I have to confess, I really enjoy presenting at and attending academic conferences. My first conference as a PhD student was in October 2011. A paper that I co-authored was accepted to IAMLEARN's mLearn conference in Beijing. Our paper was scheduled for presentation on the first day of the conference in the very first time slot. I was a nervous wreck – having never been to a conference like this before, I had no idea what to expect, and no idea what was expected of me during the presentation. Fortunately, I was not presenting alone. I was presenting with one of the other co-authors of the paper – who I met face-to-face for the first time the day before! When I look back on that presentation, it certainly would not be one of my best performances, but the paper itself actually won a Best Paper Award.
One of the other discoveries at that conference was the sense that I was not alone. At the University of Ottawa, I often feel alone. My background is significantly more technical than anyone that I work or study with. My peers do not understand what I do, or how what I do is research. I often suffer from bouts of 'impostor syndrome' as a result of not being part of a tribe when I am at school. So, for me, conferences allow me to find my tribe and to confirm that I am not an impostor within my field of study (at least sometimes – not all conferences have this effect).
Since that first conference, I have attended 12 other conferences over the last two years (I've bolded conferences that I recommend):
- Apr 2013: AIME (Academy for Innovation in Medical Education) Day conference, Ottawa
- May 2012: eLearn Africa, Cotonou Benin
- Jun 2012: STLHE (Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education), Montreal
- Oct 2012: UbiLearn (Ubiquitous Learning Conference), Campaign-Urbana, Illinois
- Oct 2012: IAMLEARN mLearn, Helsinki Finland
- Mar 2013: IADIS mLearn, Lisbon Portugal
- Apr 2013: CCME (Canadian Conference on Medical Education), Quebec City
- Jun 2013: CSSE (Canadian Society for the Study of Education), Victoria, BC
- Jun 2013: eLearning Guide mLearnCon, San Jose CA
- Jun 2013: AACE EdMedia, Victoria, BC
- Oct 2013: AACE eLearn, Las Vegas
- Dec 2013: MOOC Research Initiative, Dallas Texas
Looking at this list, I think I will declare 2013 as the year of the conference. Looking at the conferences, the ones I do not think I will attend again are: CSSE, UbiLearn, AACE eLearn, CCME, and eLearn Africa. These are all conferences were I failed to find 'my tribe'. I may have made one or two connections and learned a thing or two, but the conference itself did not feel like a good fit. I should note here, that of those conferences, eLearn Africa was spectacular; however, my experience in Africa highlighted that ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) is not an area I'm particularly interested in studying.
The conferences that I prefer, and the ones that I will go out of my way to attend again, include IAMLEARN mLearn and MOOC Research Initiative. The biggest value in these conferences are the connections that I make. In both cases, these are small conferences (about 200 people). They include catered lunches (important for interesting informal conversations). In each case, I had a chance to meet the key authors in my field and learn that they are not just great writers, but also great people!
Of the "big" conferences, STLHE was great for meeting educational developers. It really helped me get a sense of educational development across Canadian Universities, and further my exploration of educational development as a career option. It was certainly the most friendly of the large conferences. The folks who attended were vary approachable and easy to engage in interesting conversations.
AACE EdMedia had some great workshops in the "new research stream". It was particularly interesting for me because key leaders in Educational Design Research presented. It helped me realize that, at least from a theoretical perspective, I too have expertise in Educational Design Research (it helped with the 'impostor syndrome'). The thing I dislike most about AACE conferences is that they do not provide lunch. Lunch is a key networking time, and it is not always easy to find random people to join for lunch (somehow, this is easier for dinner). It is also more difficult to connect with people at large conferences. The key authors in your field may attend, but they also have many other people they want to connect with at the conference, so it is much more difficult to have chance encounters.
The eLearning Guild's mLearnCon is a practitioner conference, so the perspective was very different. I found the workshops really useful in helping to get a sense of the study of corporate/government/healthcare training perspective. The workshops were also practical, teaching me how to use various tools more effectively. I did find, however, that I did not really fit. I was between worlds here – not connecting well with academics present nor with the practitioners. I will likely go to one of their conferences in the future (DevLearn had a lot of the same presentations), but will attempt to attend as a presenter in order to make better connections. I found that practitioners are much more difficult to interact with at conferences. Every time I introduced myself to random people standing or sitting near me, they looked at me as if I had two heads! My strategies for meeting people at academic conferences did not translate well into this environment.
Tips for meeting cool people at conferences
To end this post, I thought I'd share with you some tips that I have learned for meeting cool people at conferences:
- Introduce yourself. People go to academic conferences to meet people, don't be afraid to make that easier for others by initiating the conversation. Whenever I am standing in a line or sitting at a table with other people, I start the conversation with "Hi, I'm Rebecca". I usually follow up with one of: Where are you from?, What do you do?, What brings you to this conference? How is the conference going for you?
- Use Twitter to initiate connections. A few days before I conference, I try to see if anyone in my twitter world is attending. Even if I don't know anyone, I can usually connect with someone via twitter such that I do not need to eat alone. I throw out open invitations and am often pleasantly surprised by the response. Wonderful people use Twitter!
- Join informational gatherings. It isn't always easy to find the informal gatherings at conferences (twitter helps), but the hotel bar is often a good choice. What is nice about this, is that it is usually a group of core people, but also includes several who are lurkers in the conversation – which allows you to choose whether you want to join in or be a fly on the wall. I've been part of amazing academic dialogue over a beer in the bar after the conference.
- Sit with people you don't already know. At lunch, I often join a random table, with people I don't already know, or perhaps only one person that I already know. This allows me to introduce myself and meet new people. If you stick to sitting with people you know, you don't meet new people. The only time this has backfired on me is at bilingual conferences, where I often choose a random table only to discover that I don't understand the conversation because I don't speak the language!