What I Look For in a Conference

I attend a lot of conferences, and over the years I've developed a useful set of criteria by which to evaluate them. Here, then, in no particular order, are my top 14 characteristics of a good conference.

#1 Fresh air and daylight

I shouldn't have to say this, but air and natural lighting are pretty fundamental for our existence. We all know that, so how come half the conference sessions I attend don't make the grade in these respects? Worst of all were the National Strategies' training days. They were pretty dire anyway, for the most part, but what made them even worse was they always seemed to be held in a basement room with no windows and no air. As the day wore on, especially after lunch, half the delegates would be falling asleep. Not good.

#2 Can we move now?

That raises another issue. A lot of conferences involve a lot of sitting around and listening. After a while, you feel like your blood has stopped circulating -- which it probably has. Now, I don't go along with ideas like getting the audience to do some sort of physical workout, which I have seen advocated in self-styled 'cutting edge' texts. But I think a variety of different kinds of session, together with making each one no longer than an hour -- and preferably less -- helps a lot.

#3 Where are the kids?

SeesawLike I said in an article called But where are the kids?, you would never know, walking into a lot of educational conferences, that the conference is about education at all. At best, some of them have a few token young people around to remind us all what they look like, but that's about it. I have to say that this is where conferences like ISTE (previously known as NECC) and iCTLT do well. Kids not only start the conference off, but are seen at the exhibitors' stands, and even speak!

I like the increasing presence of young people as reporters at some conferences. This was the case at the BETT show in January 2010, and a curriculum conference in March 2009 (see the 'kids' link, above). We need more of this sort of thing.

#4 Plenty of 'down' time

Some conference organisers feel that they have to pack every waking moment -- and half our sleeping moments too! -- with activities. This is justified on the grounds that would-be delegates have to have their applications approved by bean counters who equate more stuff with better value. In fact, after a certain point has been reached, the opposite is likely to be the case.

My own view is that the best part of any conference is the conversations you have. I won't even say 'networking', because although you're 'supposed' to go to conferences to network and make connections, I find it really hard to do. The reason is that whenever people unleash their 'elevator speech' on to me, I feel like I am being sold to -- which, of course, I am. Far more interesting is having a normal, honest conversation. And if that leads to some business in the future, that's all wonderful and marvellous. And if it doesn't, well that's fine too because at least you had a good social time.

#5 Good speakers, on good topics

For me, given my views on the importance of #4, if the sessions are good too then that's a bonus. By 'good speakers' I do not mean people who shout, jump up and down, try and gee us up, and regard themselves as primarily entertainers (unless, of course, it's in the context of an after-dinner speech). I mean people who are at the top of their game, who have a deep knowledge of their subject, and who are going to give me some information and insights which I would either not be able to obtain at all otherwise, or which it would take a fair bit of time and effort to get otherwise. And up-to-date insights too, not the ones they came up with five years ago and have been trotting out ever since. Ever heard of blogs and YouTube, guys?

By 'good topics', I do not mean stuff I am interested in, because that's taken as read. I mean stuff that I should  be interested in but which I didn't know I need to know about!

#6 Let the people speak

I think there's a place for 'unconference' elements in the conference programme, like a Teachmeet or opportunities for groups of people to get together to discuss topics of mutual interest. It's not the end of the world if there isn't this option, but I think every effort should be made to provide it where possible.

#7 I wanna be connected

ConnectedThe best conference will have wi-fi throughout the venue, including the hotel. There must also be a conference Twitter feed, and Flickr and Technorati tags. Some conferences also have a conference blog, Facebook page,  and a social network. I think having all that is more likely to dissipate commentary, or even discourage it altogether, by making the choice too wide. What's the point anyway? Anyone who's going to write about the conference will want to do so on their own blog, wouldn't they?

#8 Who else is here?

I like to see a delegate list. Notwithstanding what I said about networking, if there is someone there whom I'd really like to meet, I'd prefer to know about it so I can look out for them and try to connect with them. Conferences provide great opportunities to meet people you have had dealings with, or need to have dealings with.

For example, at the Naace 2010 conference I was able to meet up with several people I've been having work-related conversations with. As it happens, the conference was small enough for me to see they were there. At larger conferences, you cannot rely on spotting or bumping into people, which is why a delegate list can be so handy.

#9 Decent accommodation

It's a well-known fact that people evaluate training days on the basis of whether the food was any good. The same goes for conferences, and more so if you're staying overnight. Good grub, with a proper choice for vegetarians and other diets, and a clean, well-appointed room, are what we all like.

#10 Lots of choice

It can be very frustrating when sessions you want to go to clash with each other. But I'd rather be spoilt for choice than to feel like I have almost no choice at all.

