Conferences and Compatibility

sketchnote of #trexit panel at #oer17

Sketch note by @BryanMMathers of #trexit panel at #oer17

I just got back from #OER17 in London, which is a relatively cozy type of conference (around 180 people, of whom I knew around 40 really well, and another 30 or so vaguely well). And I was thinking that I had a great conference experience and knew ahead of time that I would enjoy this conference. I don’t know that we can call a conference generally good or bad, but we could, maybe, consider a conference compatible with our interests and values, or not. Beyond our individual preferences, when a conference overall has a large number of participants whose values align with it, the atmosphere in the conference is different from other conferences where there is much conflict or at least discomfort. I say this as someone who doesn’t attend many conferences in person, but follows many virtually via Twitter and gets a peek in through Virtually Connecting. I can tell when people at an event want to vent about something they’re unhappy with at a conference, or whether they’re enjoying reporting out on what they’re learning.

So here are some features of what I consider to be compatible conferences for me personally. I would be interested to see what others think:

  1. There is more than one session at the same time that interests me in any given timeslot. Alternatively, there is at least one session per timeslot that interests me (e.g. because tracks are clearly delineated)

  2. The sessions truly work with the theme of the conference. #oer17 was on the politics of open and had sub-themes like policy and inclusion. Sessions really were on these themes and it didn’t feel like people modified their abstracts to fit the theme. This to me shows intelligence on the part of the organizers for choice of theme and abstracts accepted.

  3. There is room for constructive dissent without the need to subtweet and snark. So many conferences I watch virtually have a fair amount of subtweeting happening as people feel anger towards messages from vendors or occasionally keynote speakers. For example, I knew going into #oer17 that even though my keynote held some critique for Western approaches to openness, that this audience would be willing to take this on board.

  4. The event feels like a safe space to make oneself vulnerable. Read Lorna Campbell on this.

  5. Downtime is valuable and well used. For example, at #oer17 one lunch time was used for a gathering to launch #femedtech (check out the website) – this was open to people who were already involved and others who were interested in joining). Other slots were used for Virtually Connecting sessions – and people would occasionally watch sessions they weren’t participating in

  6. Participants get time with each other and with keynote speakers. While doing research with Virtually Connecting, we heard critique that Virtually Connecting allows virtual folks intimate time with keynote speakers that isn’t afforded to onsite participants, particularly early career, less connected, and shy participants. I can’t speak for everyone at the event, but as a keynote speaker who knew a large number of participants, I still ended up meeting a lot of new people and talking to them at various times, including some pretty deep conversations. I also saw folks doing this with other keynote speakers.

  7. The conference walks the talk. This conference wanted to be inclusive and international and it had a co-chair from Poland, two keynotes from Egypt and Germany, and closing plenary speakers from Ireland and South Africa. Participants were from everywhere, even though of course the majority were from the UK. The event cared about equity and you could see women and minorities foregrounded.

  8. Collaborations start happening. I don’t know for sure if this happened at #oer17 but it seemed that people were making connections for future projects. I know I have several threads to follow up on from there.

  9. People make fabulous sketchnotes of keynotes and even sessions (as the featured image by Bryan Mathers shows)

  10. People can’t stop writing/talking about it (see this roundup of blogposts)

  11. You find lots of selfies/photos going around on Twitter :) Also, people take interesting photos of other people doing interesting stuff. Check this one out by Josie Fraser of a Virtually Connecting session!

The danger of these kinds of conferences is that the feel-good vibes could hide some much-needed critique. In a space like oer17, many of us are already struggling as dissenters on our f2f contexts and just delighted to be in a space where others understand us without us having to defend our ideas from A to Z. However, we may be missing opportunities to be more self-critical, as Simon Ensor’s blogposts suggest (he participated virtually, but was a huge part of the conference experience for me). We may also consider the space harmonious and friendly, but we may not be aware of how it feels to others (see Sheila MacNeill and Kelly Terrell on this).

What are features of compatible conference experiences in your view? Tell us in the Comments!

Feature image by Bryan Mathers @BryanMMathers CC-BY (re-licensed from CC-BY-ND) Sketch note of #oer17 #trexit panel. Retrieved from

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