This week I attended the AcademiX 2010 – Webcast exploring how open access is transforming learning in higher ed sponsored by Apple. The main conference was live at MIT and Northwestern University. I attended virtually at Marquette. I was joined by our technical support and multi-media specialist as well as the University Photographer. All of us sat around the Wakerly and watched on the 52″ LCD panel I use for training. It began as any technology conference will, with a few glitches, but soon things were up and running smoothly. We paid attention as the speakers covered topics on how Mac technologies are being used to enhance education.
The webinar encouraged attendees to Tweet or follow the conference on iPhones, iPods and iPads. My research for my PhD focuses on the use of technology to assist with social skills so this was an important opportunity for me to experience first hand how the disconnect of immediate response to social cues (facial expressions of other attendees), and disconnected interaction would have on my interest in continuing with the topic.
I watched as members of our small group (I had invited the entire college, but being the last day of classes may have kept many away) listened to the first speaker. One person ‘tweeted’ the major concepts, the other two periodically grunted or nodded in agreement to the presenter.
As for me, I found myself looking around the room, and allowing my mind to wander into areas of how the information could be used in our classes on campus. I thought about using an iPad to discuss news web sites, look at online magazine design, or communicate with colleagues across the country. By the start of the third speaker I was longing for some hard – hands on activities and wishing we had a bigger chance for talk back or break out sessions to discuss what we had learned. In fact, all the information was beginning to blend together. I definitely felt disconnected from the communication process. With little interaction and normal attention that would be at a face to face conference, our group began to discuss on our own and the voices of the online speakers faded into the background. Our conversations and discussion on how to best share this information became a bigger draw than the discussion on-screen. So much so, that after the lunch break, none of the prior attendees returned.
What does this tell me? One thing I remember from my communication course in my early academic career, is that it is a two-way street, with information being sent, received, and replied. That last step was missing for our group. We could have sent in questions or comments for use in the afternoon session of the conference, but without knowing when and how our information would be used it was difficult to feel a part of the conversation. Our small group turned away from the screen to see faces, body language, and physical response from each other. The human nature, even in this type of setting, looks for acceptance or rejection of ideas in a larger way than just comments on a screen.
Does that mean that my research for social acceptance via online communities is lost? Not necessarily, for the group I am working with, Autism Spectrum Disorders, does not function in the general anticipated path. If anything, this helps to strengthen my claim. Most individuals on the spectrum avoid eye contact and can’t read body language, so for them, this type of interaction may be preferred.
It will be interesting as I move forward to reflect on this conference and hold a similar opportunity for individuals on the spectrum to see if there is any change in participation.
In any event, the four of us felt that the conference needed to be more interactive. Even though technology has advanced to this point, to allow us all to attend a conference and not break the budget (free conference, no travel, no meals, no lodging) it still needs to advance the interactive component to hold the audience’s attention and make them feel more of a part of the event.