From 2004-2008, I attended three ECHA Conferences in succession – Pamplona (2004), Lahti (2006) and Prague (2008) – but missed the next event in Paris (2010). I hadn’t intended to be in Munster either, until Javier Touron suggested I might chair a Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education.
There is a commentary on that session below, but I begin with a review of the wider Conference. I have also included some observations drawn from my experience of live tweeting the event.
All these comments are set in the wider context of what I said about gifted education conferences in the post I wrote for the Symposium.
My argument is that face-to-face academic conferences of this kind are fundamentally inefficient, whether as a vehicle for professional development or the wider dissemination of research.
Careful use of social media offers one way to improve efficiency by ensuring that:
- more people derive more benefits and
- there is a better, closer fit between the flow of benefits to each individual and their particular needs.
My earlier post added, with some acerbity:
‘Conference keynotes are invariably dominated by the pantheon. They tour the circuit dispensing the ideas on which they built their reputations, while more junior researchers and other stakeholders compete for tiny audiences much further down the bill. Conference audiences are complicit in this since they are drawn to attend conferences by the big names, apparently regardless of whether they have something new to say. Consequently, old ideas are slow to be challenged and replaced, different models are regarded as mutually exclusive and the gifted education community makes no real effort to achieve broad consensus.’
I was interested to discover whether the Munster Conference would change that perception.
I conclude this post by offering some suggestions for improvement and reform ahead of the next ECHA Conference in Slovenia in 2014.
The Conference Location
There was upside and downside to Munster as a location.
On the downside, it wasn’t the easiest location to reach. The conference website referred potential delegates to ‘the International Airport Münster-Osnabrück’, but the airport’s website reveals that travellers from London must first fly to Munich! (Ironically, a direct connection to London City Airport is being introduced next month.) The easiest and fastest way I could find to get to Munster was to fly to Dusseldorf and take a two hour train journey.
On the upside, Munster is an attractive, small and relatively compact city with some 270,000 inhabitants. It is pleasant to walk around the city centre, provided one successfully avoids the superabundance of bicycles – there are said to be almost two for every resident. I would very happily revisit as a tourist.
Three of the University of Munster’s buildings were used to host the Conference, which ran alongside a parallel German-speaking ICBF NationalConference. The organisers were supported by a core team and an ever-helpful host of student volunteers who helped us to navigate between and inside the venues.
It was announced that over 1,000 delegates attended the Conference from 43 countries, though the first figure must account for both conferences rather than ECHA’s alone. I estimate the number registered for the ECHA event at between 200 and 300.
A quick review of the ECHA Conference programme suggests that there were speakers from 38 countries, including 26 in Europe, so slightly over half of all European countries were represented in this fashion.
Eight keynote speeches were included in the programme, but two sets of two were originally scheduled simultaneously. In the event, one of the European keynoters did not appear and was substituted by one of the previously parallel events. This gave a total of seven keynotes, although with one pair still scheduled simultaneously.
The majority – four of the seven – were given by American speakers (Colangelo, Feldman, Renzulli and Subotnik). Even allowing for the absence of one European speaker, it struck me as questionable policy to draw half of the keynotes for a European conference organised by a European organisation from a single country located outside Europe. Can you imagine that scenario ever happening in reverse?
But no doubt the organisers had gone for members of the pantheon to attract more delegates. The majority of the pantheon is located in the United States.
I attended five of the seven surviving keynotes, missing Feldman and Tirri (the latter being scheduled against Subotnik).
Of the American contingent, Colangelo and Renzulli turned in their usual polished performances – a variety of edutainment – but neither had anything terrifically new to communicate.
I thought Subotnik did a very good job of conveying lucidly the main thrust of the lengthy and complex papershe recently produced with Olszewski-Kubilius and Worrall.
The European keynotes were provided by Peter Csermely and Heidrun Stoeger. Peter covered the same ground he visited at the 2011 EU Talent Day Conference in Budapestand in his TEDx talk. Heidrun Stoeger discussed her work on self-regulated learning.
