Do we really need another conference?

This time of year is my peak time for conferences with (in December, January and February) a number of events I am interested in, including:

  • Online Educa (I have never attended but have followed from a far)
  • CES (which seems to have got a lot more coverage in Britain this year)
  • the UK Blackboard User Group (very relevant in my old role but missed this year)
  • Learning Technology Conference and Exhibition (I have not attended the conference but have visited the exhibition for a number of years) and…
  • BETT (where I have also attended the free exhibition a number of times).

The big change to the above, this year, is that BETT (British Educational Technology Tradeshow) is transforming itself.  Moving from Olympia to the ExCeL, BETT is expanding from its 5-18 year old learner focus with new parallel Higher and Professional Education conferences.  These two events are free although presumably the aim, by filtering applicants this year, is to ensure their success and then sell tickets next year.

The move by BETT is interesting in that they are looking to support learning technology in the wider sense.  Their diagram illustration of this is similar to some of the explanations I have done in the past for how my experience and skill set can be applied and are not specific to industry or the age of the learner ‘customer’.

This change can be seen as a brave move by the organizers of BETT – whilst there has clearly been support for the event in the past (Michael Gove opened it last year; Vince Cable this) – expanding into new areas in the current economic situation seems risqué.  Alternatively, having the event in the same week as the Learning Technology event may cut participants/delegates travel costs as they can ‘make a week of it’ – or it puts BETT in direction position as an alternative (considering many people will only be able to take limited time off work).  Interestingly the Association for Learning Technology are listed within the ‘in association with’ section for the HE event, I did not attend ALT’s own conference last year – partly due to the cost.

On the COLRIC JISCMail list there has recently been a discussion on what words can be used other than ‘conference’ – this got me thinking about what different events are really trying to achieve.

  • conference (mix of sessions [talk, workshops, seminar, etc] but normally talk led with sponsor stalls – in academic spheres conferences will include full ‘papers’ and a focus on research based practice)
  • tradeshow (wider mix of stalls, focus on selling and product developments)
  • symposium (suggestion on the COLRIC list that this might be too American to be widely used in the UK)
  • workshop (interactive with participants ‘doing’ rather than listening)
  • user group (normally smaller than a full-blown conference but with a focus or common thread on a piece of software, theory, methodology, etc)
  • roadshow (demonstrations, presentations, end-user support/training)
  • roundtable (everyone on an equal footing, bar possibly a coordinator, contributing their viewpoint – highly interactive)
  • seminar (singular meeting/discussion often started by a talk/presentation/demo)
  • webinar (singular event or the delivery mechanism for parts of an online conference, user group, etc; usually presentation followed by discussion)

In all of the above examples networking around the ‘event’ is of course a key aspect and online networking (Twitter I am looking at you) will keep the conversation going beyond the physical or scheduled activity.

So are the changes to BETT really needed?  I would say that, especially when I worked in HE, there was no shortage of elearning events and conferences which supported the need for the sector to develop.  A number of years on, some changes are happening (MOOCs being the most obvious) but a lot of talking has failed to really drive change.  Therefore, I set the new BETT conferences, both the HE and corporate events, the challenge of focusing on how attendees can get best practice embedded in their organization – not just agreement between attendees which is all too often ‘preaching to the converted’.

If they fail to do this then BETT remains, as it was before, a networking opportunity, an opportunity to catch up with changes in technology and theory.  But this would mean that in many ways I would feel the HE and corporate strands would risk replicating and repeating other events.  The benefit of attending BETT in the past was to be more aware of the 5-18 (k-12) sector and learn lessons from it.  Pushing people intro the three stands of compulsory, post-compulsory and corporate education will risk loosing that cross-pollination.

Overall, it will be interesting to attend the corporate stream at BETT this year (my other physical event attendance is likely to be limited to the Learning Technologies exhibition) but I would not be surprised if, when I reflect on the week, I decide BETT is best for getting me away from my current sector and engaging with those companies whose primary focus is elsewhere but ideas and technology can be leveraged in corporate training and higher education.

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader ( and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

7 thoughts on “Do we really need another conference?”

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