Attending an online conference: The ALT Winter Conference 2017

This week I had the pleasure of attending the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) Winter Conference. This free conference was entirely online, delivered via a series of parallel sessions. Webinars, Twitter chats and wildcard sessions formed the basis for these sessions, with a good mixture of each across both days. It was my first time taking part in an online conference and so I wanted to reflect on the format here. Technologically, I thought BlackBoard Collaborate Ultra served for the webinars very well and it was nice to experience this first hand. I usually use Adobe Connect in my own practice so it’s always nice to see another system working.

The first thing that is important to note is that I attended from my open plan office at work. This of course makes a difference as I was surrounded by colleagues, and I was fitting conference sessions in alongside other work commitments. This means I wasn’t fully dedicating all my time to the event, which is a very different experience to being at an actual conference where you are fully immersed. This had advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, I was able to take part in the first place. I simply would not of had the time or money to travel to any conference at this time of year. On the negative, I felt it was not as good a networking opportunity as face:face conferences, and, that it did not provide the same ring fenced development time that you get with being away.

It would be unfair to say networking opportunities were absent. Dialogue and interactivity was present in every parallel session. There was also the #altc hashtag on Twitter for the backchannel conversation throughout both days. However, this is no different to the opportunities afforded at any conference. What I really missed however were the little conversations after sessions, in traveling, between parallels, over coffee, throughout lunch, at evening events and through drinks. I find a lot of the benefit of traditional conferences can be found around the formal programme, not just within it. I should note, the conference did have an always-on cafe for conversation. It was just empty the couple of times I tried to visit. Perhaps Twitter was the better forum?

Pacing the conference around work activities was fairly easy, and I imagine I was not the only person doing this. This did mean some times of day were perhaps busier than others, but this could have been depended on the sessions. The only frustrating thing about attending remotely is the clash between a very useful parallel and a work activity. Of course the work activity takes precedence! It just always tends to coincide alongside the one session you really wanted to see.

The aspect of time away is a difficult one. One of the things I like about a traditional conference is the mental break you get. The time away. The opportunity to focus on self-development, learning, thinking, networking, idea sharing, collaborating and more. The day job, research, writing or whatever else you are doing is placed on hold. Not forgotten, but you put yourself in a different space away. I’m not saying this is absent in an online conference, but because there is a tendency to take part from home or work, it is not the same kind of break. As above, this is advantageous as it means work does not need to stop for your to take part. But it prevents gains in some areas.

While I missed the face to face elements, I think this kind of conference is a fantastic opportunity. As I stated above, I would not have been able to take part were this a traditional conference. I also liked that I did not have to dedicate two whole days and travel to this. While I would usually gladly do this for any conference; work, my research, volunteering and general life are too busy to take all that time out! I’d like to extend a thanks to anyone running a session I attended at the conference. They were all engaging and I look forward to enacting some of this stuff in practice. Huge thanks to ALT too for putting it all together and making it possible.

Maybe I should also celebrate the fact an online conference helped me avoid a few wet days!

Leave a Reply