How to plan a conference that doesn’t suck

recent article, Kristen Eshleman and Josh Kim explore five reasons for why educational technology conferences suck (my word, not theirs) and, consequently, five ways to make conferences better.  In their view, organizers too easily forget that a conference is by/for/about people.  Conferences are often not planned with a view to enabling practice and overcoming silos.  They are frequently over-hyped and create too little value.

I agree.

The second annual Southeast Educational Data Symposium (SEEDS16) has been guided by what I am going to call the Golden Rule of Conference Panning: “Don’t plan a conference that you wouldn’t want to attend.”  To my mind, you should only plan a conference or event if it is actually going to provide significant value to participants.  A conference takes a lot of effort to plan and, all things being equal, it would be much easier for everyone involved if it didn’t exist.  The bar here is pretty high.  Another way or articulating the golden rule of conference planning, perhaps, is to say “Don’t plan a conference unless it is going to be better than having no conference at all.”  Not planning or going to a conference is pretty great, in my opinion.  Any conference I organize has to be better than that.  As I have worked with an incredible organizing committee to put together that I think will be a valuable and successful event (fingers crossed!), several guiding principles have emerged that are direct consequences of the golden rule:

  1. Start with Goals – too often, conferences are organized with the goal of organizing a conference.  The problem with deciding to organize a conference is that you are likely to end up with one.  If you set out to organize a conference, it will be modeled on what you think a conference looks like.  Since most conferences suck, yours will too.  Instead of setting out to create something that looks like a conference, begin with a specific set of goals.  Once you have those goals in mind, decide whether a conference is the right way to achieve them in the first place.  If so, then design the conference strategically in order to achieve those goals.  What you end up with may look pretty ‘unconferency.’  It might not.
  2. Support the network – Bars don’t sell alcohol.  They sell the promise of human connection.  Too often, conference organizers think that the value of their event comes from content.  They worry about whether a particular keynote is going to draw a crowd, and if particular events are going to entice enough people.  But there is very little in the way of conference content that I cannot access in other ways.  Conferences don’t sell knowledge.  They sell the promise of human connection.  What draws people to a conference is the promise of entering into a community of like-interested people, of forming relationships, of developing opportunities for collaboration, and of being excited to pursue new projects.
  3. Create Value – Regardless of group size, the strongest relationships are formed as a result of a shared vision, and of movement toward a common goal.  Picture two people with eyes fixed upon a common point on the horizon.  It doesn’t take much knowledge of geometry to realize that the closer two people get to that common point, the closer they will get to each other.  If the goal of a conference is to encourage human connection, the best way to do that is to create opportunities for people to work together to solve shared problems.  It’s one thing to have your brain tickled.  It’s another thing entirely to walk away from a conference with a tangible solution (ideally an artifact).  This emphasis on practice can be seen in the afternoon workshops at SEEDS16 (inspired by the format of the Learning Analytics Summer Institute organized each year by the Society of Learning Analytics Research).  Our workshop on practical learning analytics will give participants the opportunity to acquire new skills as they collaborate to answer really questions using real student data.  Our workshop on ethics will lead participants to develop codes of practice for learning analytics that will guide their own efforts, and hopefully make an impact at their home institutions.
  4. More isn’t better – One of the most common pieces of feedback from SEEDS15 was that participants were energized at the end of the day.  They still had energy, and they wanted more of a good thing.  Wanting to be responsive to this feedback, our original plans for SEEDS16 included extending the event over two days.  But looking at a draft schedule, I couldn’t help but think that the two-day conference was no longer something that I wanted to attend.  How many times have you been to an event and felt energized at the end of day one, only to feel ‘over it’ at the end of day two?  More of a good thing isn’t always better.  By retaining the one-day format for SEEDS16, our goal is to leave on a high note, and to leave participants with the energy they need to carry ideas and practices back to their home institutions.
  5. Relatedly, bigger isn’t better.  Group size matters. One of the primary goals of the Southeast Educational Data Symposium is to foster a strong sense of community around the effective use of educational data in the southeast region of the US.  With this aim in mind, SEEDS15 had a hard cap of 50 participants.  The result was magical.  The conference drew administrators, faculty, researchers, and graduate students from 25 institutions.  Name tags did not include information about title or rank, and so an environment was fostered in which all entered as equal partners in a shared conversation.  But the event had a waiting list, and our hard cap meant that many who wanted to attend the conference could not.  In order to meet demand this year we increased the cap to 100.  Hopefully an increase in scale won’t spell a decrease in ‘magic.’  Scale is tricky.
  6. Lastly, more complex isn’t better.  Another piece of feedback that we received out of last year’s event was that not all presentations were of interest or relevant to everyone, and that the conference would benefit from having multiple ‘tracks.’  Wanting to be responsive, early plans for the conference included plans to have a leadership track and a practitioner track.  But we soon changed our minds.  Regardless of what one or two past participants might have said, the organizing committee felt that part of the magic of last year came about as a result of the fact that it did not respect disciplinary or hierarchical silos.  That everyone participated in a common conversation about a shared set of material was powerful.  In order to achieve small-scale intimacy despite an increase in the number of participants, we have organized simultaneous sessions.  Life is about trade-offs.  With an increase in choice and intimacy comes a decrease in shared experience.

