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What’s wrong with the Canadian conference circuit?

Conferences are the lifeblood of knowledge exchange in academic disciplines, business, and government. This really hit home for me a few years ago when I was interacting with colleagues from Senegal. While I generally have more conference options than I can attend (and certainly more than I can afford to attend), my colleagues informed me that in a continent such as Africa, academics look with envy at the rich conference options available in other regions (notably Europe and US). The value of conferences goes well beyond listening to a few keynote speakers and attending paper presentations. The value rests in connecting directly with researchers and practitioners from around the world and forming connections for future exchange. A good conference can be field defining and offer attendees an opportunity to get a broad overview of trends and technologies within a discipline.

I’ve been reflecting on my experience with conferences in Canada. Generally, they have not been positive. I’ve organized events on social media, learning analytics (the most successful one), big data, and recently, educational technology innovation.

Basically, the conference circuit in Canada is dead and/or dying. At best, it just sucks. At least this is the case in education and educational technology. CNIE is slowly dying. CNIE was formed from two organizations (AMTEC and CADE) that were also dying. Our flagship national conference on education innovation struggles to get 100 attendees annually. Earlier this year, together with a group of folks from across the country, I organized EdInnovation. We had an outstanding group of keynote speakers – easily the best of any conference I’ve seen in Canada in 2013 (forget that – the best I’ve seen in ed technology this year). We managed a meager 105 attendees – a number that includes several complimentary passes. And this also include several attendees as part of an NSERC grant during the conference to bring researchers and startups in conversation with one another.

I’m debating whether an EdInnovation14 is worth the effort. Mostly, I’m just curious why the Canadian conference circuit is so anemic. We have many innovative practitioners and researchers. We have a strong startup and entrepreneurship culture nationally. It makes no sense to me that we can’t build a strong culture of knowledge sharing. Apparently, we have to go to US or European conference to do that.

7 Comments

  1. Do organize the conference again! I really wanted to attend but you hit the same day as JTC last year. That meant pretty much everyone in public education technology was at the School Technology Branch, Alberta Ed event, and both were in Calgary. It was a tough choice, but would love the opportunity to attend if it is organized again.

    Friday, September 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Rebecca wrote:

    I find this very interesting. As a PhD student, I searched for EdTech conferences, and somehow, I never came across the EdTech Innovation conference. The conference itself looks interesting, but the problem I would have is there is no way for me to easily participate. Without concurrent paper sessions or a poster session (maybe I’m missing something), I have no way to submit something. In order for me to get funding for a conference I need to be a first author and present. What I’m finding is that most of the academic Ed Tech conferences that I attend involve submission of a paper, which is peer reviewed and published in the proceedings. So I get the benefit of both attending and presenting at the conference, but also a peer reviewed publication. As an early career researcher (I need a better term, more like third-career researcher), the publications matter. I also find that the concurrent sessions are much better at conferences where you submit a full paper than ones where you just submit an abstract. So, I guess what I’m saying, is that if I had to choose, I’d choose a conference where the program is more participatory.

    Friday, September 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  3. George, I think there are a couple of issues at play here. As someone who had lived in Canada for the past six years, it was cheaper for me to fly to a US-based conference than a Canadian-based conference. Similarly the registration rate was often cheaper for US conferences than Canadian conferences.

    Beyond the cost factor, many of the Canadian academics that I know tend to attend conferences internationally (mainly in the US or in Europe it seems).

    Personally, I’ve tried to attend CSSE and CNIE as often as I can (i.e., if I’m not traveling somewhere else during that time).

    Friday, September 13, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  4. This issue is not specific to Canada. The quality of conferences even in the United States has deteriorated. The problem is even more dire in the humanities. The funding is drying up and according to one source, the humanities is allocated just 2% of total funding by the US federal government, the other 98% going to sciences and engineering.

    Monday, September 23, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  5. I think the money that funded conferences (and conference attendance) in Canada has mostly dried up.

    Additionally, most commercial money is going to the U.S. or international, again because most of the money has dried up in Canada.

    Meanwhile, organizations like CNIE seem to be suffering from a real leadership vacuum (to judge by eg. the website http://www.cnie-rcie.ca/

    Maybe a major Canadian conference could be re-established, but we would have to ask why we are hosting it, and we would need (I think) to do more than the traditional point-and-present sessions that kill existing conferences (while not eliminating paper submissions which pay many delegates’ attendance).

    So let me ask you – why do you think it is a problem that the Canadian conference circuit has dried up?

    Monday, September 23, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink
  6. Keith wrote:

    Hi George,

    I’m not surprised at the demise of CNIE or any other national educational technology conferences in Canada. The flip side of faculty barriers to attendance is the degree to which post-secondary professionals (instructional designers, educational technologists) must guard their limited professional development funds.

    Registration for CNIE this year was $610, EdInnovation was $425. My (‘destination university’) institution provides $250/year in professional development funds to professional employees. I might get more funding if I present a paper but that can be difficult to accomodate in a busy schedule. I did present at CNIE 2009 and was financed in part by my institution. The conferance was at the Chateau Laurier – a lovely venue with decrepit wifi and rooms at $300+ per night. National conferences continue to be organized as if money were no object.

    I attended our provincial Spring workshop (ETUG Spring Workshop 2013) for $100, including two lunches and a dinner. The conference is subsidized by the provincial government but it’s also always held on a campus instead of a hotel. This event is more practically oriented than academically oriented, but by lowering the barriers a sense of community has developed over the years that keeps it running strong.

    Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  7. Esther Jackson wrote:

    My thoughts regarding the limited number of conference offerings were the possibility of most potential attendees flocking to a U.S. location as opposed to Canada. Also, the slightly higher cost with more name-drawer speakers from outside Canada being requested to present.

    I have a new perspective on conferences as a result of your description of the benefits with connectivity along with the broad overview of trends and technologies. Thank you.

    Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink