[Note: Jessica Knott, ETCJ’s Twitter/Facebook editor, has coordinated the publication of this article. -Editor]
Last month The Sloan Consortium’s 7th Emerging Technologies for Online Learning took place in Dallas, Texas. According to the latest Sloan-C View newsletter, there were “more than 700 onsite and 1,000 virtual attendees representing 47 states including DC and 23 countries.”
Saint Leo University provided virtual access to a limited number of instructors, including adjuncts like myself. In my formal request to attend, I made a commitment to “be active on multiple social media platforms and use the symposium hashtag – #et4online – to further engage in live sessions and network with other attendees.” I was fortunate to be selected to attend, and it was this social media commitment that made all the difference in my experience.
Recorded sessions are helpful but don’t provide the energy and interaction of real-time attendance. And there is a lot to be gained from following the social media backchannel of a conference, but formal registration allows for a different level of access to the sessions and other attendees. This article includes a few of my lessons learned as a virtual conference participant.
Prepare to Participate
Are your social media accounts up-to-date? This may be the best place to start. Take a look at the platforms that are being encouraged by the conference organizers and review your profiles before the event starts. If it has been a while since you logged in to an account, it could take some time to review and refresh the information you are providing about yourself. Keep in mind that these profiles serve as your business card in an online networking sense.
Follow the conference itself and the sponsoring organization. In addition to the conference hashtag, this Sloan Consortium event was also active with social media accounts focused specifically on this conference, including Twitter and Facebook. These accounts provided a constant stream of reminders, letting participants know about upcoming sessions, highlighting participants and presenters, and announcing schedule changes.
Set Realistic Expectations
The Sloan symposium offered fewer streamed sessions than onsite sessions, but there were multiple presentation options for each time slot. The streamed sessions took place in Dallas with a live audience and allowed virtual attendees to watch both the presenter and his or her slide presentation simultaneously. Members of the online group were able to interact with each other via text chat and ask questions of the presenter through an online session chairperson who relayed them in real-time. We also connected and exchanged thoughts and resources through our social media accounts.
Take a look at your schedule for the week and identify, in advance, the sessions you would like to attend. Add these sessions to your calendar. I was tripped up when logging into my first session (an hour early), before I realized I needed to calculate time zone differences. The website mentioned this, of course, but sometimes you have to learn on your own, and I instantly connected with other virtual attendees on Twitter who made the same mistake.
Balance is important for participation in a live event. Just as in a face-to-face conference setting, you probably won’t be able to attend everything, and that is okay. The key is to block specific times for attendance as well as for checking email and working on other projects. I think we all do this at conferences, but it is even easier to get distracted when you are already at your computer.
Each morning of the conference, take a fresh look at the program and note when you need to log in. Have all of your browser windows, tabs, and social accounts open and ready for action.
Make Your Presence Known
The amount and type of interaction taking place during each session varies, just like it does in real-life depending on who is there, the topic being discussed, and perhaps even the time of day. Through social media, you have the opportunity to connect in multiple ways and be present in the sessions as well as in networking conversations with onsite and online attendees.
Unless you take the lead, however, no one will really know you are there. Ask questions during the sessions and answer those of your fellow attendees. Share links to resources, social updates from other attendees (i.e., retweet, like, +1, favorite), and your own reflections on the presentations. Through the many social media platforms in use during this conference, everyone had the ability to both learn from others’ expertise and share their expertise with others.
Get a feel for the flow of events at the convention center. When are the breaks scheduled? Are there speakers during meals or receptions? Even though these events may not be streamed online, you can respond to those tweeting and posting from the venue and anticipate times when social media traffic will be high or low. Find ways to share what you are doing as onsite participants share their day.
Accept the Challenge
Just as online courses often require a more thoughtful or purposeful approach to participation than traditional courses, making the most of virtual attendance requires focused attention and initiative. You can’t wander through the expo hall or bump into colleagues at the networking break, so you have to take steps to connect.
The Sloan Consortium provided a good deal of encouragement to make connections through well-organized and facilitated social networking activities, which effectively brought onsite and online attendees together. One could earn the status of “Sloan-C Ninja” by participating in five different ways: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and blogging. A social media contest rewarded use of these tools, as well as Google+ and Flickr.
This was my first time as a remote participant at an onsite event, although I had experienced completely online conferences in the past. The social media interaction was a helpful complement to attendance at the live sessions and keynote presentations, which added to the overall value of attending.
While there are benefits to almost all types of professional development and networking, look for opportunities to add virtual conference attendance to your schedule. Then make your own commitment to share the experience, through social media, with your colleagues.