It would be far easier NOT to plan a conference.  Truth be told, conference planning is not my favorite thing in the world to do.  What drives me and other organizers, however, is a commitment to serving our community, and to meeting a clear need – the need to better understand how to put educational data into practice.  As Aristotle famously observed, the best leader is one who leads from a desire, not for power, but out of duty and a sense of commitment to the good of their community.  If the same guiding principle was applied to conferences, there would be far fewer, and they would suck a whole lot less.

Why You Should NOT Vlog like Casey Neistat

I discovered Casey Neistat in November 2015, following an interview with Tim Ferris, and immediately suggested to Elisa Wallace that she start a vlog.

Elisa Wallace is an elite equestrian athlete, competing internationally at the 4 star level (there is no 5 star level). She is an American mustang trainer, and vocal advocate of mustang adoption through the Heritage Mustang Foundation. She is also my wife.

For years, Elisa and I have worked to create high quality video for YouTube. We have produced a large amount of competition footage, but have also worked to document the journey of each of her mustangs. Our first series was a little rough, but it captured the imagination of a lot of people (for us, anyway), who followed Elisa’s story with ‘Fledge’ through to an incredible freestyle performance what won them first place in the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the distinction of fan favorite.

We were no strangers to story-telling when Tim Ferris ‘introduced me’ to Casey Neistat (neither Tim nor Casey know me from a hole in the ground). Casey’s vlog was instantly inspiring. I showed some videos to my wife, and she was inspired as well. On November 8, we uploaded our first vlog, which was viewed 3,000 times in a single day. Not bad. There was absolutely no way for us to commit to daily film making like Casey, but we figured that a weekly schedule was doable, and so committed ourselves to uploading every Monday. We were very inspired by Casey’s approach to film making, and incorporated many similar elements in our episodes. But there was no way for us to vlog like Casey.

First, we simply don’t have the equipment. Equipment is expensive, and so my philosophy has always been to use the least expensive solution, and only to upgrade when my skill and/or need made upgrading necessary. I used iMovie for years before switching to Final Cut. The bulk of our footage is still shot using the front-facing camera on Elisa’s scratched-up iPhone 5. Second, Elisa would rather not talk about herself. She is becoming more comfortable in front of the camera, but she would far rather tell the stories of her horses than dwell on her personal life. As she has earned more fans and followers, she has let them more and more into what happens ‘behind the scenes,’ but the focus of her screen time is still predominantly oriented toward education and the lives of her horses. Third, we don’t live in New York. A boosted board would be impractical at the barn, and the urban scenery and people-rich tapestry that provide the backdrop for Casey’s videos are at least 70 miles away in Atlanta. We have animals, bugs, lakes, and trees.

It’s okay to vlog like Casey Neistat, as long as you don’t vlog LIKE Casey Neistat.

One shouldn’t imitate an other’s aesthetic as if it was a formula for success. Success is earned, not copied. What our differences from Casey forced us to do is to be inspired by, and emulate, the spirit of his film-making instead of his style. What Casey emphasizes over and over again is that it’s not about the technology. It’s all about story. Through our inability to imitate Casey Neistat, we have imitated him indeed.

