You had to be there

John Green welcoming us at edACCESS 2012
  • “There was a frankness you’re not going to get anywhere else.”
  • “What a unique opportunity!”
  • “That was eye-opening.”
  • “We got a one-time look behind the curtain.”
  • “That was an incredible session.”
  • “I’m so grateful that session was available.”

Those were some of the comments I heard while waiting outside the door of Room 102 as attendees streamed out after the first peer session at the 21st edACCESS annual conference held at the Peddie School, Hightstown, New Jersey. Sadly, I’ll never know what I missed—and neither will you, unless you were there. Here’s why.

At the start of edACCESS conferences it’s customary for a representative of the hosting school to welcome attendees, and Peddie’s Head of School, John Green, did the honors this year. We learned that John was stepping down as head, had a lot of respect for the work information technology staff performed at schools:

and that he was interested in talking with attendees about what he had learned during his eleven-year tenure.

Because edACCESS uses the peer conference model, we were able to jump on this last-minute opportunity and schedule an hour for anyone who wanted to meet with John the following day. Because Conferences That Work use a confidentiality ground rule, John could be sure that what he shared would not leave the room. Thanks to the conference design, attendees had an impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear candid reflections, ask questions, and get invaluable advice from a retiring school head—something that would never normally be available to an edACCESS attendee.

With the trend towards streaming, tweeting, and live-blogging everything that happens at conferences, it’s important to remember that there are many amazing opportunities that will be routinely missed or avoided whenever conference sessions are unthinkingly thrown open to all and sundry, be it via streaming the session on the internet or by the lack of an explicit agreement about confidentiality. John Green has probably never spoken so candidly about his work to a group of strangers as he did that day, and he will probably never do so again. Those who attended his session reaped the benefit of a conference design that supports safety in sharing with one’s peers while still allowing more disclosure when appropriate.

I’m sorry I missed John’s session. You had to be there. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.

What do you think about the tension between openness and intimacy at conference sessions? What solutions would you use?

  • Sue

    I so agree with you on this one. While much can be, and probably should be, shareable, you do risk the deep sharing that happens when you know what’s discussed will stay in the room. Though this may not be the case so much with those who have grown up online–they may have different expectations when it comes to privacy than those of us who grew up in a face-to-face world?

    It can be difficult to get people to agree to respect confidentiality now that so many people live on Facebook and Twitter, but I think if they know what’s in it for them to keep some things off-network, they would. We keep our confidential sessions confidential by having people sign up for them ahead of time, screening at the door to make sure only those who signed up get in, and reminding them at the session’s start that what’s said stays in the room. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Sue. I wonder if there really is so much difference between Gen Y and older folks as far as perceiving the value of confidentiality? At my events and workshops I see just as many younger participants sharing intimate issues as boomers & Gen Xers.

      I have found that if, at the start, you have participants agree to keep what happens in a session appropriately confidential they do. (Yes, there’s always a first time, but I’ve been using a confidentiality ground rule for ten years now without a single problem.)