Sponges and Participants

Earlier this week Scott McLeod wrote a somewhat critical blog post (NECC - Vendor excess (aka Do pink Cadillacs really sell printers?)) about the exhibit hall at NECC. It was a thought provoking post not the least because I was working for an exhibitor at NECC. What I concluded was that there are several types of people who come to conferences like NECC. I loosely named them Sponges and Participants. I’m not completely happy with the terms because everyone participates and everyone is out to soak up as much as they can but bare with me.

Sponges have as their main goal to soak up as much information, pick up as much literature, get as many ideas as possible and learn about all the things they didn’t have (critics would say make) time to learn during the school year. Once they get home others may “squeeze” them to get some of that learning out of them. Others (see my trouble maker post) will work hard to spread the information over objections. These people love the exhibit hall. Besides attending all the sessions they can and listening intently the also comb the exhibit hall for ideas and information. These are the people the exhibitors want to attract. At a conference as huge as NECC and only limited time in the day exhibitors need those eyes and hears to make their pitches. The pitches are often brief and buzzword filled “elevator pitches” because no one will listen long. They want to get to the next booth. Someone who does want to talk in depth may find that the exhibitors knowledge is not very deep or that they don’t have as much knowledge of education as one might like. These are the exhibit staff the “participants” find frustrating but more on that in a second. For many people this doesn’t matter. They will do more homework later on the Internet or perhaps call a salesperson later if the ideas gel for them.

The people I call participants are more active in their attendance. They are asking all sorts of questions – often deep questions – at the sessions and at the booths they visit. These are the people who hang out at the blogger cafe talking at length to experts and other people trying to learn and understand deeply. These people also tend to be the people who engage in conversations (usually online in blogs, Twitter, nings and other discussion forums). These people are at NECC for the conversations and the networking – growing their personal learning network. The emphasis on glitz, glitter and fast sales pitches do not work for these people. They are their to share and to engage in high bandwidth conversations that are not possible online.

I think in some ways these two groups exist in separate realities at a conference like NECC. I would not suggest that one way is right/better and the other is wrong/worse though. I would say that different people have different needs. Participants seem  to feel more at home at conferences like EduBloggerCon and wonder out loud why NECC can’t be an unconference. The sponges often (though not always – teachers are fearless) feel uncomfortable with the idea of an unconference. They like structure. They want to listen. The sessions and exhibit hall at NECC work for them. Good for them for coming – often on their own money.

Either way NECC is big enough for both groups. Kudos to ISTE for facilitating the blogger cafe (although we’ll need more chairs and power next year). Participants are often the bleeding edge speakers and presenters that the sponges are there to learn from and we can’t afford to drive them away. We also need the multitude of sponges to bring ideas back to their schools. We’re all in this together.

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