#11 Post-conference information

Presentations, and podcasts or videos of the presentations, should be available afterwards. So should supplementary material where relevant.

#12 If you're going to advertise, tell us

If you look at the ads in the paper, or this website, you'll see they have the word 'Advertisement' above them. The reason is obvious: to make sure that people don't mistakenly think they're part of the editorial. Well, I believe conference speakers should do the same. I've been to a couple of conference sessions where the presentation was an extended advertisement in all but name. If this is made clear in advance, then people are given a genuine choice. If you find out once you're in the session, not only have you had your time wasted if you didn't want to listen to an ad for 45 minutes, but you've missed the chance to go to a presentation you would have liked to have seen.

#13 No text please

Exhibitors should make their stuff available electronically, such as on a conference CD. I think it's unreasonable to expect delegates to lug tons of printed material home.

#14 Start and end on a high

I want my conference to open with a bang, and make me eager with anticipation. I want to end my conference on a high, full of adrenalin, wanting to rush back home with renewed determination to make a difference.

Over to you

What do you think are the characteristics of a great conference?

But Where Are The Kids?

This is a modified version of an article written and published in 2009. I am reproducing it because it is still relevant, and I shall be referring to it in articles in the near future.

One of the big absences at most educational conferences, as far as I'm concerned, is children and young people. Let's be honest: you would have no idea, walking into most conferences, whether you were attending an event about education or one about how to improve the market share of widgets.

Youngsters remind us why we're thereIt is hard to get this right, without a doubt -- not least because of child safety considerations -- but the more I think about it the more important I think it is to involve young people in conferences in meaningful ways. After all, it is they who, in management-speak are our clients and, in marketing-speak, our final consumer.

I've been to a few conferences recently where young people were involved to a greater or lesser extent. First, take the Naace 2009 Conference. There were children in evidence, but in my opinion in an utterly tokenistic way. I don't mean this to sound as critical as it does. When I organised the Naace conference a few years ago, it was generally regarded as being very good indeed, but there were no youngsters there. In hindsight I regard that as a mistake, and think I should have worked harder to include them (we did try, but it was logistically difficult, because of the distances involved, to liaise effectively with local schools; also, I think it requires a more imaginative mindset which is easier to nurture once you're away from all the deadlines and other headaches involved in planning a large conference).

The youngsters were there to help represent their schools, which had been invited in order to receive the ICT Mark. Traditionally, this little ceremony takes place straight after the talk by the Secretary of State for Education, so that it is he or she who is, in effect, handing over the certificate.

Alright, the fact that there are children there reminds us that this is all about them, but it seems to me that here is a golden opportunity wasted. Why not go straight into a panel discussion in which the audience can ask the youngsters what difference, if any, the process of applying for the ICT Mark has made. If it has made a difference, the session might just be the thing that's needed to convince a wavering school that it ought to take the plunge. Also, and of more immediate importance and interest, it would help us see the process from the customer's point of view (I cringe from using such terminology, by the way, but it does seem rather apt).

On the subject of a panel discussion, last year's ASPECT conference featured a panel session in which a group of students of around 17 years of age really gave the assembled educational glitterati a run for their money. For example, one of them said, in response to a rather patronising answer, to a genuine question, to the effect that it was a nonsense to say that young people were left out of decision-making, "I notice that all the people in this room have been given briefing packs. But we haven't." Stunned, embarrassed silence: after all, you can't argue with something which is so visibly true.

The Dimensions conference run by the then Qualifications and Curriculum Authority went a stage further. As you arrived at the entrance to the building, students (from a school local to me (Mayfield School), as it happened) were there to greet you and point you in the right direction. They were also involved in a workshop about the BBC School Report event (which I hope to write about separately), took part in a panel discussion, generally helped out and, crucially, went around conducting video interviews of delegates.

In the workshop, two of the students were on hand to advise us oldies of what would be best to include in a news bulletin that would fire up the interest of people of their age (15-16). They were brilliant, somehow managing to combine brutal honesty with humour and courtesy. (Perhaps we adults could learn a thing or two from them.)

Here is the video they made of the day:



There are other ways in which youngsters can be involved. A lovely way of starting a conference, for instance, can be seen in the programme of last year's Game-Based Learning conference, the second day of which was opened by a performance by children from the John Stainer school. (That was nice for me on a personal level because I worked with the school a few years ago helping it to implement its Framework for ICT Support programme).

I think what I would ultimately like to see is youngsters involved at all stages of a conference:

  1. Planning.
  2. Attending.
  3. Taking part.
  4. Evaluating.

Difficult, perhaps, but surely a goal worth striving for?

A slightly different version of this article was first published on 7th April 2009.