All five keynotes I attended were pitched to those in the audience who had never heard these ideas before, including many who do not have English as their native language. It follows that they were not quite so satisfactory for delegates who did not meet this description.
Of course I recognise the difficulties, but I would have been impressed by a more strenuous effort on the part of the speakers to differentiate their material – to offer greater stretch and challenge to those amongst their audience who would benefit from it. There was a certain irony in this shortcoming given the topic we had all assembled to consider!
Some of the keynoters were offering additional ‘in-depth workshops’ and may have deliberately whetted our appetites, reluctant to impart too much and so duplicate the content of those sessions. But this is not of itself a strong enough justification for the relatively low pitch of their keynotes.
I was reminded of references made by Joan Freeman during our Symposium to the relative superficiality of social media compared with other forms of interaction. I do think that this criticism may be justifiable – see for example my comments below about our Symposium – but it can also be levelled at the typical academic conference keynote.
My contention is that, by combining traditional forms and social media – and by planning for a continuum of interaction between expert and audience – one can more easily provide the differentiation that is otherwise lacking.
There is a rigid hierarchy to ECHA conferences. I attended three of the nine sessions by invited speakers – basically second division keynotes – but found them rather disappointing. Maybe I was unlucky, but they seemed rather thin. Each could have been accommodated comfortably in one of the 20 minute slots allotted to the standard third division presentations. (I never found the posters that made up the fourth division.)
The third division had been divided into triads – so three presentations taken together in a one hour session – on the basis of a logic that often escaped me. Sometimes I could spot different groupings that would have made more sense but, on other occasions, one could see that the organisers had no option but to force at least one square peg into a round hole.
A more flexible structure – perhaps permitting presentations to be grouped in twos, threes and fours – might have been preferable. I do not underestimate the timetabling difficulties caused by several presenters offering multiple presentations, although those could be reduced if some sessions were used to accommodate two or more contributions from a single presenter (ie the organising principle becomes the presenter rather than the theme).
Invariably there is a single presentation one wants to hear and a supporting cast comprising two rather less valuable offerings. And of course several sessions of this kind are blocked against each other, which causes one to miss many interesting presentations, especially if one is unwilling to be impolite and disruptive by flitting constantly between sessions.
In one case, two of the three presenters did not turn up, leaving a solitary speaker to fill up the hour available. One had scratched before the conference began but the other had reportedly ‘gone home’. The optimal choice would have been to leave and join the next best session, but how could we treat the last surviving presenter so brutally?
Some such timetabling arrangement is clearly necessary if the organisers are to fit the proceedings into the limited period available, but this perfectly illustrates the point I made in my blog post about the fundamental inefficiency of conferences organised in such a fashion.
The quality of these presentations was also highly variable. It seems unfair and unreasonable of a native English speaker to complain, but a few of the presenters did not have the requisite standard of spoken English to undertake the task.
Perhaps there is already some simultaneous translation software good enough to tackle this problem. Perhaps the answer lies in posting a multimedia online presentation instead (as opposed to the ‘fourth division’ poster, which has surely had its day).
Some of those with a much stronger command of English also had relatively little of significance to convey, and the very worst examples exemplified both of these shortcomings simultaneously.
Several of the better presentations I attended were largely descriptive of particular localised interventions. Yet this information could also have been conveyed much more clearly and efficiently online. We could not get beyond the description to consider in detail the strengths and weaknesses of the models being described.
There was very little indeed that dealt with gifted education at a strategic level and spoke to the (ex-) policy-maker.
I live tweeted from most of the sessions I attended and, in several cases, found the source material available on websites that I could have consulted from the comfort of my home, incurring much less expense in the process.
I don’t want to give the impression that all the presentations were unremittingly poor. Some were very good. Something akin to the Pareto Principle was in operation, in that I derived 80% of my learning benefit from 20% of the presentations I attended. Unfortunately that was a relatively small return on the outlay of time and money I had expended.