Since starting Elisa’s vlog, we have learned a lot about her voice and her audience. We have experimented a lot. What began with imitation, has morphed into something very special. What initially took many hours to produce each week now takes far less time and results in something of much higher quality. Knowing who you are and why you do what you do makes the creative process far easier. A mixture of stories, training techniques, and personal vignettes, Elisa’s vlogs are very much her own, and in a way that also provides significant value to her fans. It has been wonderful to see her audience grow as a result of the regularity of our uploads, because it means bringing that much more attention to the potential of American mustangs, and generating support for Elisa and her dream of representing the USA in international competition.

If you are interested in our vlog series, and in following Elisa’s journey, you can watch every episode, beginning with the most recent one, here:

A Virtuous Approach to Social Media

I recently changed my personal approach to social media. I immediately started losing followers.


So what did I do?

  • I unfollowed every Twitter user who I either don’t know personally, or who’s feed doesn’t provide me with consistent value.
  • I started syndicating my personal blog posts ( via LinkedIn and Medium
  • I stopped sharing content without commentary (mostly)

Each of these changes is the result of an effort on my part (still imperfect) to become more principled as a digital citizen. This is not a strategy, and these are not tactics. Instead, these are behaviors as a result of an effort to be consistent with several key principles.

Social media is not about building audiences. It’s about fostering community. Social media should be used to develop three kinds of relationship: relationship with others, relationship between others, and relationship with the world.  All media connects people to the world in new ways.  What makes social media social is that it has allowed us to transcend the monological broadcasting model. It invites readers to interact and engage. It invites readers, not just to consume content, but also to frame and shape that content.  It gives authors the ability to connect and interact with their readers.  It also means that content producers can and do serve as catalysts for relationships between readers.

If you can’t say something important, don’t say anything at all. This principle applies to both content creation and content curation. As far as content creation is concerned, it means that you shouldn’t write something simply for the purpose of driving traffic to your site(s). The vast majority of ‘content’ on the internet contains very little. In most cases it is either vacuous or derivative. A good litmus test is this: before writing something, ask yourself this question: am I writing this because I think it would be valuable to others? Or am I writing it because I want to drive traffic? (A more general way of framing this question is to ask “is this for others or is this for me?”) If the answer is the latter, then stop. Don’t do it. I am a firm believer that writing content with the reader in mind, and with a view to providing them with value, will result in page views, likes, follows, etc. By adopting his approach, your readership may grow more slowly, but they will be more engaged. They will be actual people, and they will form a real network. They will be a community. If you focus on the numbers, on the other hand, then the audience you create will be as vacuous as the content you serve. When I made the decision to be more discerning about the people I followed on Twitter, the Exodus that I witnessed from my own followers were not real people. They were not actually engaged in what I was doing or interested in what I had to say. They were some combination of bots and people who inflate their numbers by following others to have them follow back. For these people, my value was only as a “+1”, and when I withdrew that, I ceased to have any value to them at all.

Another extension of this principle is an increased emphasis on syndication. Until now, I thought that my content should have a single home — my website — and that the best approach was to share links rather than the work itself. But if you believe that your content is valuable to others, then you should work to make it as easy to access and engage as possible. For this reason I have begun syndicating my content on both LinkedIn and Medium so that people on those networks can more easily read it and engage with it (me) more natively.

Social media is social media. Until now I have been relatively unengaged in social media. I have created, curated, and shared content, but not in a way that invited conversation. I have thought of myself as a valuable news source, but that is about it. Now, I am making an active effort to engage people as people. I am making a more active effort to humanize ‘followers’ by thanking them for interacting with my work, acknowledging them for excellence in their own, and engaging them in conversation more generally. 

A consequence of this principle (and also of the principle of content importance above) is a change in my approach to content curation. If a link is important enough to share, it should be important enough to explain why it is important to share. Rather than simply share the thoughts of others, I feel like we should carefully consider them, and add to them. The reason for his is two-fold. On the one hand, by sharing content in this way, you add value by shaping and framing it. On the other hand, by commenting you legitimate the piece in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise. You enter into a relationship with the author and the reader in a way that invites engagement and further comment. You are not broadcaster. You are engaging others in a conversation.

