Wikis, blogs, podcasts and memory sticks are transforming the ease, reach and interactivity of conferences - and in some cases doing away with a physical event entirely. Stephen Phillips surveys a future that's virtually upon us
As higher education conferences go, they don't come any more technologically savvy than the annual bash of Educause, the US-based group representing international campus information technology staff.
At last October's summit in Orlando, Florida, 7,500 IT personnel from academic institutions across the world assembled to hear the lowdown on the latest nifty gadgetry to advance learning or make campus operations run smoother.
The event itself was pretty high-tech, being one of the first academic conferences to incorporate podcasting. Three conference staff served as roving reporters, grilled delegates and presenters and posted their dispatches on a special conference website as podcasts - audio files people can listen to on computers or download to portable devices such as the Apple iPod.
"[Think of this] as an opportunity to ponder, reflect, kick back... and chat about the day," says Vidya Ananthanarayanan, instructional support manager at Texas's Trinity University, prefacing one of the "nightcap" podcasts from the event archived on the site.
Like seasoned pros, Ananthanarayanan and the other correspondents share their impressions of the educational power of computer games and of the keynote speech given by Scott McNeely, chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems (they pronounce it "inspiring" in parts, but are less keen on the shameless plugs for Sun's computer products).
The website also played host to weblogs, or blogs - online soapboxes allowing people at the event to comment on proceedings directly from the conference floor.
"Well, it is Day 2 and I am blogging live in room W205A and listening to Melissa and Louis describe the University of Minnesota's transition to a (voice over internet protocol) infrastructure," wrote Robert H. McDonald, a librarian at Florida State University, in one entry.
To open things to the wider community of bloggers on the internet, Educause officials engineered links to external sites on which conference participants and observers were also commenting on proceedings.
"It's like getting a chance to... listen to a whole host of hallway conversations that you might otherwise have missed out on," says project leader Matt Pasiewicz.
By all accounts, the innovations were a hit.
"I think I'm getting as much out of the podcasts as I did (from) the conference," wrote Scott Krajewski, liaison for computing for the natural sciences and mathematics at Minneapolis's Augsburg College, in a posting on his Scottblog v.2.0, "a blog about academic computing".
To keep those unable to attend in the loop, video and audio recordings of sessions were also posted on the site.
One conference is taking this technology to its ultimate conclusion: there will be no physical venue at all for April's HigherEd BlogCon. The event will be "the first all-online higher education conference using blogging software", according to Dan Karleen of Thomson Peterson's, the US higher education marketing and publishing company organising it.
Thomson Peterson's expects to post up to 50 papers looking at the marketing possibilities of blogging for campuses on a dedicated website during the month-long web-based conference. "Papers" is a bit of a misnomer. Half the proposed presentations to date are podcasts, audio files or streaming videos, notes Karleen.
To plan the conference, the firm solicited input from interested outside parties using a wiki, an interactive website that allows people to work collaboratively. It is a variant on the open-source model of software development in which a community of contributors chips in suggested additions and modifications to code, Karleen explains.
But while the virtual format might work for a blogging conference, face-to-face networking is likely to remain the norm for most research conferences.
The technology at such conferences might be less flashy, but it is no less important. Visitors to the American Chemical Society's gathering in Atlanta later this month might notice the presenters travelling a little lighter than usual.
The ACS is introducing a new feature - pioneered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at its annual meeting last month - that consigns to history the hassle of presenters lugging around laptops in order to give their presentations.
AAAS speakers were able to bring their materials on a CD-Rom or memory stick and to transfer the data to an on-site networked computer to access during their presentation.
"When they went into the presentation room, there was a conference laptop waiting," explains Leslie Warrick, meetings manager. "They just had to click on their names from an on-screen list of presenters and their presentations came up,"
The ACS system will work similarly, but presenters will upload their speeches to a website for later retrieval.
It may sound mundane compared with the marvels on display at Educause, but with 13,000 delegates delivering 8,000 papers in Atlanta, "it'll vastly simplify logistics," says Richard Love, the ACS's director of meetings technology.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Prince of Asturias professor of Spanish history, Tufts University, US
"I'm not a faithful member of the conference circuit. For most of my career, I couldn't afford to go. When I became widely wanted, clashing obligations tended to keep me away. As a result, whenever I have gone to conferences - or more often small colloquia and symposia - I've appreciated them , listened attentively and learnt a lot.
"There was an event John Elliott organised at the Fundaci"n Duques de Soria, where I got useful exposure to some of the cutting-edge work that Spanish graduate students do; or the Encontros de Mondariz-Balneario, run by the Fundaci"n Carlos Casares. There, practitioners, politicians and public intellectuals mingle with academics, with mind-broadening effect.
"At the most recent meeting, I learnt more about the intelligence background to current events in the Middle East from hearing Miguel Fernández, the former Spanish naval intelligence chief, than from all I've read in books.
"The nearest thing to a life-changing symposium happened when I was a fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences. That admirably inter-disciplinary organisation taught me a deeper understanding of, and respect for, sociology, anthropology and archaeology than I had ever achieved in the company of my fellow historians.
"At a couple of colloquia that Leonard Blusse of Leiden University and I put together, and in related discussions at the institute, my perspectives multiplied as I listened.
"Some people think academic gatherings are just beanos or back-scratching, networking or nothing. Others use them for escape or evasion. David Lodge's Small World conveys truths in jest. But the chance arises to change your mind: no experience is more revivifying or does you more good."