I am not for one moment suggesting that the content of this Conference was any worse than others I have attended. In many respects it was significantly better. But I believe that, as 21st Century conference-goers, we should actively question whether we get real value for money from events that cling to a 20th Century format and, if not, we should begin to request more substantive fare.
An Aside About Networking
Faced with recognition that a conference does not quite live up to their expectations, many conference-goers will rationalise their disappointment by observing that the formal proceedings are far less significant than the peer-to-peer networking that takes place in the margins of the event.
I could not undertake much of that on this occasion owing to ill-health. I had no energy left to spare after a full day of conference sessions and retired to my hotel room to rest. I don’t know how I would feel about it if I had been healthy. (For the introverted amongst us, the peer-to-peer element can be by far the most difficult and tiring to undertake, even when we are fighting fit.)
From a purely mercenary perspective I find that face-to-face networking at conferences is rather over-rated. Pleasant though it is to spend some time socially with people one has not seen since the last event – and I really enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with several delegates that I already knew – the professional and business benefits that one realises by establishing brand new contacts are rarely worth the effort invested.
I understand the importance of making connections to establish a bigger, stronger network. After all, my blog post on the benefits of social media is based on that very principle. I recognise that face-to-face conferences offer significant potential to build such connections, but too often those interactions prove fleeting and transitory.
It requires sustained follow-up to translate them into something more lasting and meaningful – and that is where social media comes into its own. New contacts made face-to-face can be developed and sustained via Twitter and Facebook, but only if both parties are active users. Social media is the glue that can extend and build those initial relationships into something more substantive and valuable.
Which is a neat transition to…
Our Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education
I did not have high expectations of the Symposium. Past experience has confirmed that such events suffer typically from three shortcomings:
- If the session is reliant on technology, something is bound to go wrong.
- There is too little time to accommodate all the speakers and, partly as a consequence of that, plenary discussion is desultory at best.
- Rarely if ever is there substantive agreement about the outcome of the discussion or the immediate next steps that should be taken. The leap from the theoretical to the practical and immediate is somehow too daunting to contemplate.
On this occasion the speakers surprised me by their collective willingness to fit their contributions into a ten-minute slot. It may have helped that all presentations were already in the public domain and that all the presenters were highly-experienced. Despite an exceedingly tight timetable we started on time and even finished slightly earlier than planned
However, the technology let us down. We could not get the projector to give sufficient magnification to the Twitterwall, so it was far too small for the room and only a few of the participants could follow the Twitter conversation by that means. The wall did not scroll automatically either, so our willing helper had to move it on manually throughout the session.
The plenary discussion inside the room did not exactly catch fire, though some interesting and valuable statements were contributed.
Although we had uploaded all presentations ahead of the session, so that everyone could internalise the key messages and frame questions in the light of them, there was negligible interaction of that kind from the Twitter audience. It seemed that they were satisfied with the capacity to ‘listen in’ and were much less inclined towards vigorous discussion.
There wasn’t too much in the way of high quality interaction between those tweeting from inside the Symposium and those following online. The number of people overtly involved via Twitter was also lower than I would have liked (but we have no way of knowing how many were lurking).
A handful of us managed to provide the lion’s share of live tweeting from inside the Symposium. (I am very grateful to @SilverDay and @Kariekol in particular for their help.) A few other audience members were also active, but not too many.
Participants took photographs of all the speakers in action, which really helped to convey a better sense of the proceedings to those following on Twitter. I particularly liked this close-up of one of the graffiti-covered desks.
Overall I felt we successfully demonstrated how Twitter can be used as a simple tool to open up conference sessions to a much wider audience, but we were markedly less successful in generating active discussion and developing a way forward. Because of that, our session did not always manage to pull itself out of the superficiality that is associated with negative perceptions of social media.
So we exceeded my expectations but fell somewhat short of the fully interactive ideal. I’d grade us at B- or thereabouts.
