The first full day of the conference started off with my friend Ellen Wagner giving the opening keynote, in which she made a couple of points that are relevant to the problem that is vexing me, so I will take a few lines to touch upon what she said. First, the notion of dynamic, individualized, high quality learning experiences isn't new to eLearning. A decade ago we heard the same promises when the eBang Theory was put forth amid the manic days of the Second Gold Rush, but yet here we are still trying to make good on those same concepts. Second, there are lots of gaps we must mind in the world of online learning, but perhaps the most important for moving emerging solutions forward is the gap between the early adopters and early majority in the practitioner ranks.
Certainly the early adopters have the will to grab onto new technologies that are brought to prominence by the innovators and apply sound pedagogy to create new visions for eLearning. However, it takes time and pressure before these same applications are picked up by the early majority and between these two groups lies a very, very wide gap. This is also where conferences like ET4Online come in; there have to be forums that connect the two groups.
With that said, I think we had a decent mix of innovators, early adopters and early majority practitioners at ET4. Despite going non-stop I kept a fairly close watch on the twitter stream and the tweets were mostly positive. However, on the margins there were a few comments that concerned me. Specifically, I saw some that complained about a lack of innovation in the presentations. Granted, these were a small minority, but when you are a conference chair you treat the conference like your baby and want to do all that you can to protect it. A good, and valid summary of the complaints can be found on a blog post by @lisamlane.
Having seen the program mature over the last year, I have to admit that I wish there would have been a few more presentations on some of the very cool stuff that is either being currently implemented or just on the horizon. However, the fact is that some of it was presented and attendance was very low. As an example a friend, who is very well respected in mobile did a presentation on mobile apps that was only about a third full. Another friend did one on RIA's, API's and the future of online learning and had six attendees. Personally, I was involved in four different presentations during the week, two of which were attended by less than 10 people each. One was on using a latent semantic engine to map content and learning outcomes. The other was on leveraging Flex and AIR to build applications that can be used to extend traditional server side applications to learners with limited or poor connectivity. I consider all of these pretty darn emerging, as was the case with another seven or eight presentations I heard about that were also poorly attended. Thus, my point is that while they may not have been in the majority, by any means, there was a lot of stuff at ET4 that did indeed match the definition but they apparently didn't draw that much interest. Compounding the problem I had a LOT of side conversations with people who were working on some very cool applications and techniques but who didn't choose to submit a presentation.
So what is that solution? Do you make the call for presentations and the review process so restrictive that you get only truly emergent technology that is extremely difficult for the early majoirty to apply? I go to a few of those conference and you have about 100 people all recycling the same concepts with slightly different twists and no plans for dissemination on a wide scale. Even better, lets take it a step up and try attending the conferences intended just for innovators. Then you have an even smaller group talking about the latest in Flex, Objective C and advanced video editing techniques; I love those gatherings too, but they would make all but a small cohort of practitioners want to run screaming from the building.
On the flip side, you have practitioner conferences where you have people talking about how you can actually copy and paste your syllabus into an LMS - I'm not making that up, I actually saw that presentation last year. At these events the early adopters would love to give just a little bit of advice to improve practice, but instead walk out of the sessions.
Given the above I would challenge readers to answer these questions:
1. How do you draw more innovators and early adopters to broad spectrum conferences to present?
2. How do you get early majority practitioners to attend these types of sessions?
3. How do you get early adopters and innovators to provide support that is not perceived as criticism?
While it may seem like I have spent a long time dwelling on what I saw as an issue to a small segment of a generally, very enthusiastic group at ET4, I think the perspective of that minority should be of concern to all of us in online learning. Unless we find a way to bring the various segments of our community together in constructive settings, we will still be talking about the promise of eLearning a decade from now and the eBang theory will still be just as much of a theory then as it remains today.
So, please tell this outgoing Chair how ET4, and similar conference, can be improved upon in the years to come. To paraphrase the opening keynote, "How do we mind the gap?"