm is to sit quietly in the audience while the speakers do their thing. A virtual conference is intended to be more interactive. When the speakers do get to the Q&A part of the program it works much better when attendees can grab the mic and ask their questions or make a point. Sure, the direct messenging area allows for an ongoing conversation between the participants and the speakers, but there are times when using the VoIP capability of the conferencing software is far more powerful.
And speaking of speakers, this conference experience reinforces that first-time virtual presenters need advanced training and practice, especially in the development of slides and the use of the virtual presenting tools. In one of my sessions the presenter kept asking the moderator for technical support in using the software tools. When the presenter doesn’t have a good grasp of the presenting tools, the presentation suffers and there is less interactivity. Another presenter’s slides had multiple screenshots, and they could barely be seen. If you want to show a web site try to take the attendees on a web tour. Give them the real thing. I manage a number of webcast presentations for the Blended Librarians Community throughout the year, and we take every presenter through a minimum of one hour of training before the session, and we coach them on slide preparation and the use of the software tools. When there isn’t sufficient training the presentation suffers. If the presentations suffer, ACRL members and others will leave with a bad impression of virtual conferencing – and they won’t come back again. That would make me unhappy.
And if you’re participating in a virtual conference session and there’s a problem – you can’t make out what is on the slides, the audio is fading in and out, the polling buttons aren’t working for you, or whatever – please avoid using the direct messaging area (chat box) to send messages complaining about the problem. Believe me, if there’s a technical problem the speaker and the moderator know about it already – and if it’s something happening on just your end – there’s little the presenter or moderator can do to help. Flooding the chat with messages about technical or other problems doesn’t resolve them. It just makes the chat function useless to everyone else, and it’s incredibly distracting for the presenter. At the beginning of most sessions or webcasts the moderator will provide an email address or phone number to use for reporting technical problems. And if it’s a problem with the presenter’s slides, that’s unfortunate, but usually there’s nothing that can be done once the session starts.
If this seems like some sort of semi-rant against virtual conferences, that’s not the case. I applaud ACRL for sponsoring the virtual conference, and I can’t say enough about the poster sessions and roundtable discussions – both are great learning experiences and ways to connect with colleagues. I also got the impression that newer members of the profession outnumbered the veterans. In sessions I attended many folks referred to themselves as “next-gens”. Perhaps the virtual conference is more appealing, both in its application of technology and ease on the travel budget, to our newer colleagues. This made for great conference exchanges, but I would encourage more of the veterans to give virtual conferencing a try. And the great thing about the virtual conference is that I can go back and view the archives for sessions I couldn’t attend. This is only ACRL’s second big virtual conference, and I have no doubt that the next one will be even better.