Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tools for BackChannel Learning: DevLearn10

Last month I wrote a post about extracting learning from a conference you are not attending. In it I explored a number of ways that non-attendees can learn a great deal, even without attending a conference.

This week, I put much of those theories to practice, following the backchannel for the DevLearn10 conference. This blog posts expands on the recommendation from my previous post by exploring the unique backchannel learning opportunities that may exist at a conference, in this case, DevLearn10.

Explore the Program Guides

Learning from a conference is obviously easier when you actually attend it. Therefore, it's also understandable that a backchannel learner may need to do some extra pre-work to help bridge that learning gap.

One way to do that is by reviewing the conference's program guide before the conference begins. This is an excellent practice for any conference you attend, but I think the importance of this task differs for in-person and backchannel attendance. When you review the conference program for planned attendance, the general perspective is one of 'Which session do I want to attend?" For backchannel learning, the review of the program is a more critical part of the learning process, as it provides a fairly thorough overview of the themes, trends, and ideas being covered at the conference.

Another important part of the program guide review is planning what sessions you want to learn from. This, again, is in some ways even more important for the backchannel learner. When I attend a conference in person, my 'work calendar' for those days consists of something like this:
8:00am - 6:00pm: Attend Conference

It's highly unlikely that my work schedule when learning through the backchannel would read: 8:00am - 6:00pm: Follow Conference Backchannel <-- That's unrealistic in most organizations

It's therefore critical for a backchannel learner to review the program guide in advance, so that they may be able to block out time periods with speakers they may want to learn from. As a personal example, I have many projects I am currently working on, but I blocked out the time period for Marcia Conner's DevLearn10 Keynote.

DevLearn really raised the bar for program guides this year with their excellent program guide app pictured to the left. Powered by EventPilot, this app truly set a high bar for future conferences. Then again, would you expect less from the leading e-learning conference and expo?

The app contained much more than the schedule and details of all the sessions. It also included many other features of value to a backchannel learner, including:

* A live twitter feed of the conference hash tag

* A listing and summary of all of the expo exhibitors

* A great number of presentation slides from each of the sessions, which could be searched upon.

* A home page that features what's happening now

* The ability to take your own notes directly into the application, even linked to specific slides, and then email all of it to a colleague or yourself - nice!

That last bullet point alone made this application tremendously valuable to a backchannel learner. I only wish that I had discovered and explored the app more in advance of the conference so that I could leverage it more during the conference. As it was, it still created tremendous value as I explored it on the fly.

Use a Twitter 'Power Tool'

There are a great number of desktop and online tools that provide additional Twitter functionality not found via Leveraging these tools can greatly enhance backchannel learning.

The tool that I use is one of the most popular: TweetDeck. TweetDeck enables a user to follow multiple Twitter feeds simultaneously. At first glance TweetDeck may seem overwhelming; in reality, it is actually filtering the Twitter stream into more targeted and actionable information. Using TweetDeck, I can simultaneously monitor my primary Twitter feed, as well as various search options.

During DevLearn, I had four primary columns open: My primary feed, my favorites, the DevLearn10 hashtag feed, and mentions. This combination of columns is, for me, the ideal backchannel learning environment. The DevLearn hashtag lists all the conference tweets. As I see something I may want to investigate further at a later time, I can set it as a favorite. If I am actively participating in the backchannel, I can immediately see if people are trying to interact with me via the mentions column.
I highly recommend TweetDeck and tools like it to enhance your general Social Media experience, and consider it to be a prerequisite for backchannel learning. The image below shows the TweetDeck layout I am using during DevLearn10.

Another reason I like TweetDeck is that it very well supports the in-and-out nature of backchannel learning. I can very easily review the tweet stream for a bit, return to my regular work for a period of time, and come back to TweetDeck without missing a beat.

I leverage TweetDeck's 'Clear All' button for this purpose. During DevLearn, I have TweetDeck running as shown in the above image. When I have the opportunity to review the backchannel, I do so. When I need to return to regular work, I click the Clear All button in each column to clear out the tweets. That way, when I return to TweetDeck later, I know anything on my screen is new and I should review.

Engage in Conference Learning Activities

DevLearn10 had a couple of excellent activities that expanded on the learning and engagement of the conference. One such activity that I participated in was called Backchatter.

Backchatter is an interesting game that further engages conference attendees. The idea behind Backchatter is simple: Participants think about the conference and choose the three words that they think will appear most often during the upcoming 60-90 minutes of backchannel. Those words are scored based on how many participants chose the word, and points are earned every time a tweet contains the word.

It was a simple game with real-time scoring that definitely added another leavel of engagement to the conference. It also enhanced backchannel learning.

For one thing, participating in this game put a backchannel participant on almost equal ground with an in-person attendee, at least in relation to the game. It also further enhanced backchannel learning. One basic rule of learning is just as true in the backchannel as it is in any other type of learning: If you are engaged, you have a better chance of learning. Backchatter definitely succeeds at increasing engagement.

Another way that Backchatter contributed to the learning was a subtle part of it's home page. It included a tag cloud that showed the most commonly chosen words of the participants. Like the program guide, this tag cloud provided a glimpse into the overall themes and ideas that were floating through the minds of conference participants.

Search the Hashtag for Tweets with Links

Monitoring a conference backchannel can be time consuming. Doing so live is preferred, as it gives you the option to interact with conference attendees. Unfortunately, that's not always an option.

When time is an issue, that doesn't eliminate backchannel learning. You can make best use of your limited time by performing an advanced search for tweets that provide more detail for your backchannel learning.

In my previous post on learning from a conference you did not attend, I suggested performing an advanced search looking for blog posts about the conference. For DevLearn10, I used a different approach that I think casts a wider, and more effective, net.

Using the advanced search functionality of Twitter (available at, search on the conference hashtag. In addition, if you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the search options, you will see an check box option labelled 'Containing Links'; check that. Here's what the results of such a search look like:

Since most tweets referencing blog posts include a link, this search covers that. It also catches much more valuable information for backchannel learning, including:
  • Photos from the conference, often including pictures of slides being displayed.
  • Links to resources and tools that speakers recommend
  • Links to videos that compliment the conference content.

These are just a few of the techniques that can be used for backchannel learning. I have found them very helpful in enabling me to learn a great deal from the DevLearn10 conference. I hope these tips help you learn from an upcoming conference.

If you have any additional tips for learning via the backchannel, please add it via a comment.

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