IWMW 2011

July 27, 2011

I’d tried to follow IWMW remotely before, with limited success: a combination of technological difficulties (flaky video streaming, inability to sync video and slides effectively, lack of a good twitter client to follow a specific hashtag) and multitasking difficulties (day-to-day work always gets in the way!) meant that it never felt as satisfying as actually attending the conference.

This year, however, there was absolutely no chance of me attending: I’m currently on maternity leave, and while my 16-week-old baby daughter may be a true digital native, I figured the conference might be a bit much for her. ;-) I hadn’t even planned to try to follow along remotely, but the day of the conference dawned (I was reminded by a Google calendar alert, added optimistically about a year ago!) and I didn’t have any other plans, so I thought I’d dip in to the streaming video and see what I could get out of it. To be honest I expected it to be an even worse experience than previously — streaming video over our home broadband rather than the University’s ethernet, on a laptop or mobile rather than the 19-inch monitor I had at work… and of course trying to look after the baby at the same time!

Looking for the video link on the IWMW website I discovered that the streaming this year would be done through Adobe Connect. I confess I’d never heard of this before, but I’m afraid my heart sank; I feared I’d have to download some kind of awful desktop client which would turn out not to work on my Mac, and so on, and so forth. However when I clicked on the link I was delighted to find that a) it was entirely web based, and b) it all Just Worked: all I had to do was log in as a guest (no tiresome account creation, hurrah!) and I was immediately presented with a page showing the live video, the presentation slides playing through in sync with the video, a live chat session, and a Twitter search for the conference/session hashtags. It was like having the conference in miniature on my laptop — all that was missing was the bar. :-) I’m not normally keen on ’tiled’ displays but it managed to feel uncluttered and easy on the eye, and it was easy to make any panel full-screen (e.g. to see small text on the slides a bit better) and switch back to the tiled display again.

After the initial excitement had worn off I realised that the Twitter feed wasn’t actually a live-updating search, just a static one; but I mentioned this to @iwmwlive on Twitter and it was fixed for the next session — many thanks to Marieke for sorting things out behind the scenes! (Incidentally, nobody seemed to be using the chat log much, but Twitter was clearly fulfilling the backchannel role very effectively.)

A chance remark by @jeremyspeller suggested that there was also an iPad app for Adobe Connect, so I decided to give that a quick try too. Again, it was all surprisingly smooth, though the embedded Twitter panel didn’t work at all there (as it relied on Flash). Also, while I wasn’t expecting the video to keep running audibly in the background while I switched apps, I wasn’t expecting Connect to log me out every time I switched apps (which it did) — I think this would quickly get annoying if I was trying to follow along on the iPad alone, but as it was I could use my Mac or my iPhone* to keep an eye on Twitter at the same time. In the end I moved back to the laptop for the video/slides as that made it easier to watch everything from the sofa while holding the baby!

* I am not being sponsored by Apple to write this post, honest :-)

So much for the experience of the medium; what about the message? To be honest I’ve never been 100% convinced by the “amplified conference” model: while it obviously has its benefits, it seems to encourage attempts to be present in several places at once, which for me inevitably results in not really fully being present in any of them. It can be hard enough just to concentrate on a talk and its associated slides; once you try to follow Twitter at the same time, one of them’s surely going to suffer. Of course, this problem was compounded for me by trying to look after a small baby at the same time! As a result, my overall experience of the conference was rather impressionistic — I felt that I was getting an idea of some of the dominant themes (times are hard for web teams; search is really important; privacy is complicated; “web 2.0” technologies are still important even though we’re still flailing a bit when it comes to explaining how/why they’re most useful to HE…) and I was picking up interesting snippets but I wasn’t coming away with a coherent picture of any of the plenaries (which was a shame as what bits I did pick up sounded really interesting!). It was much like skimming through a series of articles — and, as when I’m skimming, I was mentally earmarking things for revisiting in more depth later, even though I know that I’m unlikely to have time to do so this year.

What would I do differently if I was trying to participate remotely again (apart from hiring a babysitter!)? The main thing I’d do is prepare a bit more — look through the conference schedule, work out what was on when and which bits I was most keen to catch. I’d also set up Tweetdeck or similar in the background mirroring the embedded Twitter search — as it was, every time I wanted to tweet I found I was getting distracted by everything else in my timeline, as my Twitter client wasn’t doing any filtering.

On the whole, though, it was a surprisingly useful experience and I was pleased to feel that I could participate a little bit despite being somewhat “out of the loop” on maternity leave. Kudos to the IWMW11 team for getting everything set up so smoothly!

My view of the conference