Conference Connections: Rewiring the Circuit.
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In late 1971, several entirely forgettable messages were sent between two machines (today we would call them computers, but the word machines more accurately reflects their size at that time) located only a few feet from each other.1 Like the first telephones and televisions, e-mail would soon grow in popularity, astonishing even the most optimistic proponents of the new technology. The rudimentary origins of a new medium often belie the substantial shift in perspective and practice afforded to subsequent researchers and users. Educators who have experimented with using technologies in classrooms will likely recall the domino of possibility effect of providing a web page with reading materials. Access creates possibilities, which in turn shape students expectations. The course web page developed into learning management systems, which have since morphed into increasingly decentralized, distributed, and modular teaching tools. The plethora of tools blogs, wikis, podcasts, social bookmarking, Skype, Twitter, Facebookâ€”can be intimidating. But for many educators, these tools form the basis of new approaches to, and means of, interacting with students, each other, and information. Having gained prominence in geek culture, e-mail and social tools have moved into classrooms, corporate training programs, and more recently, spaces of academic dialogue including journals, books, and our focus hereâ€”conferences.2 Conferences are designed to meet the ongoing educational and training needs of professionals. A secondary and, some would argue, primary function is to facilitate networking, informal learning, and socialization among professionals. Conferences are short-term (time-bounded), in contrast to ongoing work programs or distributed mailing lists. They are often paid for by the employers of professionals, with the expectation that both the formal and the informal sessions will enhance the professionals performance in the workplace. Conferences are accessible (usually for a fee) to all members of the profession and often to the general public as well. Conferences are also expensive. Attending face-to-face conferences is costly not only because of the high and increasing price of hotels, transportation, conference center bookings, and meals but also because of the disruption and opportunity costs when professionals are not performing their normal work. The high ecological footprint of air travel can also be added to the expenses associated with face-to-face conferences. Finally, the personal cost of time away from family and community must be included to calculate the true costs of attending and also organizing this form of professional development. These high and increasing conference costs are intersecting with the enhanced interaction, the shift in perspective, and the greater opportunities offered by the new social technologies. Anyone can now create and distribute content/information with free online tools. In field after field, the barriers of participation in global conversations have fallen: radio is giving way to podcasts, newspapers to online journalism, and geographical relationships to online social networking. So too are conferences being remade, with the decline in barriers and the addition of technology influencing not only how attendees participate but also how organizers host conferences today.