The Advantages of Small

I attended two conferences this past weekend. One was the CHADD annual meeting, and the other was Podcamp EDU. Both had an educational focus. Both had impressive speakers. Both had topics that could be seen both as narrowly focused and broad subjet areas- ADHD in children and adults, the other, education and podcasting.

The CHADD conference was held at the Hyatt Hotel in Crystal City, Arlington VA. It was huge. Break out sessions too place over 4 floors. The one large conference room for the major presentations must have held over a thousand people. Break out sessions took place in smaller rooms, but it was set up “speaker/audience” style- no place to put down a notebook to take notes (other than on your lap) and no one was using a laptop. It was a conference that cost a minimum of $250 to attend, and to attend special events and the professional section of the conference, significantly more.

The attendees were professionals, educators and parents. Very few had business cards. I tried to talk to some, but there wasn’t a lot of reaching out past the boundaries of already established relationships, which is really too bad.  Even networking tracksfor the evening were set up as “birds of a feather” events, rather than getting people like the pre-eminent reserachers talking informally with parents and educators-  that would have been something amazing for everyone involved.

Podcamp EDU, in contrast, was free to attend. It was held in one large room with round table tops at American University. There was one projector and screen, and reasonable wifi. Some people were using their laptops, live blogging and twittering what was going on.  People were attentive, and they spoke with each other and mingled in between sessions. I finally met New Media Jim, a twitter buddy, and GeoSteph- an educator and scientist at NASA. I met Sashi, who is in charge of my website host and the page creation software, getting some of my most important questions anwered. I saw old friends, and became really intrigued with new ones. And it was awesome.

Podcamps can work very well when you subtract out all the bells and whistles.  They work great with bells and whistles, too, but require so much more work to put on, it makes you wonder whether you get net return for the effort expended.  Not that I think Return on Investment is necessary for an education-based event.

Maybe gatherings need to be separated into smaller segments.  Podcamps by Topic.  Podcamps with Limited Focus.  Podcamps for “Pros” looking for something new and different.

I know after this experience, I am convinced normal conferences have a lot to learn from events like Podcamp EDU.  Podcamps can learn a few things from “normal” conferences, but what Podcamps do best is put like minded people in one room, have a list of topics, and then mix- see what happens.  Normal conferences are speaker vs. audience, and while content can be compelling, it prohibits the interactive learning that can be so valuable to people in the audience, who are ready to ask the next question, push the envelope, and find out more.

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