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Conferences as learning communities: some early lessons in using ‘back-channel’ technologies at an academic conference – distributed intelligence or divided attention?

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Most, if not all, researchers attend conferences as a part of their practice, and yet it is an under-researched activity. Little attention has been paid either to developing a theoretically informed understanding of conference practice as knowledge building, or to assessing the extent to which conferences are successful. This paper addresses these issues in the context of a small empirical study of the introduction of mobile, interactive (‘back-channel’) technologies into a conference setting. Science studies and learning theories literatures are used to develop an eight-point statement describing the aims of an idealised conference. This is then used as a framework through which to make sense of what happened when ‘back-channel’ technologies such as internet relay chat (IRC) and blogging were introduced into the 2004 Colston Symposium ‘The Evolution of Learning and Web Technologies: Survival of the Fittest?’. Focusing on sequential issues and the conference as a forum for knowledge building, the analysis shows that conference order is disrupted by the introduction of the back-channel technologies. Nevertheless, other pressures on academic and professional practice (the governance agenda, calls for greater collaboration and a more consensual approach, and so on) suggest that the potential of the new technologies to help open up the black box of scientific and professional practice will be seen as increasingly important. If these tools are to be used effectively in the future, conferences will need to be supported by new skills and practices.
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Keywords: conference; interactive technology; knowledge building; mobile technology; order; sequence

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: JISC Executive, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK 2: Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

Publication date: October 1, 2005

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