Possibilities of expansive learning at the conference arena?

One of the academic activities that I look forward most is participating in conferences. Conferences are great opportunities for rubbing shoulders with the literature and exchanging ideas and views on the latest research in a specific field. Not only that, conferences can be the right place to expand our learning. Generally, good conferences refresh my thinking and spirit and leave me reflecting on several issues for months. This reflection would trigger new ideas, better and more research. However, the traditional conference format of one presentation after the next one is frustrating! This format allows a minimum of interaction and as Patter says, it is ” just a place to present rather than discuss. The conference organisation is all about maximising the presentations, not the dialogue. Line ‘em up, roll ‘em out.

Unfortunately, ISCAR 2014 followed more and less the same standard conference format. This means that I attended five amazing keynote presentations, several good oral presentations and several other symposium sessions. I was especially moved by the inspiring keynotes of Anna Stetensko and Bonnie Nardie. Both speakers made a call for social commitment in research and to take an activist stance to what is not there yet! Some oral presentations and symposiums were thought provoking and engaging. The research presented here made me reflect on what we could do and haven’t done yet. This conference also contributed to my developing identity as a researcher. I presented my paper and I was bombarded with conflicting ideas and projects that made me expand my thinking much further.All this was good, but could it have been better? Yes, it was based on the principle of ‘show’ and tell’. This is the reason why I got this bitter after taste. The lack of discussion and interaction available in the conference was limited. This is a sort of paradox in a conference of ISCAR, a  society whose underpinning principle is ‘learning through social engagement’.

How can we expand learning in the conference arena?

I hope I can give my feedback to ISCAR 2014 conference and express my gratitude for such an amazing job of organising such a large scale conference, with fantastic keynote speakers and a wide range of topics for the oral presentations and symposium. However, I think it is time to rethink the format of the conference for ISCAR and allow ourself some time to think on how we can expand our learning in the conference setting.There could be different answers for this. One option is to follow what has been recently known as the ‘unconference’. This means that the organisation is speakers’ driven, usually arranged on the web on topics defined by the speakers. This has been successful in technology-based fields at small scale. Although the level of interaction is higher, it can also be messy and does not necessarily lead to engaging participation. Other possibilities could be:

1. To organise smaller and regional events that encourage people interact and engage with one another. Symposiums, round tables, seminars, and workshops in which participants not only present their work, but collectively answer some questions.

2. To create cycles of learning in which participants question,  confront, reflect, propose, suggest, create new concepts and evaluate new ways to do research in a specific field

3. To focus on dilemmas and contradictions present in specific activities of studies an find ways to contribute to make things which are not there yet!

4. To organise events that are more inclusive: more affordable fees, more social activities, subsidies for casual academics, postgraduate students and independent researchers.

5. To organise forums that emerge as the conference takes place.

In conclusion, we need to design a formative intervention and transform the conference to make it a place where expansive learning takes place! 

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About Malba Barahona

Educational researcher, language educator. PhD from Australian National University. Passionate bushwalker and mountain lover. I procrastinate reading fiction, hiking, doing yoga, riding, having a beer and more recently decolonizing my existence. I write in English and Spanish in different blogs especially with the purpose of encouraging my students to write.

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