Kill or Cure: The Future of Learning and Development Conferences

The first Learning and Development conference I ever attended I was the keynote speaker.

True story.

The year was 2012, and I had been asked to keynote on learning through social connection in reference to my work in developing social learning pathways and the building of SocialLearn, which became the basis of discussions behind FutureLearn, how I was to design MOOCs for The Open University for 6 years and the start of a thought experiment that I conducted which then became my doctorate. I had presented internally within meetings at The Open University previously but never to a room full of my peers from the wider community all with their fingers madly typing my thought out soundbites into the Twittersphere.

A real milestone experience.

Since then I have gone on to present globally at a number of Learning and Development conferences as a keynote, a session speaker and on expert panels, but I can categorically state that I have never been busier, or in more demand, that this summer. Why? Because of the pandemic.

The pandemic has brought us many issues to deal with but as Learning and Development (L&D) people it has also brought us two beneficial outcomes; to catalyse L&D online offerings and the change in how we disseminate our thoughts and ideas.

In many ways conferences, though immensely beneficial in terms of knowledge sharing and networking, are a barrier for so many. Time away from the office, from families, the need to travel to the location, the stress of locating suitable accommodation where required, and of course cost. Some conferences are simply out of scope for so many budgets, whether organisational or personal.

So how can online Learning and Development conferences be different?

For a start it removes time and travel barriers, sessions can be listened to whilst working, looking after family members, or when eating toast on the sofa. They don’t require you to dress to impress. They are an introverts dream. They are also an extrovert’s energy stockpile saving grace. It also removes a larger cost barrier, no expensive conference centres to hire, no need to cater for arrival breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffee breaks, or merchandise. It’s also easier to ask a speaker for one hour of their time on the day of the conference, instead of the whole day, so more speakers may be available than before, to present to a wider audience than before.

Granted the networking isn’t currently the same, but given how many of us have made friends with people that we met through various social media platforms over the years, have swapped entire life stories, and yet have never met… it is not impossible. We are just learning the social cues as to how, whilst the conference organisers refine the tools and platforms for us to participate on.

So what happens post pandemic? Do we all revert back to before?Attending actual Learning and Development conferences?

I sincerely hope not.

Why shut off what has become such a big, vibrant, and interactive community that is on the cusp of growing and developing even further?

In the future I would like to see face-to-face conferences have online sessions that run in parallel or alongside. Face-to-face conferences can be exhausting for introverts and extroverts alike. Wouldn’t it be great if you could join a session remotely whilst having a coffee outside of the conference centre, back in the hotel room, or from your desk hundreds of miles away? We don’t have to be there to be present.

In 2018 I had to remote dial into the Learning Technologies conference in London as I was working in Paris the time. I still delivered the presentation to a room full of people, they still got the same knowledge share as they would had I been there in person, and I was still inundated with questions afterwards. Was this a lesser experience? The ten bookings I’ve had since, suggest not. My last webinar, was a clinic, not something usually held in a traditional conference programme, yet I had nearly 200 questions submitted from delegates prior to starting and a colleague had to monitor the chat for questions to ask me as they were coming in thick and fast live too. My LinkedIn inbox was still buzzing days later.

Why would we turn off such a great online learning tool whilst simultaneously advocating online learning?

I argue that the revolution can be televised. The revolution can be brought to you. You will be able to stay home. You will be able to plug and turn it on.

The revolution is live.

And it’s now.

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