I may have gotten it more or less right in each of these principles.  The set is not particularly systematic, and I am making no claim to it being complete. Underlying all of this, however, is a fundamental principle or virtue, which is a commitment to being a good digital citizen.  When I think about virtuous social media, I mean an approach that begins and ends with the Good. Social media should not use people as means to an end. Social media is not just a way of communicating good content. It consists of behaviors and practices, and so should be thought of as an ethical practice in and of itself.

Illegally distributing viral video on social media

I shot my first viral video in 2013. While at a horse show where my wife was competing, I caught my father-in-law in an acrobatic act with his horse. Within a day, the video was trending on YouTube. It was picked up by Right This Minute. Then by The Situation Room with Wolfe Blitzer. And then by Good Morning America. 

Today I learned that the video has gone viral again! The epicenter was a French equestrian tack startup which downloaded the video (probably from YouTube), uploaded it to Facebook, and shared.

I understand the motivation for this kind of social media behavior, and also the fact that it was likely unmotivated by malice. I understand that it is easier to share high quality content than to create it. I also understand that people do not understand copyright law. Copyright is hard. If copyright was easy we wouldn’t need lawyers for that. I adopt the Platonic position that people don’t do what they know is wrong. The problem, then, is not a problem of ethics, but a problem of knowledge.

So what is wrong with uploading someone else’s content to your social media page? The problem is that this is theft. It is theft of intellectual property, most certainly, but it is also theft of an audience, and an audience is worth its weight in gold. There was an attempt to give credit (“credit: wallaceeventing”) but this ‘credit’ in no way actually connected the content with the content producer. In fact there is very little chance that I would ever have learned of this theft if the video has not exploded all over the internet…again. Proper etiquette dictates that you share rather than steal. It is also best to ‘mention’ the content owner, not only to notify them of the fact that you have shared their content (an indirect kind of ‘thank you’), but also to provide a direct link for the audience, between the content you are sharing and the person who produced it. Through sharing and mentioning, everybody wins. You introduce a content creator to a new audience, while at the same time growing your own audience on account of your reputation as a content curator worth following. By scabbing content and re-uploading, you take more credit than is your due and, what is worse, you hoard it entirely to yourself.

I am very torn about this incident. On the one hand, I am happy that content that I created three years ago continues to be engaging and relevant (despite the fact that I did some crazy stuff with color, and totally overdid the vignette…I was new to Final Cut…so it goes). It is wonderful to have an audience, and to have one’s work shared with the greatest number of people. Because I applied a watermark throughout the video (a practice that I have since stopped because it is visually unappealing, but that I am now reconsidering) and included credits at the end, it is possible that exceptionally curious viewers willing to take the effort might discover Wallace Eventing as a result. On the other hand, what has happened is tantamount to plagiarism because it denies credit in a way that could easily be granted. In other words, I feel robbed.

What would you do in this case and others like it? Would you submit a claim and have the video taken down? Or would you let it go and leave it to karma to sort it out? Something else?

April 2, 2016 – After reaching out to the company in a spirit of understanding and generosity, they apologized for their mistake, took the video down, and committed to sharing the original instead. This is another lesson. One’s first impulse in these situations is to lash out in anger, point fingers, and make threats. But if you begin with a principle of charity, then you stand a greater chance of seeing a quick resolution, while also creating an opportunity for relationship. The company is making a move into North America, and we are now talking about sponsorship possibilities.

Of Fresh Starts and Spider Webs

During my weekly run around around Rock Creek Farms today, I couldn’t help but reflect on new beginnings. The day was perfect. Cool and crisp, smelling of grass (and manure), I could feel the dew through my shoes without my feet actually getting wet. As I looked around, I saw new growth everywhere…and then I got a face full of spider web.

The trails that I run are more like corridors, with tall vegetation on either side. During the winter, the usually hard-working arachnid population lies dormant, but when spring arrives and they see a beautiful day like today, they awaken from their slumber and resume the loom.

I imagine the spiders and I are thinking the same thing: “What an amazing day, marking the beginning of a new year, full of new possibilities.” And then I imagine we think the same thing as I come crashing face-first through each finely woven tapestry: “Aw crap! Not again!”


What is the lesson here?

