Seeding Social Media

This week, Rice has hosted a fascinating conference on “Teaching in the University of Tomorrow,” which is trying to think about teaching, technology, and the changing higher ed landscape. You can find out more about the conference here or by viewing the conference’s active, boisterous hashtag, #delange9.

I wanted to post about it because of the conference’s design: most of the keynotes are by very elite presenters (system chancellors, college presidents, founders of startups), paired with very pragmatic breakout sessions, led by local faculty or recognized teaching experts such as José Bowen (@josebowen), Derek Bruff (@derekbruff), or James Lang (@langoncourse).

And then there’s the hashtag, which organizers seeded by inviting a small number of people to tweet about the event. A lot. The so-called social media fellows were: Kelly J. Baker, Dorothy Kim, Ben Railton, Liana M. Silva, and me.

I was a little worried about this role, because it could easily be the case that such fellows could easily become hype men for the conference, which doesn’t sound too interesting. But by inviting folks with a pretty different take on higher education, the conversation both grew dramatically in reach and in complexity. (See also Key & Peele’s comic take on dissident hype men.)

I won’t attempt to summarize the online discussion here, but it is fair to say that the backchannel commentary was both helpful in expected ways (sharing of links for more information, summarizing of speakers’ claims, etc.) and perhaps less expected (more direct airing of skepticism/concerns than you sometimes get at conferences).

Joshua Eyler said a couple of times during the conference that this is at least partly by design, and that part of their thinking was that the conference is best conceived as a conversation among all three modes–keynotes, breakouts, and Twitter. In his view, facilitating different narratives, even highly critical narratives, helps dramatize the complexity of higher education at the present time.

That kind of mindful approach to incorporating social media seemed worth thinking about for other events, and updates Derek Bruff’s useful 2011 post on “Encouraging a Conference Backchannel on Twitter.” The key steps seemed to be knowing at least some part of the relevant higher ed Twitter community, inviting them long enough in advance, and planning specific ways to incorporate them into the program.

It’s too early for numbers about the conference (it did show up twice on Twitter’s “trending topics”), but it’s definitely the case that more people came to know about the presentations, which were all streamed live, than otherwise would have. And many people who watched the streaming presentations were able to participate in the conference via Twitter. At various points through the conference, moderators would voice questions from social media, so that everyone would be able to hear what was going on.

Have you had experiences mindfully seeding the social media presence of a conference? What worked or didn’t? Let us know in the comments!

Photo of José Bowen’s breakout session during the conference.

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