Symposiums, Symposiums, Symposiums!

Last year I was asked to convene the ALIA WA Symposium 2016. I agreed, because, hey you’ve got to try these things out at least once. I also wanted to use the opportunity to try something different and ‘be the change I want to see’ (Rundle, 2014) 1. Fast forward a good twelve months and the event seemed to be a success, with only minor technical glitches. A good committee, help from the ALIA groups, and a lot of hard work helped bring this experiment to life. While I intend to write a paper about the experience and explore the model I used in more detail, I thought I would write up a quick ‘lessons learned’ post to help any aspiring conveners who want to have a go at running a similar event.

Flipped Model (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

When planning this event I looked at various conference models out there that aligned with what I wanted to achieve: Greenhill and Wiebrands (2008) 2, Bates (2014) 3 and Rundle (2014). I looked at what I enjoyed and looked forward to at other events, notably the background Twitter chatter, discussing ideas, and practical applications. What I ended up with was something that resembled a flipped classroom model (Bergmann and Samms, 2007) 4.

I wanted to give less time to presentations and focus more on the conversations that flow on from them. There have been several conferences where I have read the papers for all the sessions (usually on the long flight from Perth to the real world aka. the East coast) and decided what to attend based on whether I really wanted to hear the same thing repeated but with pretty slides. I realised that what I actually looked forward to were the questions after the paper where I could query ideas presented, and/or the Twitter back channels where we discussed the ideas and practical applications. I disliked sitting back and letting people talk extensively at me; I would disengage despite being interested in the topic, not becoming re-engaged until the Q&A section 5.

At the few Unconferences (Howard, 2010) 6 I have attended, I enjoyed the discussion model immensely but often heard that the lack of structure was very off putting to many people. The lack of pre-arranged topics also made it hard to pitch to management on why you should attend. Looking at the two models I decided to fuse them together into a sort of structured unconference. While the event itself wasn’t 100% disruptive, I do think it resembled something closer to what I would like to see more of.

What it Looks Like

Papers were sent out to the participants and other speakers a week before the event to allow time for them to be read and questions/ideas to be formed. On the day, we had two keynote speakers bookending the event. The first to inspire people and get them thinking about the profession (thanks Megan!), and the second to leave people enthused and entertained, helping carry the ideas over the weekend and back to work on Monday (thanks Jack!).

The rest of the speakers were grouped thematically (no more than three papers presented in one group) so the ideas presented could be bounced off of each other. Speakers were allowed 10-15 minutes to give a quick overview of their paper, each speaking after the other. Once the group was finished the MC facilitated a 45 minute open discussion about the topics presented. Questions raised in one paper could be addressed to other presenters. Ideas were bounced from person to person, improved and sent back to the presenters. It was hoped that even the presenters would learn from the event, rather than information passing one way i.e. Presenter > audience.

Participants were seated in groups rather than a traditional lecture style, allowing conversations over the tables. Meal breaks provided a more informal and less focused opportunity for people to network and discuss the day’s topics, as usual.

Results

I would consider this event a beta test 7 of the actual model despite the event running well and feedback being overwhelmingly positive. From the survey (n=36), well over 70% of respondents reported that they felt more engaged with the content than a traditional symposium setting.

The following feedback reflects that the model did what I intended it to do:

“You had time to think about the content of the papers beforehand. It was a very relaxed atmosphere and conducive to discussion. I think as attendees become more familiar with this model there will be even more discussion.”

“Had time to think of questions beforehand - I don't think I would have thought of anything intelligent to contribute while I was still digesting all the information immediately after each presentation.”

“It was a relaxed atmosphere where you could share ideas with colleagues. Short presentations and lots of time for questions.”

That said, everything can be improved upon and we only learn from our mistakes…

Improvements

The following are improvements I would make or consider if running a similar event again.

Group discussion

I would consider allowing groups of participants to discuss amongst themselves before throwing the floor open to comments and questions. This would allow for groups to refine their questions and comments and encourage colleagues who have difficulty speaking in large groups to contribute to the wider discussion. As facilitator I tried to engage those quiet voices but I appreciate that many people did not feel confident enough to participate in the discussion.

Less Q&A style

The open sessions after the presentations ran in a question and answer style that commonly follows the traditional conference model. It’s fine to ask the speakers questions about their papers, but I was aiming for participants in the audience to answer each other’s questions or at least offer counter points. This leads on to the next improvement:

More involvement

In a perfect world, everyone would have actively contributed to the discussions and new ideas would have been born based on ideas presented. While people were happy with the event I personally would have liked more participation, but I’m confident that this could be solved with more exposure to the model [citation needed]. As the Q&A format shows, people have been trained in the traditional sit and listen model rather than to actively participate in the conversation. Good facilitation and use of the above improvements might help in future symposiums.

Two day model

Originally I had planned the symposium as a two day session, but budget and time constraints reduced it to one. The first day would have followed a more traditional symposium layout with full presentations, Q&A, and lecture style seating. The second day would be run more like an unconference, where participants on the day would turn up and decide on what they wanted to discuss based on the previous day’s presentations, and paper authors would become part of the audience. This is an interesting idea and a very easy way to slowly modify current conferences/symposiums, as many unconferences already run after larger events. The problem with this is: it doesn’t change the existing model, it makes it look like an add-on which isn’t what I want to do, but I understand that change takes time.

General improvements

The following improvements can be applied to any conference/symposium/event and I’d like to see more of them in practice:

  • Video streaming/recording for rural and remote clients,
  • Some form of ‘hangouts’ or twitch service so remote viewers can contribute,
  • More diverse speakers (can be hard when making a general call for papers but perhaps having active mentors in the profession encourage and help people submit papers or research?),
  • More public libraries presenting papers (as above).

I’ve submitted two proposals to NLS8 so hopefully this gets picked up and I can fill out the ideas I’ve touched on here in a more formal setting (yes, I see the irony, don’t worry I have a plan!). If you’re interested in running a similar event let me know and I’ll be happy to share ideas with you, and if you want to see more of this style in other events let organisers know.

┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ)

  1. Rundle, Hugh. “Dialogue: a new model for conferences and scholarly communication.” Hugh Rundle (blog), March 16, 2014, https://www.hughrundle.net/2014/03/16/dialogue-a-new-model-for-conferences-and-scholarly-communication/

  2. Greenhill, Kathryn; Wiebrands, Constance. 2008. “The unconference: a new model for better professional communication” LIANZA Conference 2008 Poropitia:Outside the Box 2-5 November 2008.

  3. Bates, Mary Ellen. “A Conference Manifesto.” Librarian of Fortune (blog), February 26, 2014, http://www.librarianoffortune.com/librarian_of_fortune/2014/02/a-conference-manifesto-.html

  4. Bergmann, Jonathan; Samms, Aaron. 2007. Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. International Society for Technology in Education, 2012.

  5. I should clarify this probably reflects more on me than the speakers!

  6. Howard, Jennifer. 2010. The ‘Unconference’: Technology Loosens Up the Academic. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed May 2016, http://chronicle.com/article/The-unconference-Technology/65651

  7. Or a v1.0 if pushed.