It is the Spring, and not January, that is the best time to think about the year ahead, and to really consider how to optimize one’s performance in pursuit of particular goals. It is a time for pruning, for clearing out old growth so that the new can flourish, while at the same time continuing to build upon existing foundations. Spring is full of possibilities, and, for me, is a time of tremendous optimism. Anything seems possible. But, as enlivened by possibility as we may feel, it’s important to remember two things:

1. There are always spider webs. There are always going to be inconveniences. No matter how straight the path might be, there are always going to be inconveniences and frustrations that you won’t see or anticipate. Half way through my run, I was half inclined to stop, turn around, and buy a treadmill. But to put an end to an otherwise well-conceived plan because of a few minor frustrations would have been silly.

2. There are always spider webs. As we pursue our own plans, with excitement and a single-minded sense of focus, we must constantly bear in mind that our actions have consequences for others. When inconvenienced by the spiderwebs of life, we must remember that the things that we do to achieve or own designs may at times be destructive of the designs of others. Just as spider webs may be inconvenient, so too can they be inconvenienced. The greatest obstacles we face as we pursue our goals will be a function of the goals of others.

What, then, are we to do about the spider webs of life? We shouldn’t seek to avoid them entirely, since doing so would mean giving up on our goals, making sacrifices that would radically limit the scope of our ambition. Nor should we ignore them, closing our eyes, holding our breath, and simply crash on through. Instead, we should be vigilant in our pursuits, looking out for inconveniences as we approach them in order that we might, neither avoid nor destroy, but rather negotiate them as we navigate a space we share with others.

Why Academic Self-Publishing is a Bad Idea: And Why I’m Doing it Anyway

Shortly after successfully defending my dissertation, at the recommendation of my advisor, I submitted by manuscript to a reputable academic publisher. Several months later, I was delighted to receive a congratulatory email:

Thank you very much for your submission. I am pleased to inform you that we have accepted your manuscript for publication

Accompanying the email was an Author Guide, a Style Guide Supplement, a Sample Contract, and a Contracting Document. Also included was a copy of “Ten Awful Truths about Book Publishing” by Steven Piersanti, President of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. In effect, the inclusion of this document was meant to prepare me for, and to explain, the fact that this publisher expected me to subsidize the publication of my manuscript in exchange for the seal of approval that the publisher and its imprints might represent. We authors are called upon to understand and support an industry that, without our understanding and active support, would otherwise be left to die on the vine

The deal that I was offered was essentially this: In exchange for publication under one of the publishers scholarly imprints, I would be required to pay for copy-editing by the publisher at a rate of $6.50 / 250 word page, and type-setting at a rate of no less than $2.00 / page. What this means is that a 50,000 word manuscript would cost me $1,700. The royalty schedule in the offer was 6% of the net sales from the first 1,000 books, 8% of the net sales from the subsequent 1,000 sold, and 10% of net sales thereafter. If we assume that my book would be sold for $25, and that the markup is 60%, then 1,667 books would need to be sold at full price in order for me to break even. When you consider that this publisher sells titles to universities at a steeply discounted rate, then the number of books that would need to sell before I broke even gets even larger. When one considers that it is not uncommon for a scholarly book to sell as few as 350 copies, this approach makes sense from the perspective of the publisher, particularly since the costs of marketing and promoting the book also tend to fall on the author. What this seems to amount to is the McDonaldization of academic publishing. The publisher mitigates their own risk by offloading a large proportion of their costs, as well as the labor necessary to prepare and market the manuscript. The publisher benefits from both short and long tail sales revenue and, in exchange, the author receives a seal of legitimacy.

In spite of the fact that all but very few academic authors receive nothing short of a very raw deal when entering into publishing agreements, the alternative (i.e., self-publishing) is apparently an even worse idea.  Self-published books are not typically considered when professional academics go up for tenure review or promotion. The quality of self-published texts also vary wildly, which is a function of the extent to which authors seek out and invest in professional copy-editing services. Many worry about a lack of peer review in self-published manuscripts. But it is important to note that peer review and third-party academic publication are not the same thing. Furthermore, the values of the latter are not identical with those of the former. Peer review is meant to ensure that a work achieves a certain level of scholarly rigor, and that it marks a significant contribution to a field of study.  Review for publication includes this, of course, but it is motivated not just by the question “is it important,” but also by the question “will it sell.”

