I should probably be promoting online conferences. After all the company I work for has a great online meeting tool called LiveMeeting. But while I use LiveMeeting regularly – several times a week – and like it a lot there is a difference between a meeting and a conference. A conference is in theory a bunch of meetings. Some concurrent and some not but a discrete set of meetings or presentations. Ideal for online right/ I’m not so sure.
Online conferences are popular these days and rightly so. They save a fortune in travel expenses. No flights to book, no hotels to find rooms in, no expensive restaurants too eat in. In these days of tight budgets they seem like the answer. To some extent they are. On the other hand things happen at “in real life” conferences that don’t happen in online conferences. Though to some extent that is changing and may change more in the future because of backchannels.
Let me give you an example. I was waiting in the lobby of the SIGCSE hotel for a cab to the airport last Sunday and a number of participants were talking. One mentioned Kodu which Microsoft had been demonstrating at the booth. Not everyone had seen it though. So I volunteered to do a little demo when we got to the airport. Yes I do carry an Xbox 360 controller in my laptop carrying case. Doesn’t everyone?
At the airport I wound up doing a short demo for about four teachers and we had a good discussion about the possibilities. That seems unlikely to happen at an online conference. Today at least. Perhaps soon. But even then how do people stumble across a conversation that is taking place out of band of the rest of the conference?
And than there are meal conversations. Sometimes a pseudo random of conference attendees find themselves going to eat together. That happened to me last Saturday night as I found myself wandering Chattanooga with four professors from four different universities from four widely disparate parts of the country. The conversation was wide ranging and highly interesting. Most of it had little if anything to do with the conference though. Still it was fun and a growth experience for me. OK it was mostly fun. But I think those are the sorts of conversations that make us more well-rounded, interesting and help create bonds and friendships. It’s hard to see that happening at an online conference.
Now I’m not saying anything negative about online. I think that for training, for meetings around a goal, and for many other things they are create. But they are not yet the end all and be all. Schools should still be looking to send people to live conferences. And that’s even before I talk about the value of the exhibit hall!
Speaking of exhibit halls – the exhibits at SIGCSE were diminished again this year. A trend that may get worse before it gets better. I think that is a shame on several levels. One is that the money conferences get from exhibitors helps to keep the costs lower for attendees. But another is that exhibits give vendors and customers a chance to dialogue in a way they don’t otherwise get. People get to ask questions and dig into motivations and futures in ways that don’t happen via a web page or a brochure or even an online demo.
People may not buy at a conference but seeds are sown and products are influenced by these interactions. And you sure can get a lot of information in a short time at a conference. I used to almost have to bring a second suitcase to bring stuff home from the NECC exhibit hall.
So what do you think? Are online conferences going to be the death of in person conferences or will the two continue in parallel for a long time to come? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of each?