We have a mountain to climb

Three separate people complained about me liveblogging the OU Conference today.  They had found my typing very distracting from the presentations.  One was indirect, although it seems obvious to me that I was the problem, but two were direct to my face immediately afterwards.  This was from three separate sessions.  Most British people wouldn’t dream of complaining like that even if they were bothered, so I think it’s a very safe assumption that many more people were silently fuming but didn’t like to say anything.  It has been made unequivocally clear to me that I was breaking a social rule.  For the direct ones, I apologised profusely; with one I started trying to explain what I was doing but tailed off in the face of a withering stare.  I am genuinely sorry to have disrupted people’s conference experience.  But on reflection I think it shows up a big problem for the OU that I’ve been thinking about for ages.

Now, for me, I found it hugely useful to do.  My handwriting is awful – it makes my hand hurt and I can’t read what I’ve written.  By typing, I have excellent notes on what was said, that I can refer to and even search.  (Much better than even the best physical filing system!)  Even better, by having another browser window open and doing some fast flipping, I was able to pursue some of the references that interested me then and there and put in proper links to them for later. (Or read those if the presentation wasn’t very interesting – which didn’t happen often, I should stress.)  Even better better, by blogging it, I’ve made those notes and links available to the local OU community and beyond.  And also been part of the future of academic practice – as the VC was saying we must do in her keynote.

But clearly, those benefits came at a cost to the people around me.  Having someone banging away on a laptop (I did churn out over 9,000 words today – well over 10k if you include this rant too) in a conference was obviously a strange and new experience for them.  Just to stress, it wasn’t a particularly noisy keyboard – my current laptop is pretty quiet, certainly in comparison to a full desktop job.

Part of this is unfamiliarity, but part of it I think is a lack of engagement with technology bordering on technophobia.  I’m often struck by the deep lack of basic technical skill around – even among people who you’d expect to know this stuff.  I encountered today people who seemed almost proud of their inability to work a projector/laptop combo, or their lack of knowledge about what Twitter was, despite the fact that their jobs involve them teaching other people about technologies like that. (I won’t identify them.)

Technophobia seems a good word for it: as with homophobia, among polite middle-class people you can almost imagine that nobody’s bothered about it, but from time to time someone will come up to you and make it quite clear that decent people don’t like what you’re doing and wish you would stop, or at least go and do it elsewhere so they don’t have to see you doing it.  So you know that lots of people think that way, and you’ve no way of telling them from people who are genuinely supportive – or at least supportively indifferent – and so you end up changing your behaviour to pass as something you’re not out of fear.  (I’m not saying it’s the exactly the same phenomenon, but there are parallels.)

I’ve wondered and experimented in the past about using a laptop more to take notes in meetings – it really makes things much better for me.  But I’ve fallen back on a paper notebook for all but a handful.  (At least those can include meetings with my boss – Patrick is a very good boss.)  The laptop kept getting in the way of the social interaction, and that’s what meetings are for in my book, so the laptop went.  Until now I hadn’t realised that the ‘getting in the way’ bit was quite possibly a result of a deeply held technophobia.

The contrast with – say – the Open Learn conference I went to back in October is profound.  I foolishly didn’t take my own laptop there out of habit … and so now I want to refer back, I have no access to the paper notes I made (they’re in the office and I’m at home), and it’d take me ages to find the right page and decipher my handwriting even if I did.  But every session was stuffed full of people hammering away on their laptops – between 25%-50% I’d say, more in some particular ones.  Some of those were liveblogging, some were making some small notes for themselves … and some were off doing other useful tasks when the particular presentation wasn’t capturing all of their attention.  Nobody minded, or even noticed particularly.

I really think the VC gets it: in her keynote (see what I was able to do there that I couldn’t with the other conference?) she quoted Ernest Boyer and Clay Shirky – top-notch scholarship and top-notch new technology.  She argued that “Scholarship in this university, in this century, has to be irrevocably tied to the technology and knowledge media.”  I agree!  That’s what I want to be part of, that’s what I’m good at.  That has to be the only future for the OU.