But all this is largely a digression. In the end, what I mean to highlight is the fact that I am in an excellent position to experiment. I do not expect to enter the professoriate, and so can afford not to be motivated by the ‘numbers’ game. My dissertation is already published and openly accessible, in a way, and so it is not like I would be ‘wasting’ an original work should my experiment fail. My dissertation makes important contributions to several fields including the history of philosophy, sociology, and theology. It has value, and would do well to reach a larger audience. And it’s value has already been certified by my doctoral committee (as necessary to earning my PhD), as well as by a third-party academic publisher who accepted it for publication. What I have here is a perfect and low-risk opportunity to explore self-publishing and to document the process.  I have, therefore, declined the offer of publication and am going to begin my journey down this alternate path. Worst case scenario: I spend $1,700 and sell only a few copies of my book, in which case I’m no worse off than I would have been had I accepted the offer.

What’s next? This will be the topic of my next post on the subject. In setting out a road map at the start of the process, it will be very interesting to see, at the end of this experiment, just how wrong I will have been.

Do you have any experience with academic self-publishing? Is self-publishing just a terrible idea? What are some important things to consider, and pitfalls to avoid? Any feedback would be incredibly helpful as I embark on this journey. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Blue Apron: Solving Problems I Don’t Have

Blue ApronI am looking for ways to become more efficient with my time. Living on a farm 60 miles north of where I work at Georgia State University means that, during the week, my commute puts me on the road for a total of about 4 hours each day. I try to be as productive during that time as possible (making calls, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, using Pocket to listen to articles, etc), but there is only so much I can do. Between working on other projects and wanting to spend time with family, the last thing I want to do is cook dinner and do dishes (I HATE doing dishes).

So I have a problem: how do I feed my wife and myself in a way that is economical, healthy, and quick. How do I further reduce the amount of time I need to commit to after-work errands like grocery shopping? If I lived in the city, I would have a lot more options. I could use a grocery delivery service like instacart, for example. (I could also take advantage of laundry and other services not available to more rural folks). But up here in Jasper, Georgia most of the conveniences of the big city are woefully absent.

This first meal I prepared from Blue Apron.  Chicken meatballs & creamy polenta with tomato sugo &  lacinato kale.  In the end, the dish was nothing to call home about.  It looked good, but the flavor was pretty uninteresting.

This first meal I prepared from Blue Apron. Chicken meatballs & creamy polenta with tomato sugo & lacinato kale. In the end, the dish was nothing to call home about. It looked good, but the flavor was pretty uninteresting.

So this last week I tried Blue Apron, thinking that it would solve my grocery problem and maybe save some time in the kitchen. Nope. I like cooking, and I cook a lot. The recipes from Blue Apron are a good idea, in a way, because they may encourage some to venture outside of their culinary habits. It is also nice to give people the opportunity to try new recipes without having to purchase exotic ingredients in quantities much larger than would be necessary to feed two people. Minimal food waste is a good thing. But these are solutions to problems I don’t have. I am already adventurous in the kitchen, and I already waste very little. The problems that Blue Apron doesn’t solve are the problem of time — it takes as long to prepare and cook a recipe from Blue Apron as it would for me to cook as I would normally (about 30 minutes) — and the problem of dishes — I still have to dirty dishes, plates, and silverware, which leaves me with the chore of having to clean up when all is said and done. (I am solving this problem generally by entrusting all dishes to my dish washer, refusing to give in to the temptation to pre wash, and increasing my ‘spot tolerance.’ Running the dishwasher every day means that dishes get cleaner, and there are fewer dishes to put away each day). It also doesn’t solve my grocery problems, since the 2-person plan takes care of only 3 meals per week.

So I’m still looking for ways to optimize the time I have outside of work and commute. During the week, what I think I want is a service that will provide pre-made, fresh, healthy, and economical meals delivered directly to my door. Again, options are limited in the country. Something like meal delivery from Forks over Knives seems promising, but at a cost of ~$880 / month for 5 dinners a week, this option would mean a significant increase in my monthly food budget. My sister has suggested one-a-week cooking as a possible solution, but the prospect of committing a large chunk of my weekend to preparing meals for the following week makes my heart sink. In the end, it may be that what I am doing right now, spending 30 minutes preparing a meal at the end of each day, is the best that I can do (woe is me, I know), but I continue to actively look for other solutions.

What tips and tricks to you use to optimize your meal time? What meals do you prepare that are fast, healthy, and economical?