An Action Plan to Make Geospatial Conferences More Engaging

By Adena Schutzberg

The lights dim in the large ballroom for another opening of another geospatial conference. You are welcomed by the host(s) and sit patiently through the opening presentation by a CEO or a big name thinker. That opening session ideally charges you up to face the next day (or more) of conferencing. But the next few days are often more of the same, just at a different scale. The rooms are smaller and presenters, less familiar or less famous, but the words flow and PowerPoint slides transition one to another.

There are (thankfully) no rules that say conferences must be organized this way, nor that every presenter must share information via the same process. What might geospatial conference sessions (or those on any topic, really) look like if we experiment with other ways of sharing our ideas?

Learning Objectives

A few conferences - GITA and I believe our Location Intelligence Conference - have required those submitting papers to detail three things attendees will learn from the presentation. I thought that was a good idea on two fronts. Ideally it helped (1) organizers select valuable papers and (2) attendees select the relevant sessions. In retrospect, the learning objectives were a bit vague. I recall phrases on the order of “learn how Forsyth County implemented GIS to manage its street furniture.” It’s my recollection that the sessions focused mostly on learning about things, rather than learning to do things.

What if we required presenters to detail what skills attendees would learn? A short session might tackle only one skill, or only part of one, but I think it’s a reasonable expectation for even a 20-minute presentation to teach at least one skill. I’d encourage those assembling presentations to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, classification of learning objectives, as a starting point. I’m no expert in writing objectives nor the taxonomy, but I find thinking about what I want attendees to learn helps me find the best way to communicate (teach) it. It’s so important that I included writing objectives as part of one exercise in a graduate GIS course I taught at Penn State.


In parallel to the request for presenters to detail what attendees will learn, I think it’s fair to ask them how those skills and concepts will be taught. Will the presenter use PowerPoint and ask only that attendees watch and listen? Will the presenter have attendees act out a scenario? Will attendees work in groups to determine what they feel are best practices? Will attendees do research on their mobile devices to find other ways the same challenge might be addressed?

I’m the first to admit the challenges in changing one’s (or perhaps the world’s?) “tried and true” way of presenting in lecture form with slides. I’m suggesting presenters move away from being the “sage on the stage,” (simply speaking pearls of wisdom while pretty slides click by) and toward being the “guide on the side” (using open ended questions and participatory activities). The “guide on the side” coaches the attendees, who are “doing the work” toward the stated objectives.

Educating the Presenter

Sadly, there is no computer program I know of that transforms a PowerPoint presentation into an engaging group activity. But, engagement techniques and new ways of thinking can be learned. Maybe a conference organizer can offer a webinar on new ways to present before the call for papers to get potential presenters thinking in these new ways early. Or, since this is a rather long-term goal, a conference organizer can offer a dedicated session on some of these ideas and techniques at one event to prepare presenters to try it at the next one.

I’d go so far as to suggest that learning engagement skills is not simply valuable when trying to share ideas at conferences. These are key communications skills that can be valuable in the workplace, with clients, with civic groups, with children’s groups... Skills to engage an audience are among the “soft skills” today’s professionals need to know.

Enticing Presenters to Use the New Presentation Formats

How do conference organizers encourage presenters to leave PowerPoint behind and try out some of these new techniques? Presenters may need a carrot - perhaps a discounted registration fee or first choice of a time slot at the event. Or, if the conference gives out speaker awards, a new category for “non-PowerPoint” or “most engaging” could be added to highlight such efforts.

Presenters using these techniques may take some time to capture more than a few percent of conference papers in any given year. However, the more attendees realize how much more they learn, how much more they enjoy these sessions, the more they’ll want to try tossing out PowerPoint for a new way to share their ideas with their professional peers.

Back to Kindergarten

Let’s go back to the toddler years. Moms, dads, babysitters and teachers read books to  toddlers. How do they (you) do it? The reader doesn’t just read the story. No, there are different voices and lots of questions. The wolf has a big, blustery voice in “Little Red Riding Hood.” And Little Red has a much sweeter one. The reader asks the child to point to the wolf in the picture or maybe the sun in the sky. Or maybe to find something green on the page. When the child gets older he or she may be asked to find a word that begins with “D” or the whole word, “door” on the page. Why do we read that way to toddlers? To engage them with the story and the act of reading. And they love it! Why? They are participating! They are part of the activity and, it turns out, they are learning more than if they just listen. (See, for example, this study.)

Why should toddlers have all the fun gaining the advantages of engaged learning? We deserve the same advantages in our conference sessions.

Published Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Written by Adena Schutzberg

Published in


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