BCEdOnline UnKeynote Debriefing

I’m sitting in the airport in Vancouver (and later on the plane coming home) and wanted to capture some of the thoughts I have about how the keynote went. I’m absolutely exhausted, so I’m not sure how coherent this is going to be, but it’s important to get this down before it’s glossed over and starts to fade away.

Some context – this was my first keynote as presenter (well, co-presenter), so I was a bit intimidated by that. I’ve been part of (and have given) presentations to very large groups, but never as Keynote Presenter™. Our ideas about what the keynote should be about all revolved around topics involving individual autonomy and control of content and learning, of ownership, and of thinking critically about the nature of relationships between students and teachers, as well as with institutions. Education vs. learning. Individual vs. institutional. Some potentially radical and non-traditional keynote topics, which would be completely unsuited to a conventional powerpoint chalk-and-talk presentation.

We had been joking about going into the keynote unprepared – I think mostly to mask nervousness about taking such a big risk with a “keynote” session. The three of us have been tossing around ideas and spit-balling what we’d like to do in the session for a couple of weeks – hoping to generate a level of discomfort and disorientation in the attendees – that this session belongs to them, not us. That learning belongs to the individual, not the institution. That they are in control of what they do, as are their students.

It was easily the scariest and highest “risk” sessions I’ve ever been involved in. We all knew going in that there was a real chance of some pretty dramatic “failure” if the people in the audience didn’t engage.

The first 20 minutes of the session were sheer torture (ironically, amplified by the fact that the microphones Just Didn’t Work™). We started by coming off the stage to emphasize that the session wasn’t “ours”. We all had wireless microphones, and were trying to wander, to solicit some form of involvement. We set up a web-based chat room to serve as a back channel, and left that on the Big Screen to help direct the session (I’ll come back to that later).

At first, every single attendee looked freaked out, uncomfortable, and wondering what the hell was going on. Why wasn’t there a powerpoint on the screen? Why are these jokers just wandering around? What’s going on? This is the lamest thing I’ve ever seen! What are they DOING? What a waste of time…

After the initial uncomfortableness wore off a little, people started to get into it. Certainly not everyone. The feeling of discomfort in the room was pretty tangible. I wound up subconsciously moving back closer to the stage to provide a semblance of a traditional keynote, I suppose trying to put people a bit at ease. Or, it might have been to put myself at ease.

This was by far the riskiest thing I’ve ever done professionally. I parachuted into Vancouver, and attempted to lead/herd 500(?) strangers into some form of guided anarchy. I was so far outside of my comfort zone it wasn’t even funny, fighting the urge to just bolt from the room. What the hell were we thinking?

And then it felt like it started to gel, at least for a portion of the audience. Some extremely interesting points were raised, and answered by responses from other attendees. We shifted to more of a Phil Donohue role, running with the microphones to people who wanted to speak up. Not everyone got engaged, but enough to drive the conversation forward.

For the last quarter of the session, we started to get some momentum. Questions and responses started to pile up, and I stopped hogging the microphone as much. If we’d had an extra 15 minutes, I think most people would have reached a level of comfort with what was going on so they would have gotten more out of the session. It didn’t hurt that everyone stayed seated for the iPod door prize draws.

The web chat back channel served an invaluable purpose. People were able to anonymously put “huh?”, or “what are they TALKING about?”, or “talk about GLU!” comments (etc…) up on the big screen, helping to guide the session. I think that open back channel helped to save the session, as it helped us get a better feel for what the Audience was going through. I’ll be keeping an archive of that chat transcript available to serve as reference later.

One thing I realized is that it is extremely hard to read an audience that size. A small group is easy to read. You can make eye contact. You can hear comments, rustling, shifting. You can see attention diverting. But in a room with several hundred people, it is hard to get a feel for what is going on. Even when someone was talking, it was quite hard to spot them in the sea of attendees.

So, what are the lessons learned from this?