Perhaps I am being over-critical. Our experienced moderator – @gtchatmod, aka Lisa Conrad, from #gtchat – was much more positive about the event from her Twitter perspective.
Lisa has very kindly uploaded a full transcript of proceedings so you can judge for yourselves.
I have also published a somewhat shorter version with most of the repetitious retweets removed. Both are on Storify, so include the pictures that were taken at the event.
It remains to be seen what if anything will change as a consequence of the Symposium. I would like to see the open development of a Europe-wide social media strategy for gifted education which takes in ECHA and the European Talent Centre in Budapest, but is not owned or dominated by either of those entities.
The strategy should be consulted on widely, and revised in the light of that consultation, with every effort made to secure buy-in and commitment from all parties.
The guiding principle must be to build connections for the mutual benefit of every European engaged in supporting gifted education – the individuals as well as the local, regional, national and international organisations – rather than creating an exclusive membership-based network which benefits some at the expense of others.
And if the strategy is devised with the understanding that gifted education is on the verge of becoming globalised (as I argued in my previous post), it follows that it cannot relate solely to Europe but must adopt a worldwide perspective.
Live Tweeting from the Conference
There was a good deal of live tweeting from the Conference, with substantial contributions in Dutch, English, German and Spanish. Unfortunately, there are relatively few reliable free options for archiving the full record. Some I tried did not work particularly well.
You will find what I believe is a full record of the #echa12 feed at Twubs.
The latter is less visually attractive but perhaps more permanent, given the relatively short shelf-life of some Twitter-related services.
This was the first conference I have live tweeted. I would have been far too slow on the tiny keyboard of a mobile phone, so I decided to take my full-sized laptop for the purpose. I had to make use of the sockets in the smaller rooms used for normal presentations so I had enough battery juice to make it through the keynotes.
I ran out of battery only once – towards the end of the Subotnik keynote – and had to resort to notebook and pen. I converted these notes into Tweets later that evening.
Live Tweeting became my replacement for personal note-taking (since I could not do both simultaneously). So my record of proceedings is permanent but it is also public. I have published a Tweetdoc which captures my personal contribution for posterity! (The PDF file is here in case Tweetdoc also disappears.)
I had in mind Twitter followers who wanted to know the substance of what had been said during any given presentation, but also people attending the Conference who were following the Twitter feed too.
It struck me that the latter in particular would benefit from quick access to supporting material rather than near-verbatim summaries of the arguments being advanced by the speaker. So, during the presentations, I researched the background of speakers, their websites and publications. This enabled me to post a number of links to useful attachments
I have no idea whether anyone actually used the service I was providing in the manner I intended. I couldn’t help feeling that the provision of such a potentially valuable service ought not to depend entirely on the voluntary services of Twitter users providing an unofficial conference backchannel. There is a case for an ‘official’ Twitter feed to provide at least some of this material.
What are the Learning Points for ECHA 2014?
The next ECHA Conference takes place in two years’ time, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. What lessons could the organisers learn from the Munster experience and how can they best utilise social media to make their conference successful?
I would urge them to start from the principle that their face-to-face event in September 2014 is part of a continuum of provision spanning the period between the event just finished in Munster and the conference that will follow them in 2016.
- How can they maintain contact with the delegates who attended in Munster, sustaining and building that network through social media in the run-up to 2014?
- How can they design a conference in 2014 that serves as a key-staging post in this continuum, adding significant value for those who attend as well as those who participate from a distance?
- How can they support the next organising committee in the parallel transition to their face-to-face event in 2016?
They might plan with the specific objective of providing the best possible online access to those who cannot attend the Conference in person.
Rather than supply this service through social media tools and an aggregation of stand-alone services, they should explore delivery through a single learning platform. They should contemplate developing a fee structure that will enable them to recoup the cost of providing the service.
