Conferences Go Paperless — How Learning, Remembering, and On-the-Job Application Suffer

Last week I spoke at one of the major conferences in the workplace learning-and-performance industry to a room filled with about 150 people. I am not including the name of the conference organizer because I don't want to single them out. They are not alone in the going-paperless practice.

Unfortunately, two of the conference decisions—(1) not to provide participants with paper handouts—(2) not to allow electronic handouts to include sufficient pages to provide images of the slides that are shown—may have hurt learning results. Perhaps ironic in a conference devoted to help people build better learning interventions.

Setting the Scene of My Presentation

I spoke on the topic of Situation-Based Learning Design and the session seemed to be well-received. I got the following emails afterward:

  • "I found your session to be amazing!"
  • "One of the highlights of the conference for me."

One of my friends, who sat in the audience, told me afterward that he knew the session was good because (1) hardly anybody left even after 90 minutes, and (2) many people were furiously taking notes.

But was it a successful learning experience? Isn't that the key question?

I could have been entertaining. People could have liked the session. They could have taken lots of notes. But probably the most important reason they came to the conference was so that they could go back and do something better and to think differently because they had attended.

I used some learning-design techniques to help them remember—to help them integrate the new learning with their current conceptions—but was this enough?

I think something was missing because of the paperless practices, but before I get to that, let me recount some of the design tactics I used specifically to ensure remembering and application to their work.

  1. Content was verified (by research) to be effective in supporting good work practices around learning design. Some stuff you learn at conferences can actually make you less effective.
  2. Participants were provided with realistic learning-design decisions to make before topics were introduced. By activating prior knowledge and situating the learning in situations similar to those folks would face in their work as learning professionals, the learning would become more usable and more memorable.
  3. Examples of real-world e-learning courses were provided to again link realistic context cues to the learning points.
  4. Learners were encouraged to specifically engage in trigger setting (what researchers call implementation intentions) to increase the likelihood that they would take action in implementing what they learned
  5. Participants were presented with spaced repetitions of key learning
    points to support long-term remembering. Repetitions were achieved by
    providing (a) prequestions, (b) research explanations, (c) supporting
    metaphors, (d) real-world examples, (e) follow-up practice, (f) similar
    topics that reinforced points from previous topics, (g) a final
    summary, and (h) a reminder to link the learning to their future

Good stuff to be sure, but was anything missing?

I think so.

The biggest thing that is missing is super-strong links back to the workplace. Even though I use great long-term retrieval support (better than most conference sessions provide I would think), having our learners rely only on the learning-remembering link when transportable cues are available is committing learning-to-performance malpractice. If learners could take their annotated slide images back to the workplace, they would remember more, share more, and apply more of the session content.

The Problem of Going Paperless.

Note-taking can prompt learners to engage in deep processing of their learning. By organizing the learning content during note-taking, learners will be more likely to fully understand what they're learning and remember it later. Note-taking has other benefits as well. Learners can go back and study their notes at a later time, providing themselves with spaced repetitions—a proven aid to long-term remembering. Finally, learners who take notes may be more likely to attempt to share what they've learned with others when they return to work. The process of preparing to teach others, provides further deep processing of the learning material and makes it more likely that the learning content will be remembered and utilized on the job.

When a conference goes paperless, it is likely to curtail note-taking. When I asked my 150 learners how many of them had paper copies or were looking at the handouts on their laptops, less than half raised their hands.

Just because participants can print out the handouts beforehand, doesn't mean that they will. This is a lame excuse for conference organizers.

Taking Notes with Slide Images versus Taking Notes on Plain Paper

The conference organizer only allowed us 8 pages of handouts. I could only fit 12 of my slides into these 8 pages, because some other things were required as well. For me, this meant that more than 85% of my slides were NOT provided to my learners.

Ironically, one of the research streams I talked about in my session was the importance of context in learning and remembering. Specifically, research is very clear that if stimuli are available in both the learning context and the retrieval context, people will be better able to remember what they learned. The contextual cues in the retrieval situation remind the learners of what they learned.

Slide images are such stimulus cues. If learners can transport slide images (and any notes they've added to those images) from the learning situation (my session) to their work situation, they will remember more of what they learned. So, conference organizers who deprive their participants (aka delegates) of slide images and concomitant note-taking are hurting learning.

This is compounded because learners will also be less likely to take back their learning to their coworkers. Just yesterday I did a web meeting with a prospective client and last night I got a request from that prospective client to get copies of my slides. They said they took notes, but they wanted the slides to ensure they didn't miss anything and also to prepare to persuade others in their organization.

Finally, if you've ever looked at a copy of somebody else's slide deck, you know how hard it is to make sense of it without the context provided by aural narration or annotations. People need to be able take notes so that they will later have the full context of the slides. Research also shows that labels, annotations, and notes must be geographically close to the objects of those textual elements—so that limited cognitive resources are not overtaxed, hurting learning. Bottom line here: Notes near the paper on slide images are more effective than notes taken without slide images.

The Push To Paperless

The paperless movement is bound to continue. It cuts into profits for conference organizers to print handouts. It goes against the rising tide of the green environmentally-friendly zeitgeist (which I am very sympathetic to).

If everyone brought their laptop to each session and had the slides available on their screens, they could take notes using Adobe Acrobat's commenting features, or perhaps some other program. What is needed is the ability to put a comment or note where you want it to be, and draw simple diagrams in case there is some visual meaning that should be captured. Note that PowerPoint, even the latest 2007 version, has no such capability. 

One must wonder if the environmental costs of laptop energy-use might outweigh the environmental costs of paper printing, shipping, etc.

If organizers expect participants to print their own copies, than there doesn't appear to be an environmental benefit. Just the costs are shifted to the conference participant.

I have found that I am sometimes able to annotate my own slides so that my audience members don't have to—this would create a minor learning benefit perhaps—but it doesn't really solve the underlying issues.

Academic conferences often have session-leaders write short papers that conference participants can access for later reading. This might be a way to transfer more of the learning content back to the workplace—but could we really make this cultural shift. Also, such short papers would provide a strictly post-learning intervention. It wouldn't fully compensate for the loss of context and note-taking.

Summing it Up

When conferences go paperless:

  1. They either hurt learning, remembering, and on-the-job application,
  2. Or, they create minor environmental improvements.
  3. With current state of installed technology usage, they can't create good learning impacts and good environmental impacts (most people don't have a way to take notes on their slides on their computer).
  4. Conference organizers save themselves a heap of money, increasing their profits, which probably doesn't trickle down to conference participants in the form of lower registration fees, especially if participants have to print and transport handouts to the conference and back by themselves.
  5. You as a learner have to make a conscious decision to support your conference learning, and you can do this by getting a PDF of the slides beforehand and either printing them out or using Adobe Acrobat to take notes on the slides on your laptop.
  6. If you as a conference goer want to maximize learning, you can contact conference organizers and complain, or vote with your dollars by not attending conferences that don't support your learning.
    • Tell them: You want slide images.
    • Tell them: You want a way to take notes on those slide images.