Twitter-only conferences can have global impact

The UK's first-ever Twitter-only teaching and learning conference shows academic symposia with international reach can be organised on a shoestring, say Natalie Lafferty and Pat Lockley

April 17, 2018
Twitter logo above silhouettes of people in discussion

Academic conferences have been a staple of academic life for decades, but attending them has become increasingly challenging.

With the required funding for fees, travel and accommodation becoming scarce, it is not uncommon to instead follow a conference hashtag from afar via Tweetdeck.

Last month PressED became the first teaching and learning conference to conduct its entire proceedings on Twitter, enabling anyone, anywhere to attend.

#PressEDconf18 ran over the course of 13 hours on 29 March. As its closing keynote speaker Jim Groom highlighted, this was the first conference he had attended that was the hashtag.  

#PressEDconf18 drew in more than 40 presenters, including people from the University of British Columbia, the University of Cambridge, CUNY and the University of Edinburgh.  

We conceived the idea for PressED six years ago, thanks to our shared interest in open education practice and WordPress, the open source platform most synonymous with blogging.

Their conference plans were, however, hindered by a lack of funding until we came across the Public Archeology Conference, which ran on Twitter in November 2017.  That showed how PressED could run on Twitter and open up to an international audience.

With a touch of nervousness, we approached six potential keynote speakers, unsure of how they might respond to being invited to take part in a conference on Twitter and deliver a keynote talk.  Thankfully, one by one the keynote invitees, Gurminder K. Bhambra, Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan, Derek Robertson, Pat Thomson and Jim Groom responded positively and the conference started to become a reality.  

Managing the conference was almost entirely coordinated via the conference website built on WordPress. Session submission, peer review and scheduling all took place on it. The call for session presenters was promoted through various Jisc mailing lists and Twitter. A couple of #pressEDconf18 Twitter chats proved particularly effective in raising interest, as did a dedicated #LTHEchat. 

Any nervousness on the day of the conference was quickly allayed as the first keynote and sessions ran without incident. Each session was 15 minutes long and brought in professors, researchers and students to tweet about how they use WordPress for teaching, learning and research.

Topics ranged from using WordPress to create open courses, open textbooks and eportfolios to using WordPress for university special collections. Solutions such as learndash, learnpress, H5P and CampusPress also featured.

Unlike Twitter chats, where the volume of tweets shared simultaneously can lead to cognitive overload, conference sessions were evenly paced at one tweet per minute allowing the audience to take in supporting images, gifs, links and videos.

With each session archived in a Twitter moment and embedded into the schedule on the conference website, the entire proceedings remain openly accessible and anyone can instantly connect with a presenter.

The response to PressED has been overwhelmingly positive. One New York-based attendee called it “awesome”, noting how no one “went over their time, nobody offered more of a comment than a question, nobody had to fly out of LGA or submit receipts, and all links and models referenced were immediately archived”.

As a result of many such statements, we will run the conference again in 2019.

The first tweet of the conference keynote by the University of Sussex’s Gurminder K Bhambra had over 11,000 impressions on Twitter.

For that level of exposure you’d be thinking a stadium rock TED talk. You’d be thinking budgets, green rooms, spotlights and vast sums of money. You would not be thinking $12 of web hosting and a hashtag.

Natalie Lafferty is the head of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Technology and Innovation in Learning. Pat Lockley is an academic technologist for Pgogy Webstuff.

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Reader's comments (2)

I organised and hosted a Twitter conference at the start of the year on behalf of The Underpinnings Museum, and it was a great way to share academic research with a wider audience. I'm very glad to hear that more institutions are considering it as a format, as it makes conference participation so much more accessible!
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