Alright, so I've been to a few conferences over the last year...so many that I'm now Silver Preferred on US Airways. I've seen really well run sessions, exhibit halls and networking activities, and I've seen some epic fails.
I started out my 2009 conference season last week in Las Vegas at ASTD's TechKnowledge. It was my first year attending this conference and I wasn't sure what to expect. Going in with no expectations, it's a little easier to make comparisons and critiques. And so, in the spirit of Clint Eastwood, I bring you the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of TechKnowledge 09.
- Smart people presenting: I like to surround myself with people who are smarter than me, and it was easy to find them at TechKnowledge. I had invigorating and insightful conversations with people I already knew and people I just met. It says something about a conference that it's able to attract that level of attendees and presenters.
- Attendees willing to participate: every session that I attended, the attendees were actively participating and asking questions. This is a big change from most conferences where getting people to participate is like pulling teeth.
- Hands on sessions: I love the idea of hands on labs where people can actually DO something. Creation Stations and Learning Labs are a great idea. Two suggestions--most people have laptops, so can we just use them for the activities? And if I'm in a session in front of a computer, let me play and explore within the given parameters of the topic--don't lecture me while I have the opportunity to actually practice.
- Active solicitation of feedback: a lot of conferences have the little surveys at the end of sessions. I was impressed at the encouragement to complete these forms, and it seemed most people did fill them out. Not only was feedback solicited for the sessions, but several times throughout the conference, overall feedback was asked for as well.
- Virtual conference: I haven't had the chance to hear how people who attended the parallel virtual conference found it to be, but I give ASTD kudos for trying. I have been amazed whenever I go to a virtual worlds conference that they don't have a virtual presence to capitalize on all of the benefits that the current technologies can bring. I think it was brilliant for ASTD to attempt this with TechKnowledge and I expect more conferences will begin to follow suit.
- Conference guide: it's just a little thing, but I didn't think the guide was well laid out. It was confusing to try to plan which sessions to attend. A simple chart, color-coding by topics...all basic information design that would have been extremely helpful.
- Expo floor: I was so disappointed by the expo floor. The expo was small, and of the vendors that were there, I wasn't overly impressed by the innovation. I would have expected to see much more cutting edge technology on display at a tech conference. Of the four short rows of booths, one was more than half empty. As a vendor, I was really happy with my decision not to purchase a booth. That does not bode well for my involvement as a vendor at future ASTD conferences.
- Limited networking opportunities: There was an ice cream social. There was breakfast and drinks. That's about it. I would have loved to have seen more opportunities to meet other attendees with similar interests.
- Overuse of the term "virtual": This is a particular pet-peeve. I went to one session that discussed the use of virtual worlds for learning, but it was mainly focused on Second Life and the questions raised in the audience were regrettably not answered appropriately for a corporate audience. For the record, there are well over 50 virtual world platforms, not to mention options to integrate Flash with multiplayer servers. Every other session I attended that had "virtual" in the title was really referring to web meetings. It was painfully obvious that there was no one at the conference who knew very much about virtual worlds and their applications and challenges for enterprise implementations. Again, for a technology conference, this was a huge disappointment.
- Lecture-style sessions: I've got to keep beating this drum until someone listens to me. How many learning professionals really think that the best way to get people to learn is by lecturing to them? And yet, learning conference after learning conference that I attend, the majority of the sessions are lectures. C'mon people! When are we going to start practicing what we preach?
- Wifi access: This is just inexcusable. I was shocked at the lack of wifi access throughout the conference. A TECHNOLOGY conference. We are all knowledge workers, most of us mobile. Not having adequate wifi access during the conference was unacceptable.
- Lack of cutting edge technology: ok, maybe finding the latest new technologies to showcase is a bit more difficult than getting wifi access at a conference, but its pretty important if "tech" is in the name of your conference. I really was hoping to be exposed to new technologies and see how people were applying them to learning. I've seen more new technology shown at industry specific conferences like SPBT and I/ITSEC. If this is really going to be billed as a technology conference, I'd like to see something more groundbreaking featured than PowerPoint. Oh, and again, Second Life doesn't count unless you can show me how to apply it to enterprise integrations.
- Lack of practical focus of sessions: one way of getting around vendors promoting their services in sessions is to have more people on the academic side presenting. So what do you lose with this strategy? Information on the practical applications of the information presented. The majority of the sessions I attended, and feedback I heard from other attendees, is that either sessions were too theory-based with no guidance for how to apply the theory or that the sessions were too case study-based and couldn't easily be applied to varied contexts. Either way, as an attendee, I'm leaving the conference with information that I'm not sure what to do with. If the goal of most conferences is to provide information to attendees that they can go back and apply in their companies, relying on mainly academic speakers is not going to suffice. Sure, I'm a vendor, and maybe a bit biased, but you know what? I work with a variety of companies across industries and I know what the challenges are for implementing simulations, serious games, and virtual worlds in an organization. Other vendors know a lot about the challenges and strategies of implementing their products and services. Its not promotion, its expertise, and for those willing to share expertise at a conference perhaps its worth the occasional promotional comment. At least there's a greater likelihood that attendees could leave knowing a lot more about the realities of learning technology implementations in their organizations instead of just theories.
- Lack of integration of Web 2.0 and social networking tools: even some of the most poorly run conferences I've attended have set up pre-conference networking sites for attendees. This would have been especially helpful at TechKnowledge, particularly if people had the ability to network with the virtual conference attendees as well. During the conference, despite the best efforts of Michelle Lentz and others to build the twitterstream, your best bet to meet up with someone was to bump into them or already have their cell phone number. There were lots of ideas presented in sessions about how to integrate these tools into learning, but very little evidence of their integration at the conference.