  • Open, anonymous back channels are insanely important to helping to keep a finger on the pulse of a Large Audience. The anonymity is important because people don’t have to worry about offending by saying something’s gone off the tracks, or is boring, or just by suggesting a topic without having to be put on the spot with a microphone shoved in their face. Having a working wireless network, and an audience with capable laptops, definitely helped here. But not everyone had a laptop. This works out something like “clickers” on steroids, and could be a useful strategy for other presentations, or in the classroom in general.
  • The audience was too large for this kind of activity. Even half the size would have been better. This was approximately the same activity we’d run at both the Social Software Salon and Edublogger Hootenanny, but those events had participant counts around 12-ish and 50-ish, respectively. I hold those previous events as the best sessions I’ve ever been involved with, and am extremely proud of what we were able to do. That chemistry just didn’t happen during this keynote. Perhaps the audience-is-the-presentation model doesn’t scale to 300-500 people? More thought needed on this…
  • Defining a narrower topic or series of topics is important. We’d set up the wiki page, but failed to fall back on it when the audience wasn’t engaging – we were perhaps overcommitted to drawing the audience out? Back to the Salon and Hootenanny – both had (comparatively) narrow topics well defined ahead of time. We’d tried to do that with the wiki page, but didn’t successfully fall back on it when things didn’t move forward fast enough.

In the final conclusion, I felt the session was both a success and a failure. I personally rated it at 5/10. Stephen gave it a 6/10. That’s not great. I’m not used to that. But, I think that it’s actually a good thing. I’d been staying inside my comfort zone way too long. It’s crucial to stretch out and try new things. Failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Worst case scenario, we modeled some risk-taking behaviour for the attendees, and survived the experience. Best case scenario, some of the attendees will have walked away with the seeds of some important new ideas waiting to germinate sometime in the future. No way to track that, though.

Am I going to be a little gun-shy about doing a session like this again? Probably. I’ll have to put some thought into how to ensure the session remains useful and interesting for everyone. It’s not acceptable to just push forward, knowing that half the audience is not with you (or, you’re not with them).

After the session, we schlepped our exhausted carcasses across the street to a hole-in-the-wall pub for debriefing. The discussion that Stephen, Brian and myself had there over a few brews was worth the trip and the risk all by itself. I’ve been needing that discussion for a long time, and am feeling a renewed sense of energy that I hope will last for a while. I think I will benefit a lot from learning about Stephen’s walkabout, as well as Brian’s thoughts and feedback. Thanks for that. You are both true friends, in every sense.

Update: Added a link to the audio recorded by Stephen.

28 thoughts on “BCEdOnline UnKeynote Debriefing”

  1. […] One of the great comments on my BCEdOnline2006 Unkeynote Debriefing included a link to a wiki page by Chris Corrigan on Open Space Technology – a set of ideas, practices and guidelines for conducting “open space” meetings. Very cool stuff, and it resonated quite well with what we got to do as part of Northern Voice 2006 – specifically the Social Software Salon and the Edublogger Hootenanny. I finally had a chance to go through the linked wiki page, and it’s chock full of goodness. I don’t think it has to go as far down the kumbaya spectrum as Chris describes – even just the arrangement of the chairs sends a powerful message and sets expectations. When they work, open space meetings are incredible. Dynamic, interesting, engaging. […]

  2. Salvor, there has to be some level of trust and professionalism/responsibility for this to work. Something that should be expected in the classroom, and absolutely should be expected at a professional conference. Mena got slammed by some immature rantfactories, which was wrong. In our context, though, that would be a teachable moment, and the session would stop to address that…

  3. I do not think backchannel is always useful. Perhaps it is useful when the audience is mostly educators. But when the backchannel iis mostly arrogant and bored journalists eager to make the grasp attention from the lecturers it can be strange. I attended the Les Blogs 2.0 conference in Paris in December. After the conference the event that got most attention was when one lecturer (Lena Trott) lost patience over one contributer (BigBen). Many bloggers – even those who had not attended the conference blogged about this for days – it was at that time one of the top searches on Technorati.

    Here are links about two of me blog posts about this:

  4. Nancy, that’s what the session sounded like 🙂 – actually, I’m guessing it’s a bug in the flash MP3 player, having difficulty with the sample rate that Stephen used (or something like that). As Gerry mentioned, downloading the MP3 itself should work fine. I’ll look into re-encoding a version of the file so that it plays in the flash player.

  5. I thought the whole thing was a very clever idea. The issues Colleen raises though are important ones. As I write this I feel the tension between the truth of what Colleen writes and D’Arcy’s reply about wanting to hear the voices of those who are not usually part of this conversation. I’m not really sure how to resolve that.

    I thought the live chat feature was a great way to include the participation of a larger audience. (Although I found it hard to follow the thread of the conversation there.) Something that would have been of great value to me as a remote participant would have been an audio feed. Maybe something along the lines of what the Worldbridges guys do. Stephen has a knack for saying provocative things (I’m still digesting his “Conversation” podcast.); capitalize on that. Here’s the picture in my head:

    • Unkeynote moderated by folks like D’Arcy, Brian and Stephan.
    • Regular reference to the topics outlined in the pre-talk wiki but flexible enough to depart from it if that’s what folks want to do.
    • Live chat, posted up on a wall; BIG.
    • Live audio feed for remote participants.
    • When things go a little flat have a bag of “provocative” observations to engage (enrage?) the folks who usually just like to listen.

