Conference Coma

In a recent article in Successful Meetings Magazine, Ken Sterling coined the term, “conference coma”. We all know what he was talking about. These are the dreaded symptoms:

  • Open-eye napping
  • Compulsive texting
  • Tweeting
  • Inappropriate ear-bud wearing
  • Constant in-seat shifting
  • Absenteeism
  • Mid-day pool lounging

When planners notice this tableau, they know it’s time for a change. We are constantly looking for new ways to engage an audience. In a field like continuing medical education, for example, the proliferation of symposia over the past twenty years has led to repetitive experiences that result in audience ennui. The traditional “sage on the stage” pedagogical format is simply too old fashioned; too much “the same old thing”. Planners and producers are searching for a new way to teach.

Experiential Learning

The Harvard Institute for Learning and Teaching has come up with a program they call “experiential learning”.

Walls covered with blackboard paint and tables on wheels fill one of Harvard’s more unusual new classrooms; hammers and screwdrivers hang from a tool board attached to a half-painted wall. “We want this space to feel like a workshop or a garage,” says Logan McCarty, director of physical sciences education and one of the instructors who designed the new space. “If students are doing a lab, and they have to bolt something to the wall, or hang something from the ceiling, they can do it.” (Harvard Magazine – Learning by Doing)

…The SciBox, as its creators named the sprawling, 2,500-square-foot-space, is the stage for a few of the diverse new pedagogical experiments exploring the possibilities of experiential education – part of Harvard’s broader interest in testing new ways of teaching and learning.

… “Experiential learning is participative—for example, either making or doing,” explains Erin Driver-Linn, associate provost for institutional research and HILT’s director. “What do we need to understand, as learners, that is conceptual? And what do we need to understand by experiencing things in a different way?”

Making a Start

Designing experiential learning programs for continuing education symposia is a challenging task that promises big payoffs if done correctly. Planners are already working with producers to include the following experiential teaching protocols in upcoming trainings:

  • Hands-on Workshops – where attendees get to do a project along with the instructor.
  • Interactive learning – where technology enables attendees to interact with the presenter on a real-time basis.
  • Problem solving formats – where the audience is given a problem to solve rather than an information dump.
  • Teachers as coaches – where the teachers coach active students participating in a project rather than teach passive attendees seated in an auditorium.

Such side-by-side problem-solving is the norm at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where approximately one-third of engineering courses include an experiential component. Students act like management consultants, taking on real-world puzzles with no clear solution or even problem definition. Faculty members act more like coaches than traditional instructors and, in many cases, they do not have the answers either.

“What do we need to understand, as learners, that is conceptual? And what do we need to understand by experiencing things in a different way?”

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