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.
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 needs...at 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?