We’re exhausted by floating heads monologuing at us for a six hour stretch.
The pandemic has forced various industries to pivot their in-person conferences and convenings to virtual platforms. Most have used some form of video-enabled communication to host webinars and panel sessions.
It’s unfair to expect the same level of engagement and interactivity online as an in-person conference because they’re two different and distinct modalities…but, to be honest, we’re exhausted with floating heads monologuing at us for a six hour stretch.
With the virtual world at our fingertips, why are most industries STILL resorting to static webinars, often pre-recorded?
It’s time to completely reimagine conferences.
Let’s first consider what makes conferencing effective and enjoyable — the human-centered components of conferencing.
What we know it shouldn’t be: back to back one-way sessions on broad topics with industry celebrities while most of our focus remains on checking email or making lunch.
We enjoy conferences mainly because we want to connect and learn. Specifically…
- We want to meet other people — both spontaneous and planned networking
- We want learning experiences to be relevant within our context and practical
- We want time with experts and want to share what we know with others
- We want small, hands-on group sessions because they’re stickier
- We want agency to choose what to do and when
- We want to laugh and have a good time
- We want ease of access and efficient organization of events
- We want to be inspired by group energy
In the frenzy of the pandemic, most chose virtual platforms that were easiest to access. But what if we bend the borders of our video calls and re-conceptualize tested platforms that are already human-centered?
Why not host conferences in Minecraft or Fortnite?
Based on the reasons people enjoy conferences, we think there are four essential components to conferencing.
We know networking is one of the main reasons people attend conferences. With a standard, video-enabled platform, it can be difficult to meet new people organically. So, the first thing conference organizers should optimize for are “chance encounters”.
Multiple Activity Types
During in-person conferences, attendees have the option of choosing between a variety of activities — from keynotes to small workshops, to meeting people at the bar, to taking a nap in their hotel room. When virtual conferences consist of back to back webinars, there’s little agency for attendees. Instead, what if attendees could choose their own learning adventure?
Right Size & Right Content
With sliding revenues due to the pandemic, one-size fits all webinars with 1000+ audience members became the cost-effective go-to. Large group energy is important, but we also know small group sessions where participants walk away with concrete applications to push ideas are an integral part of conferencing. A combination of large groups, small groups, macro, and micro content is the way to go.
Access & Wayfinding
If access and wayfinding are done well, attendees barely notice them. The final component we believe conference organizers should consider is operational user experience. The emotional and cognitive landscape of human engagement should be unencumbered by technical discomfort.
Imagine a gamified unconference…
Utilizing the components above, imagine an “un”conference model that allows for chance encounters, enables choice across multiple activities, is facilitated by industry practitioners with applicable content, and provides a seamless and fun virtual experience.
A video gaming platform — one that already enables world creation, dynamic interaction between avatars, exchange of goods and services online (among many other functionalities), and is already tested among millions — would be the perfect conferencing venue. Attendees could collect badges at a professional development workshop or encounter peers at a virtual café.
So we thought we’d try it.
k20 Educators, the social network for global educators, is hosting a human-centered, gamified unconference, on January 9, 2021. Although we haven’t approached the gaming giants, we’ve researched over 100 new virtual platforms and found an up-and-comer with a charming 80’s video-game interface.
Gather.town offers a playful user experience with dynamic functionality. On this platform, we’ve designed a City of Learning with classrooms, a bar, cafe, park, playground, conference hall, labs, treasure, galleries, and more. The City of Learning Education Unconference will focus on Innovation in Remote & Blended Learning and offers 8 human-centered interactions.
- chance encounters: attendees can strike up a conversation with educators from all over the world, as they walk around the City.
- learning labs: In our virtual classrooms, participants can engage in hands-on, live mini-professional learning sessions facilitated by expert practitioners from schools and education organizations.
- k20 talks: Instead of endless passive webinars, we’re offering 20 minute talks with 10 minutes of audience Q&A as well as break out debriefs. Talks are lead by veteran and innovative educators.
- break out groups: At any point, we encourage educators to take advantage of the private tables in the City to sit down with a peer to reflect on the learning at the conference.
- edtech booths: We’ve invited edtech companies offering innovative remote learning products to make life easier for educators — attendees can walk up to a booth and engage with teams as they might at a real conference.
- solo exploration: We’ve planted gems (literally and hypothetically) all over the City with educational resources like lesson plans and videos that support remote or blended instruction as well as a few surprises to evoke the explorer in all attendees.
- tea & teach: The bar and cafe are open for networking! A few of our partners are hosting themed discussions like “educators interested in entrepreneurship”.
- imaginative play: There’s also a playground outfitted with a gaming area, a running area, a reflection grove, and more.
We’re excited to introduce the unique synergy created by the combination of play, expert-led and practical learning, organic networking, exploration, and imagination.
With endless possibilities in the virtual world, it’s time to raise the bar for virtual conferencing and encourage conference organizers to step up their game! Considering what these spaces offer as a way for people to learn and connect, we’re ready for a blended conferencing approach even in a post-pandemic world.
Educators can visit k20educators.com/cityoflearning to register for free.
Article co-authored with Rebecca Upham, nationally known educator and innovator.