Alternatives to Keynote Speakers

Medieval Lecturer

The more things change, the more things stay the same…

I am on the board for a great elearning conference, and we are in the middle of looking for keynote speakers. I am not against keynote speakers per se. I have been to some amazing conferences and have had some career changing moments with some amazing people who were keynote speakers. Our little conference with a big heart does a lot to keep the costs down – this is one of the reasons why I volunteered to be on the board here – it is a low cost conference with high quality presentations. We could increase corporate sponsors and increase the keynote fees, but I think that would ultimately raise the price of the conference for attendees. And then we would be even more dependent on corporate money. I am not saying that I don’t want a keynote. I am just thinking out-loud to myself here on the internet: what are the alternatives? I personally value open. If “open” (as in open education resources, open access, and open pedagogy) is one of my chief values, what would a keynote look like through that lens? There is a great irony of thinking that we are doing something innovative by promoting an event with a “sage on the stage,” another one-way dump of information that promotes the hierarchy of the status quo. It has been my experience as a teacher and an elearning professional that real learning takes place in the community, through engagement, and interactivity. It has also been my experience that conferences, elearning or no, can be the last places that anything like that happens (I am thinking here of the Educause cattle-chute approach).

So I have done some cursory reading over the last few days looking at alternatives to keynotes. Here are some promising tacks:

1. Participants
In his posting at the Event Manager Blog, Jan-Jaap In Der Maur asks “…why have someone on stage telling participants what to do, if they can tell each other? Think of alternative formats, where participants work in smaller groups, talk directly to each other, or delegates are invited on stage spontaneously to be interviewed or join a panel.” In other words, why can’t the keynote be an activity? We can guide the activity or discussion around a central theme.

“Why have someone give information, tell ‘the truth’ about a topic or make decisions, when the combined wisdom of the crowd is much bigger than that of a speaker?” asks Jan-Jaap when we can get people involved in providing the content, debating, or making decisions.

2. Expert Debates
I liked this idea from Martina Cicakova’s Sli.Do posting “Expert Debate: an Interactive Alternative to a Traditional Keynote Session” but it still leaves me wondering where to find the money for TWO experts. One way to handle this is to virtually stream the experts in which is less expensive. This could help emphasize that the conference is about the participants, not the expert personalities. I like this though because if you read Martina’s article, she says that it was highly interactive: “In total, the audience submitted nearly 50 questions to be answered during the session and placed 323 ‘likes’ on questions.” They used Slido as the tech platform behind the debate.

3. Panels
Another possible alternative to keynotes are panels. Panels can be organized in such a way that the panel members are not only talking to one another, but they are engaging the audience as well. An article at Innovation Women, “The Event Manager’s Guide to Creative Panels” has a number of useful suggestions for keeping panels engaging.

4. Video 
We could watch a short video on the theme of the conference and use it as a catalyst for small group discussions, bring that back to a larger discussion with a moderator summarizing the themes that come up to be addressed later in the conference. The catalyst could just as easily be a live or recorded performance. I have seen presenters use this effectively.

5. Unconference
We do a little bit of this already with our conference preview during the breakfast portion of the conference. But an unconference allows participants to sign up and present brief presentations – I am thinking that the Pecha Kucha technique of 20 slides/20 seconds a slide would be ideal here. The genius of this is that each participant of the conference gets to decide what they think is important enough to dedicate 6 minutes and 40 seconds of stage time too. We get to crowd-source the genius of the participants.

Again, I am hoping that we find someone who is knowledgeable about elearning, professional, inspiring, and not insulted by our travel expenses + smallish stipend, but I am also interested in alternatives to the standard conference. If you have some ideas that should be added to this list or if you have had interesting alternative experiences to the standard conference/keynote experience please comment below, contact me by email, or chime in on Twitter.

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