Reflections on Technology Planning for the Watson Conference

Whoa. That was a little crazy. Almost 300 conference presenters, and most of them needing some some sort of technology interaction:

  • Mac, XP, and Vista connectivity to portable and stationary projectors of all sorts.
  • Vista laptop compatibility with various types of files including cross platform/versions of PowerPoint, SecondLife, FlashPlayer, Widows Media Player, Quicktime, RealPlayer, MindManager, and Skype.
  • Requests for sound systems to accompany audio-rich presentations to accommodate turntables, a grand piano, and MIDI synthesizers.
  • An interactive multimedia installation, a temporary internet-ready media lab for digital storytelling production, and a gallery of digital texts with plasma screens and custom user interfaces.
  • Temporary wireless access for almost 400 conference participants.

And we needed to deal with these requirements at various times, in various places, over the course of three days.

Looking back on it now, the list seems pretty daunting. Immediately I have the impulse to make three very important points:

  1. Melissa Perkins. She was absolutely essential to making all of this work. Her attention to detail and experience with prior conferences was other-worldly. Her willingness to seek out and accept advice about these challenges was inspiring. No way could we have accomplished this without her.
  2. Volunteers. We don’t have a huge program here at UofL. When I sent out a couple of requests for volunteers on our listserv. The response was quick and solid. Our grad students (and some of their spouses, even!) were incredibly generous with their time and patience. We had a team of more than twenty volunteers working on just the technology challenges of the conference.
  3. Money. The Watson Conference is blessed with a generous endowment. And because that endowment has been well-managed for quite some time, we were luck enough this year to be able to afford equipment purchases and rentals that helped to meet the needs of this year’s conference.

I wanted to offer some reflections on some of the strategies we explored with our volunteers.

  1. Flexible, fine-grained scheduling. Graduate students are busy. No secret. Most of them are healthy enough to be protective of their time. So, when we recruited volunteers for this conference, we wanted to respect those conditions. We decided that we wouldn’t ask for day-long, or conference-long commitments. Who has that kind of time to offer? Instead, we tried to conceptualize the most flexible and detailed plan we could. We really only needed assistance delivering and picking up equipment, so we only requested people’s time before and after given sessions. That way they could choose a session they were already planning to attend, and volunteer before and after the session. The commitment was minimal. Volunteers were really generous. This certainly added to the complexity of our planning, but the payoff in increased volunteering was totally worth it.
  2. Minimize anxieties and responsibilities. There were a couple of things we wanted our volunteers to prioritize. First, they were not responsible for any sort of troubleshooting. If something doesn’t work, they could call one of our more tech-savvy volunteers for assistance, give it a shot themselves, or ask those presenters already milling about for some help. Second, it wasn’t their responsibility to get sessions started on time. Third, since each technical support volunteer was responsible for multiple rooms every session, we asked that they ask for a volunteer to babysit the equipment until they can return for it. We really didn’t know how this stuff was going to pan out, but we were working on the assumption that everyone involved in the conference wanted it to work out. Presenters wanted their equipment to work, so we did our best to LET them get it to work. Presenters and audience members want the sessions to begin on time. We let them help us make that happen.
  3. Communicate a payoff for volunteers. When we sent out the volunteer requests, we wanted to appeal to more than just the generosity of our grad students. We tried to highlight the perceived value of technical assistance at a conference of this nature. We noted the potential access to presenters to whom volunteers might like a productive point of access. We noted that helping with multiple tech setups would improve their own skill sets regarding set up for their own classes. And of course, we appealed to a sense of community not only within our own program, but within a certain sector of the larger discipline. Our students responded with amazing generosity.
  4. Consistent preparation for each session. Instead of keeping track of specific needs of different requests by different presenters on different panels in different rooms on different days, we just decided that we would put together technology packages that were identical for each panel, in each room, for each day. That way, volunteers just had to make sure “everything” was in the box when it arrived, and again when they returned it. We allowed the presenters themselves to communicate to us what needed to be set up and for whom.
  5. And maybe the most interesting part of working with the volunteers had to do with our discussions about attitudes toward technology. Anyone who knows me will readily admit that I have a tendency to get anxious. As the primary planner and backup resource, I knew that this could be a real liability. So I decided early on in the planning for this conference, that we would make “chilling-out” a top priority. First, we worked on the assumption that we would encounter significant and unpredictable snags. We had no hope at all of a flawless conference. So we waited, with backup plans, and acted. No anxiety. Just expectation. It allowed us to not be annoyed or worried about the snags. Some of the worst responses to tech trouble are to panic or get frustrated. This only results in the presenter taking on that panic or frustration, and then the support staff responds in kind. Not a great cycle. And certainly, nothing in there will get things solved any faster. So, first priority: Stay calm. Second priority: know your resources and how to draw on them quickly.
  6. With the sheer volume of tech needs, snags were inevitable. We really didn’t mind them at all. That’s not to say we weren’t sorry when a few presenters’ presentations were stalled, delayed, or damaged. We were really regretful about that. But in the bigger picture, we can only accept them and sincerely apologize. No getting around it.

All-in-all, we learned a lot about tech preparation and getting volunteers invested in the conference. If there’s one thing I think is most important about what I learned it would be this: If there’s going to be one or two people “in charge” of the tech aspects of the conference, those people’s top priority should be supporting the volunteers. Encouraging them. Keeping them confident and ready for snags. Staying visible and immediately accessible. When we were able to meet those conditions, not only did the conference run pretty well, we were actually enjoying ourselves.

This article has 3 Comments

  1. Trauman,
    I have to say you all did an excellent job! I had a great time at the conference and saw NO tech issues.
    Also, these are some very insightful reflections for any of us organizing volunteers for events like this. I’m glad to have had opportunities to work with you and look forward to further opportunities to learn from your experience!

  2. That’s so nice of you to say. You’re presentation was great. I sent you a separate email with some questions about it. I hope to hear from you soon! T.

  3. That’s so nice of you to say. You’re presentation was great. I sent you a separate email with some questions about it. I hope to hear from you soon! T.

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