As far as content is concerned, the conference should be designed explicitly to fill gaps in our collective knowledge of gifted education and/or tackle collective problems we face in the design and delivery of gifted education programmes. In other words, there should be a significant, positive, tangible outcome for the gifted education community as a whole.
The conference should also be differentiated throughout, to ensure that participants from different stakeholder groups and with different levels of experience are well provided for. That should apply as much to world-leading experts as to novices in the field. Every participant should have a means of contributing significant value to the conference and of receiving commensurate benefit in return.
At the same time, the organisers should take practical steps to harness the power of social media to deliver an improved conference experience for all participants, whether they come to Ljubljana or access the event online.
- It is good that the 2014 Conference organisers have already established a Twitter Feed as well as an embryonic website. This might usefully be complemented by a Facebook page and possibly a blog too. A steady flow of information about developing plans for the Conference will help to engage prospective delegates, especially if there are opportunities for them to contribute to the conference design.
- Once the conference programme starts to take shape, social media could be deployed to build discussion around the key themes that emerge. Potential presenters could develop their contributions to address the issues that surface from such discussions, or to illustrate how their policies and practice might be adapted to inform provision elsewhere in the world.
This would help us to move away from conference sessions that are mere reportage – whether of programmes underway or research undertaken – and so to concentrate on identifying gaps in our knowledge and understanding and how best to fill them. There would be much more discussion and much less presenting.
- A week or so before the conference, all presentations could be uploaded on to the conference website, so that delegates and others could read them and reflect on points to raise in discussion. Wherever possible presentations would carry hyperlinks to all the documents and materials they reference.
- Instead of preparing a fat and heavy conference brochure, including the programme, abstracts and biographical detail, all this information could be supplied online, in the form of a searchable database. Such a database should also be made available as a mobile app. Delegates could download it before they attend, or – if they preferred – receive it on a flash drive. (They would no longer need a conference bag, so the savings on bags and folders could be redirected to pay for the flash drives, or a sponsor might supply a batch as support in kind.)
- There should be a multimedia conference blog to supply news, report on highlights and generally capture the spirit of the event. Short snippets of film could be prepared and edited for this purpose as an alternative to the conference film that was shot at Munster, which was said to have required excessive work to complete.
- The organisers should arrange an official conference Twitter feed, linked to the blog, to carry news and highlights of the main sessions. Other Twitter users should use the stream as a back-channel to pose questions and points to be addressed during discussion. This would enable those not physically present to engage directly in the debate. There should be a prominent Twitterwall in each session and in the main meeting areas where conference delegates assemble.
- Rather than publish a set of ‘proceedings, whether as a hard copy or a DVD, the Conference website should preserve the database of presentations and supporting material, with authors given the option of uploading further material relevant to the issue at any point after the Conference. Responsibility for maintaining this database would either be handed over to the next conference team at an appropriate point or passed back to ECHA. Either way it should be free for everyone to access.
It cost me about £750 all told (about 936 Euros currently) to attend the Munster Conference and I am really not sure whether that investment was justified by the benefits I have derived from doing so. It is probably too early to judge.
Were the reforms I have suggested to be introduced, participants would have available a cheaper means of access to much of the conference proceedings. They would be able to exercise choice over how to interact with the event, with cost as one factor influencing their decision.
Effort would be invested in ensuring that the flow of benefits from the event is personalised to meet the very different needs of participants – and that the collective benefit to the gifted education community is significant and tangible.
We would have made a valiant effort to shift an outdated and inefficient format into the 21st Century. We wouldn’t get everything right first time, but we would learn from our evaluations and continue to refine our strategies, taking full advantage of new and more sophisticated technologies as they emerge.
Or else we could gloss over the shortcomings of the current model and persuade people to attend such conferences as we have always done – by holding them in attractive places that people want to visit. The closing ceremony at ECHA 2012 offered us filmed advertisements for the glories of Antalya, Auckland and Ljubljana respectively.
They all looked very pleasant, but that’s not really the point, is it?