    Maybe the tension between what Colleen and D’Arcy were saying is to entice (as opposed to conscript(?)) the participation of those that are normally more reserved.

    One of the things that I most appreciate (and find most instructive) about what you guys do is the transparency with which you do it. Thanks for continuing to model that kind of sharing.

  6. This is really interesting D’Arcy and thanks for doing this while it is still fresh and raw … frawt.

    It sounds very much that you gave everyone a shake up – something education at all levels (K-12, college/uni) needs badly. I’m really glad you all took this risk. It has definitely got me thinking. I wonder how different this would have been with a Northern Voice audience … or more importantly an audience of students. I suspect the adjustment would have been a lot quicker. Maybe it’s time to bring students much more into the audience and not just a handful on the occasional panel.

    Look forward to hearing more from you and Brian … am presuming Stephen is staying offline in terms of posting for now.

  7. Daily Edublogging Update — April 21, 2006

    Here’s a summary of ideas and conversations from the edublogging community that have captured our attention in the past 48 hours.
    The discussion regarding Internet filtering and censorship continues with Doug Johnson posting his ideas about how to add…

  8. Wow, gutsy of you guys to pull that off. The free-form approach sounds a bit like on-the-fly Open Space facilitation, but without the specific methodology.

    I can relate to the audience discomfort — even though one of the main reasons to attend any conference is to meet people, I just cringe and look for exits when a session looks to be turning into group work. If you expect an active workshop, it’s fine (and the introverts will just avoid those sessions), but if you’re expecting to only listen and think and take some notes, it’s disruptive to find that you’re suddenly a participant. I wonder if your audience was prepared for the experience…

  9. Jeremy, that was kind of the point, though. We were hoping to avoid audience self-selection, which would have resulted in nothing better than an echo chamber…

  10. Right…and I guess for a keynote, there aren’t usually other options. But doesn’t that sort of self-selection still reign when only the extroverts and experts are willing to really participate?

  11. True, but I think exposure to those who would have otherwise opted out was still an important goal. Not sure how that worked out, though.

  12. Giving people more than they bargained for is usually a good thing. I’m sure many learned something they weren’t expecting, perhaps even about the process itself.

    The main thing I love about your approach is that it really does model the future of learning — giving responsibility to learners, offering support and being open to learning yourself. The fact that it is a little messy and uncomfortable just means that it’s new…not that it isn’t the right thing to do. Real learning is always a bit uncomfortable for me, even when I’m by myself — it requires acknowledging that I’m ignorant, a beginner or lacking something I need before starting down the path of learning.

  13. Having attended the session, I think your comments are pretty much right on, but I do think both you and Stephen are being a little too hard on yourselves. It was a large group, and for many of them it was their first experience at an educational technology type conference. After the slow start, I think people did take control of the agenda and that conversations were of interest to most. I particularly enjoyed the log and quickie comment from the member from the rural community and I agree about the usefulness of the “back channel”. I had iChat on during the whole conference and had an invite to a “room” displayed in my status message with a hope that folks would pick that up through Bonjour. I know that iChat limits the audience so, so you solution was much better and effective.

    Good job on a risky adventure! BTW—I never heard any negative comments, which is not true about one of the other keynote sessions—keep in mind that I did head for the airport immediately after you were done, ; >)

  14. The more I thought about the session the more it becomes an analogy for the larger education, technology and learning environment; the discomfort, the hesitant first steps, the majority sitting on the sidelines, skeptisism and the general uncertainity about the end result.

    The session, like all experiences are singular – we really can’t go back and measure what would have happened it we had decided to go a different way. All I know is my brain is different now that it was 5 min before that session.

  15. I was an attendee at the session as well. The experience will not be forgotten and this cannot be said about one of the other presentations. Thank you for getting us out of our comfort zone. You have us thinking…

  16. This reminded me of the large lecture hall classes that I took as an undergraduate. They were epitome of the “sage on the stage”. I continually tried to engage the teacher in discussion but it was very hard to make them leave the stage and truly become “a guide by the side”.

