Last week, November 23-26, I "attended" the JISC online conference Innovating E-Learning 2010, Bringing innovation to life: from adversity comes opportunity.
This was the 5th JISC online conference, attracting 475 delegates from 11 countries. For a registration fee of about €60, I had access to a number of excellent keynote presentations and invited speakers, using Elluminate, discussion areas and other resources.
I didn't manage to get to all the sessions, which were arranged in two themes: Realising the Potential and Realising the Value. I participated in the following live sessions:
Learning to Live in Interesting Times - What are Educational Institutions for? Keri Facer
Transforming Assessment for Learning in a Digital Age David Boud
What do students really want? Usman Ali
Is the Future Mobile? Graham Browne-Martin
Sustaining OER Innovation through Collaboration and Partnership Simon Thomson and Andy Beggan
I missed a few sessions, but the great thing about the online conference is that these Elluminate sessions were recorded and I can go back and look at them any time. In fact, all the recordings will be publicly available on the JISC website sometime in 2011. A couple of people have already blogged about the sessions, including Doug Belshaw and Cath Marlowe. James Clay was the official conference blogger, but his excellent conference blog is not available to non-delegates.
All the live sessions took place within the Elluminate environment and were followed up with discussion opportunities on the conference site boards. During the live sessions, participants could use the interactive features within Elluminate, including chat and voting options. There was also a healthy twitter backchannel using the #jiscel10 hashtag.
So, what (for me) are the attractions of attending an online conference, and what are the disadvantages?
The main advantage is convenience. I get access to wonderful speakers without having to travel, without leaving my family for a couple of days, without having to stay in some horrible hotel in a city I don't know. I can still discuss themes with an international peer group, although the medium is different.
In fact, on day one of the conference, I was at home - sick with flu. I couldn't have gone to work, and I certainly couldn't have travelled anywhere. But I was able to "attend" three very worthwhile conference sessions, in my pyjamas, hot flu-busting drink beside me, and go back to bed in between! If the wifi had worked sufficiently well in the bedroom, I wouldn't even have had to leave my bed.
The second advantage, for me, is that I am much more likely to interact with other delegates in the online environment. In a face-to-face setting, I'm quite shy and likely to stand around at coffee breaks pretending to be very busy checking email on my Blackberry, unless there are people that I know. Online, I am still self-conscious, but no longer a lurker.
Despite comments by Graham Brown-Martin (@grahamBM) in his talk, I really liked the Elluminate platform and thought it worked quite well in the context of the conference. Academics at NUI Galway have used Elluminate in the past for teaching students in Clinical Education.
However, despite much investigation and complaining, I still cannot access Elluminate on my office machine over the fixed network. I have no problem at home, and no problem on the campus wifi network. So, I had to do a little forward planning and ensure I had a laptop set up in my office for the duration of the conference. Working on two machines side by side is not something that I find easy.
The other issue with an online conference is that you have to be very organised to participate fully. If you are travelling to a conference, you make time from your day-t0-day work and will not be distracted by phone calls, unimportant email and calls for coffee. To really participate, I should have stayed at home all week, away from the distractions in my office.
However, I did get a lot from the experience. I enjoyed the talks and will make time to follow up on the ones I missed (just not from my office desktop). Value for money? Certainly, especially when you factor in travel and accommodation expenses!