But my, oh my, how far we have to travel to get there.   Remember, this techno-hostile audience was a self-selecting group of those particularly interested in innovation.  One of the VC’s recurrent themes recently (including at the conference today) is how difficult but vital it is to get excellent innovation out of the individual pockets where it happens and spread out across the OU’s provision.  (I have some ideas about that but that’s for another post.)  Why’s it so difficult?  It’s not that people aren’t sold on the OU’s mission – in fact OU staff have a sense of ownership and deep commitment to the mission that most senior managers couldn’t imagine in their wettest dreams.  That profound and widespread technophobia is, I think, a big part of the answer.  Nearly every good innovation in OU teaching relies to a greater or lesser extent on new technology.  And the overwhelming majority of people who need to pick up that innovation don’t know or like new technology.

I don’t quite subscribe to the Private Frazer view of the situation (“We’re doomed!  Doomed I tell ye!”), nor the Sir Richard Mottram one (“We’re all f***ed.  I’m f***ed.  You’re f***ed. The whole department is f***ed.  It’s the biggest cock-up ever, and we’re all completely f***ed”), but we do have a serious problem.

We have a mountain to climb.  I’m not sure how to get there, or even what the next steps are.  Alas, I do know that my own next step is backwards: I’m not taking my laptop to the conference tomorrow.

Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

24 thoughts on “We have a mountain to climb”

  1. Doug,

    I too have experience objections to the use of laptops in meetings at the OU. However I could not keep up with my workload if I did not multi-task in meetings and I would find most meetings too boring to be at if I did not have something else to do at the same time. I work with many international groups and we all work this way. We can keep in touch across time zone and be highly responsive teams even if separated by 1000s of miles. I think the OU’s investment in the campus wide WiFi is excellent for this purpose.

    Best keep using the technologies and lead by example and ignore the people who don’t understand and take unnecessary offense.



  2. Hi Doug,
    Having a laptop and blogging a conference for me opens up a different dimension – explaining what is going on to an imaginary audience makes me think through what is being said. At times I will get distracted and sometimes I am working a few points behind the speaker – but being able to look up extra information more than makes up for it. I do this now even if I don’t post (I still have my store of pseudo-blogs – made but never posted). For the Vice Chancellor’s talk I was late and so didn’t get a seat and I feel that I would have got more out of it if I had been blogging. Thank you for blogging it for all of us.
    I don’t *think* I annoyed anyone today by blogging. I typed more like 2000 words than 10000 so was not so prolific. Another difference: I do think your keyboard is a bit noisy – get a Mac!

  3. Brian Kelly posted his earlier today:

    It contains a beautiful phrase: “amplified events”.

    Several talks today waxed lyrical on scholars engaging with the ‘wider community’. An important thing for conference delegates to appreciate is that they are not the sole intended recipients of the message of the conference, rather they are the amplification agents who also get to riff with the presenters and conf delegates in f2f convesation; but part of their DUTY is to disseminate the conf discussions – and blogging is good for that…

    ,,,and as you point out, digitally recorded notes are SEARCHABLE – try doing that with your longhand A4 notebook.

  4. Doug, I wasn’t there, so I can’t comment. Oh wait, yes I can! Using a combination of Twitter and RSS feeds I followed the conference proceedings yesterday. The whole experience was very valuable – amplified event is right. By liveblogging the conference you and the others who contributed increased the value of the event enormously for people who could not be there – colleagues abroad for example, and took the whole event beyond the borders of the OU. How ironic if this conference had not become an OER through your blogs!

  5. I tend to find that the the OU staff you mention catch up with things like this a few years after everyone else. Once it’s passed round a few groups and some policies and procedures have been set in stone, all the complainers will be claiming live blogging as their own idea!

  6. It’s embarrassing when people start a presentation by saying “I can’t use this technology” – I frequently wonder if we’d be better served hearing from whoever wrote the presentation.

