Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is it worth going to a conference these days?

I have been thinking a lot recently about the pros and cons of going to face-to-face conferences. Next year is the International Confederation of Midwives' 3-yearly congress in Durban and I have had an abstract for a workshop about social media accepted. I am working to increase my profile on the international midwifery stage as social media educator and push my "open education" agenda, so going to this conference can be argued to be a good strategy to do this. But it is going to cost me at least $10,000NZ which in real terms would pay for the new bathroom that my old house desperately requires. So if nothing else, I have to work very hard to justify this expense to my darling husband.

In view of the expense of going to face-to-face conferences and as more and more learning opportunities present themselves online, I am asking myself why do I go to face-to-face conferences?

Share my research, thoughts and reflections
The reality is that in a conference no more than a couple of hundred people (more likely 20- 30 people) will hear my presentation and then probably forget me. By using online tools like this blog, Slideshare, YouTube etc I am able to get my message out to hundreds, if not thousands of people, and my work stays visible.

Learn stuff
As an academic I get brownie points for presenting papers at peer-reviewed conferences to put on my CV. So usually my choice of conference is driven by professional expediency, not what I think I will learn at the conference. Often as not, the program does not meet my needs because my reasons for attending are what I give to the conference, not what I get out of it. With the increasing number of webinars and online conferences available, I can pick and chose what I want to attend to meet my learning a time that suits me.

Talk to researchers
I do enjoy talking to people about their research at conferences because I am able to ask them the hard questions about their research which often does not get talked about in journal articles. But as researchers are increasingly joining online communities of practice such as the ePortfolio COP and the Forum for discussion on midwifery and reproductive health research, I am finding it increasing easy to talk to researchers about their work online, with 0n-going conversations as opposed to those that stop once the conference has ended.

Network with others
The adage I hear time and time again about conferences is that they are so good for networking. But I do effective networking via social media...I do not have the need to go to conferences. In fact, because I am a tad shy at conferences, I have been known to go to a conference by myself and hardly speak to anyone.

What is the future for face-to-face conferences?
What is the answer? Martin Wellor has been asking similar questions in his post "Am I done with conferencing?" and his approach is to go down the unconference road...this is, not to do away with face-to-face conferences but rather to do away with presentations and focus on meeting people's specific learning needs in group conversations. Steve Wheeler also advocates that we keep face-to-face conferences in his post "Is the conference dead?" because you cannot beat the value of social interaction.

What about the non-academics?
I think it is all well and good us academics pontificating, but what about those of us who are not academics...those of us who do not get professional development funding or travel grants from our university employers or research funding bodies? Or those of us who not not get paid to make key-note speeches?

In the midwifery context, I am very mindful of the midwives all over the world who will be unable to attend the ICM congress next year because of lack of funding and time constraints. I appreciate that online conferences and webinars are not the be all and end all, and many midwives will be unable to attend online events because of their lack of computer and Internet access. Nevertheless, as far as midwives are concerned, online events increase their ability to engage with each other and the profession.

Am I going to South Africa?
So what is my conclusion about attending the ICM Congress next year? I am afraid it will all come down to finances in the end. If I can get some help with funding, I will go because I have never attended an ICM congress before and I do want to talk to the ICM leaders about how they can integrate social media into their ICM communication strategy. If I don't get the funding....hubby will get his new bathroom!

What are your thoughts about attending conferences? What did you get out of the last conference you attended? Have you even considered attending online conferences and webinars? Will you be going to the ICM congress in 2011?


Matthew Molineux said...

Hi Sarah

Thanks for this post. Since my recent experience of presenting at and listening to some sessions at the VIrtual Occupational Therapy Day I have been thinking the same thing.

I agree with you that there are some great benefits for being at a face-to-face conference such as networking, but as a relatively recent convert to social media, I agree with you that virtual networking is so easy these days that conference attendance for that reason is not really a big pull.

I also think your point about accessibility is really important for professional bodies and conference organisers to consider. What I loved about World OT Day was the range of different places around the world that delegates came from. Sure that can happen at face to face conferences too, but the ease and cost etc of a virtual event are big factors to make use do more of this.

While not a huge environmentalist, I am also conscious that face to face professional conferences must have a HUGE carbon footprint!

I am not sure what the answer is either, but I am certainly thinking about this much more.

Thanks for stimulating some more thought.


Jo said...

Hi Sarah

We could say great minds think alike! This is our topic for the Edublogs Fine Focus webinar (see the "Next Week" section in my recent blog post this Friday.

The consideration of conferences was triggered in part by the current Global Education Conference happening online, and by the fact that I have attended 4 online and no f2f confs this year.

If you are at a "loose end" it would be great if you wanted to add your perspective to the discussion.


Merrolee said...

Hmm thought provoking post Sarah having been an attendee at both the World OT Congress in Chile (very expensive)... and one of the organisers of OT4OT in the same year I've had both experiences to reflect on...

I'm also aware that probably I go to conferences for different reasons than my practitioner colleagues... they are wanting to update their knowledge of practices, I'm usually presenting and networking and at times forging new alliances/connections that may later grow into something different... The other value of conferences for me is that I have more time to reflect, debate the issues than I have in my busy days at work... but then... I could also achieve that with tweets, blog etc etc...

Hmm... so maybe I'm with Matthew - stimulating post, but not yet sure where I sit - I think it's like apples and pears... each have their values.. but online conferences are certainly becoming easier and easier to get to!

Martin said...

Hi Sarah
my guess is that we'll go to fewer conferences. It's still worth picking out one or two a year if you have the funds, to stay connected with people and reinforce some of the online connections with a bit of f2f. But their central role in networking and knowledge dissemination will surely wane.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you all for commenting here...great to see different perspectives.

@Matthew I do think we have to be careful we do not make assumptions that online PD is more sustainable than F2F. There are sustainability and pollution issues we must consider, much power does it take to power servers? Here is a link to a fabulous Elluminate session looking at this very issue:

@Jo Would love to attend your session but I have the last FO2010 Elluminate session of the year :)

@Merrolee I know that the New Zealand midwives love their bi-annual conference where they catch up with friends and hear the latest clinical evidence about practice. I guess what I would like to see is conferences like that...and the ICM conference that I have been talking about...doing stuff like live streaming so those of us who cannot attend still feel connected with what' s going on.

@Martin I agree with you. I do agree with Merrolee that going to a F2F conference gives me the time to physically get away from work so I take time out to don't do that with online conferences.

Andrzej said...

Hi Sarah!
It still may be a good idea to go to a conference, but it depends. If we know all the people that will speak there, and have heard recently what they do - then with high probability we may pass on that.
But on the other hand if some part of it sounds new and we may have an opportunity of knowing about it in advance and ask a lot of questions - we'd better start packing. Just in case.

Sarah Stewart said...

@Andrzej More and more I am finding the advantages of F2F conferences is that I am meeting online friends eg people I meet on Twitter. They may not even go to the conference but make to effort to come & meet cool is that?!