A distraction from the distractions: Active learning at academic conferences (Gail Morton)

In this post Gail Morton wonders if a successful academic conference experience begins (in part at least) with the attendee’s state of mind.


Getting ready to watch my first all-online conference, Library 2.0 Worldwide Virtual Conference, “The Wholehearted Librarian, March 2020,” from the comfort of my own home, I was able to leisurely select which presentations I wanted to see live and which ones I wanted to go back to, since they were all recorded.

No distractions.

My first selection was, “Mindfulness in the Public Library: A Secular Buddhist Approach.” I mentally prepared for this presentation and, unlike at a traditional conference, didn’t have to give much thought to such matters as getting there on time or deciding which sessions I would attend and which ones I would have to miss. Instead, the focus was on finding a nice spot in my back yard to sit and watch.

I had my tea in hand and strolled out of the back door in very casual wear. I was unburdened by bags full of swag, snacks filling my pockets, and a balancing act of trying very hard not to spill whatever conference-provided drink was in my cup.

Right after I signed into the video presentation, all the planning I had done came to a screeching halt.

I got a text.

My teenage son, a new driver, had been in a car accident at an intersection not far from our house. No one hurt, car irreparable, Mom needed on scene.

So much for engaging with the Buddhist environment—for now.

In preparing for a no-distraction conference experience, I had neglected the realness of life and care. I quickly realized that there is no such thing as zero distractions no matter the environment —your choosing or not.

I was able to go back after a time. The presentation had been recorded and placed on a  YouTube channel. Though I could not ask questions or chat on the side with other attendees, I could at least watch what I missed, and do it at my own leisure. The online conference provided an environment for live, instant communication but did not rely on it for engagement. That part is up to the presenter and attendee. On my own, I was able to use active learning techniques such as brainstorming and reflection as I considered whether the presentation changed my mind and how I might apply its principles to my own work environment.

As a librarian who has worn many hats over the years, working in reference, archives, circulation, digital libraries, and hospital libraries, I have attended many conferences themed according to my current role or department. I have to be honest, I did not enjoy these. It’s not that the content was boring or that the food was bad. The problem had to do with the logistics of actual attendance.

Am I going to be late? What if I get lost on the way there? Will I be able to find all the rooms I need to get to?

Sometimes I would end up at a session not because it was of interest but because I saw someone there I had not seen in a long time and wanted to say hello. Distractions abounded.  My drink would spill out a little in my hand, or my swag bag would get a hole, or there would be crumbs somewhere in my pocket and now all over my clothes just as the presentation is starting, or . . . I need a distraction from the distractions.

Maybe we all do.

Active learning techniques during a presentation, either provided by the presenter or self-inflicted by the attendee, could really do the trick. My colleagues and I explored this possibility with a panel discussion that became the basis of our article “Changing the habitat at academic conferences: Using a learning ecosystem involving active learning during a panel presentation.”

In the article we discuss the need for a balance between presenter and the attendees for the purpose of creating a learner-focused session. The article laid out some active learning techniques for presenters to consider, such as discussion and brainstorming. But one thing it did not address is the mindfulness that can be adopted by attendees regardless of the choices made by presenters. These methods can be as simple as taking notes, asking questions to ourselves about the presentation, and thinking about what we have learned in the presentation and how this can be applied in the work environment: in other words becoming an active learner.

Whether the session is set up for active learning or the attendee simply has the mindfulness to apply active learning strategies to a more traditional presentation, active learning can make a conference experience more beneficial and engaging. Maybe the key to a successful conference experience isn’t so much picking out the presentation or getting there on time. Maybe it’s the state of mind you are able to create that will make the ideas stick and not fall to the ground like crumbs from your pocket.


Gail 2

Gail Morton is a Research Services Librarian at Mercer University.  She holds an MLIS from the University of South Carolina-Columbia and has worked in academic libraries for over twenty years. Her career has led her into an array of different experiences in library settings, including a digital library, a technical college, and a medical library. At Mercer, she serves in reference and instruction capacities, specializing in the sciences. Her personal experience as a mother to a child diagnosed with autism has led to publications on neurodiversity in Autism Parenting Magazine and Swim Swam, as well as the satirical picture book Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap. Her previous writings on academic conferences have appeared in College and Research Libraries and Georgia Library QuarterlyCheck out the Why Johhny Doesn’t Flap Facebook group. 

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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