    I wish i could have been there to hear it. I would have loved to engage with you. Always make the teacher “check their data” 🙂


  17. Your panel indeed was brave to ‘walk the talk’ regarding the social and collaborative nature of knowledge. Having said that, I think we need to do much more research on how to collect and come to consensus on knowledge besides free for all. It’s great that you were willing to take risk and begin to analyze the reasons that human experiments may fail. Hopefully, your experience will create thoughtfulness in others contemplating the same and not repeat experiment.

    I don’t think it’s fair to the audience, or audiences of the future, to write this off as a righteous ‘shake up’ of old ways of experience, pace dear and smart Nick. I admit that too often I spend much of my cognitive processing on email and surfing at keynotes, but NOT when they have something to say. Stephen’s keynote to NLII a number of years ago changed the way I thought about teaching and learning. I think that’s why an organization pays for the travel + of a keynote.

    When the keynote then turns it over to any and all takers in audience (poor, tired, huddling masses yearning for their moment on the stage), a piece and part of the keynote’s responsibility has been forsaken. If I wanted to hear any/every man tell me their problems, questions, insights…I’d not seek out or attend the keynote.

    I think that understanding what an audience wants and expects, and meeting and exceeding those expectations, is part of the performance contract between speaker, org, and attendee. Including the audience via technology is bonus. Forfeiting role as keynote and making every voice equal, despite the fact that they didn’t earn equal time on my schedule? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

  18. Colleen, I didn’t mean to sound righteous and am sorry it came across that way. But I am feeling very frustrated … maybe desperate … with education as it is today. If it doesn’t get a shake up (and I include myself in that) then we are not going to have much of a future as a planet. So I am very happy to hear about D’Arcy, Brian and Stephen’s risk taking. It got me thinking about how I usually don’t take risks with classes until I’ve established trust with them (often a few weeks into a course) but the two times so far that I have done something very different from the start, the reaction was very negative. But waiting a few weeks is not really moving things forward. I’ve still a lot to learn about how to facilitate more rapid transitions from people’s expectations of ‘ritual events’ like courses (or keynotes for that matter).

    And D’Arcy, just posted by Dave Winer on Scripting News, part of a post of his from two years ago about the Unconference …

    “Two years ago today: “The problem with most conferences is that the intelligence is sitting in the dark with its hands folded, falling asleep while a bunch of idiots on stage with PowerPoints talking nonsense because they are so scared they need crutches to keep from having a nervous breakdown.””

    You guys were definitely trying something 180 degrees from this ‘ritual’ as Dave Winer was arguing for two years ago.

  19. […] What more need I say – follow the link, already! I haven’t even listened to it yet, but I know that its going to be some seriously good stuff. Also check out the audio from the UnKeynote from Stephen. D’Arcy also has reflections/braindump, and Brian provides the requisite levity. […]

  20. Nick: Hello Hong Kong!

    Let me try again. Desperate and frustrated longing for transformation of education is where I live. Righteous (in the biblical sense of passion for doing right)… I’m in, but ‘shake up’, I wasn’t so sure. Darcy is being very generous in putting his experience/experiment/choices under careful assessment lens and I responded with hurrah for principles of collective construction, not so much for tossing responsibilities and expectations.

    Case study in creating audience discomfort, frustration, feelings of ‘un-knowledge’ as education didn’t so much work for me, but I’m sure that’s partly because I’m not that kind of learner. Hated Donahue. Ditto Springer.

    I think that building trust before asking others to take risks is the right thing to do. Self-selection SHOULD be a choice for participants. Introvert discomfort and exposure as important goal? I’m uncomfortable with that learning desging. Doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t redefine the classroom, but in research, if you’re going to do human subject experiments, you need to have thought it out and done IRB. And once approved, you still need subject consent forms.

    If you’ve got a ‘freaked out, uncomfortable’ audience, I wonder if we shouldn’t start doing the same in learning experiments?

  21. Thanks for sharing your thoughts EVERYONE. Small question. When I try to listen to the recording, it comes out only at chipmunk speed. Is it just me?? 🙂

  22. Nancy, I get the chipmunk version when I click on the Listen Now or PLay in Popup versions, but it seems OK if you click on download.

  23. One of the key points for me from this discussion is about managing participant expectations.

    D’Arcy does this resonate with you (and Brian and Stephen)? In terms of managing expectations prior and during to the session, is there anything you might do differently?

  24. Darren – I think you’re right, in that a stronger “remote” presense would benefit everyone. An audio feed would have been great, but given that the audio barely worked within the room, I think that would have been a longshot…

    Nick – totally agree. Expectation management is key. We didn’t prepare the attendees properly before the session – well, the “early adopter” folks saw our blog posts and the wiki page, but no “normal” people did.

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