Learning 2005 Conference Critique

Learning 2005 was a very good conference, but as is typical in our industry (training & development) this conference still lacked some fundamental elements. Some of the good and bad points of the conference are detailed below. They are provided to encourage changes in all future industry conferences.

The Good:

  1. High energy and excitement, created by Elliott and his pre-conference emailings, Elliott’s energetic facilitation of the general sessions, and the experimental use of new technologies.
  2. Taking risks and trying new models for conferences.
  3. Good opportunity to spur future thinking on leading edge topics. For example, everyone at the conference will be likely to consider the use of wiki’s.
  4. The strong encouragement to presenters to be facilitators instead of lecturers created some really good sessions. It also helped a few participants feel free to criticize (or be skeptical of) the ideas of others. This is a good thing, though more of this is necessary.
  5. The human element rose higher than at any other conference in the industry. Not-for-profit groups were highlighted. People’s good works were celebrated with formal "Pioneers of Learning" awards. Elliott’s empathy and general-session conversations channeled a sense of relationship with the speakers and a sense of community.
  6. The keynotes actually has something to say about learning and performance. Yippee!!
  7. Elliott’s strong emphasis on research, metrics, and innovation.
  8. The sense that technological innovations were about to really get traction. A tipping point toward better e-learning design.
  9. Malcolm Gladwell was a clear and thoughtful thinker!!
  10. The Masie Center’s efforts to organize the group "The Learning Consortium" provided a sense that we were all in this together with the goal of helping each other.
  11. The participants seemed very knowledgable and thoughtful (at least in the sessions I attended).
  12. The wiki at www.learningwiki.com provides a nice opportunity for discussion and further community building. It also provides participants with a way connect with sessions/presenters who they missed because two or more sessions of interest were scheduled at the same time. It remains to see how this will work, but it is certainly worth the experiment. We as conference-goers may need to learn how to use this technology to get the most out of it.
  13. The Masie Center people are really nice and really helpful.
  14. Elliott didn’t let the keynote speakers simply deliver their canned speeches. He forced them to focus on what was most relevant by interviewing them. Very effective.
  15. The conference was fun!!

The Neutral

  1. No exhibition hall. Good and bad. Good because sponsors didn’t show up just to sell. Bad because the selling took a more stealthy approach. Bad because sometimes it is nice as a participant to seek out potential vendors and have real conversations with them.
  2. The recommendation NOT to use PowerPoints is both good and bad. Sometimes visuals are helpful to make the point, clarify potential confusions, etc. PowerPoint is a tool. It is good for some things and bad for others. For example, I would have loved to see a brief PowerPoint when Elliott invited people up on stage so that I could catch their names. This seems respectful as well as a good learning design. Also, many presenters did not follow the recommendation and used PowerPoints anyway.

The Bad

  1. Commercial interests still dominated many conversations. Some sponsors paid as much as $15,000 to lead three conference sessions. Although some sponsors led excellent sessions, others gave thinly-disguised sales pitches. If vendors dominate the conversational agenda, we diminish the wisdom of experts and we diminish the credibility of our field. Vendors should certainly be a part of the conversation, because many are leading the way, but they shouldn’t be the most powerful voice.
  2. Some of the sessions floundered under the goal of creating audience-generated discussions. Some of the facilatators were unskilled or talked too much. Some were simply new at facilitating, having more experience in traditional conference sessions delivering their presentations. Some sessions, while great as brainstorming sessions, were unencumbered by the hard work of separating the good ideas from the bad ones.
  3. There was not enough planned skepticism, making it likely that some bad ideas were accepted as good ideas. This is a major failing in our industry and one of the reasons why we jump from one fad to another. We are simply not skeptical enough and our conferences don’t encourage skepticism.
  4. It would be nice to have each presenter asked a mandatory set of questions, including (a) what evidence do you have that your recommendations worked in your situation, (b) what evidence or research can you cite that shows that your recommendations are likely to work in other situations, (c) what research supports the basic concepts you’ve implemented, and/or (d) what negative and positive side effects might your recommendations create?
  5. Sometimes the gee-whiz factor went way too far, as when everybody got real excited just because a technology was new.
  6. There was very little discussion of the human learning system and how we needed to align our learning designs with it.
  7. The price was rather high for the conference admission.
  8. Disney’s hermetically-sealed hotel rooms, ingrained with toxic cleaning products, did not provide a healthy environment for sleeping or hanging out.