    I missed the start too so I’m glad I could read about it and also catch up on the sessions that were happening while I was elsewhere. For those who missed them the sessions on employer and union engagement were great and included embedded video with sound! 🙂

  7. Like many others, I’ve been unable to attend this conference (thesis writing has made me far more circumspect in how I spend my time) however I’ve really valued the blogging and twitterings. I’ve blogged conferences for as long as I can remember (on a Vaio which I think is sort of average noisy). I blog my supervision meetings and I often take the minutes at other meetings (ie IAML) simply because I happen to be there and can do it easily. It never occurred to me that this might cause a problem in any of these settings.

    I was shocked to read your post. All the conferences I’ve attended have been stuffed full of people liveblogging and, more recently, twittering using a variety of different technologies – from PDAs with fold out keyboards thru to iPod touches (Ok that was me when I’d forgotten to bring anything else with me and wanted a few notes). Sure, I attend technology focused conferences, but I thought that’s what the Making Connections one was supposed to be too.

    I gather from your latest twitterings that you are now using old and failing technology. That is a big disappointment as it means I won’t have your blog posts to keep me up to date with what is going on.

    It’s probably too late to organise, but this would be a fascinating topic to bring up in open forum with all the delegates present and see how many acutally understand how blogging a conference can work. If you can do this, please can somebody liveblog it!

  8. Tried to liveblog a later session but I can’t type and listen at the same time 😦

    Great session though – it was about generating resources to support students and showcased some of the great work the library are doing.

  9. Perhaps, as we tend to do in the OU, we can come up with a compromise. All these ‘disrupters’ really need to sit together to prevent them contaminating others attending future Berrill events. I suggest a section of the Berrill (the middle of the back row for example) as being a ‘technology allowed’ (similar to old ‘smoking’ sections) area. Clear singposting of the area should be provided to allow people to keep clear of the polluting technology – unless they were a consenting adult of course and wanted to join in. The signs could all be written in the pink brand colour to match Tony’s shirt. We could even form a single-issue pressure group to demand power sockets…

  10. Doug,

    I was at the making connections conference and was first surprised to see several people typing on their laptops (Probably you haev been one of them). Since I do not often visit such conferences, it first was odd for me to see this happening. At first, I found it irratating to hear these clicking noises. However, like with so many things, if the annoyance is not directly in my face, I am able to block it out. So, I also found in this instance, that it had more to do with my attitude than with the typing if I was distracted or not.

    I believe more than anything, it requires education. I can imaging most people did not know what you were doing. We are also living in a society were manners and considerate behaviour seems to be forgotten by many. Just right now, I am more disturbed by the unreasonable loud music played in the neighbour’s house, than I was by any typing during presentations at OU. People yelling into their mobile phones that one has to first getting oriented if this is addressed to oneself, or the notorious disturbances that do not allow people to eat a peaceful meal at a restaurant due to the constant phone conversations by people that everybody is made a silent participant in are certainly examples that can explain some of the technophobia created within people’s minds.

    Like everything, a good balance need to be found that allows everybody to live in tolerance. Good will on all sides is necessary for that. Maybe new (n)ettikettes are necessary to achieve this. Maybe, it is possible that all people typing during a presentations are in one corner of the room which allows others who are easily distracted (maybe also due to slight hearing impairments, or bad PA) have a maximum distance to what is disturbing for them. Hopefully, this and the knowledge of what is really happening will stop unnecessary technophobia. And please continue to do what you do. I believe it is a service for all the people that did not have the opportunity to visit the conference, if they get still making connections via your writings.

  11. I’m by no means a technophobe but I find someone tapping away next to me at a conference or seminar very distracting – as distracting as someone tapping their fingers on a table. It varies, depending on the acoustics of the room but in most cases, if someone is constantly typing, it’s really annoying, especially as some people don’t type with a light touch – they’re really thumping the keyboard.

    It’s also a very real problem for folks with any hearing problems. If you have any kind of hearing problem then to have someone sitting near you tapping away on a computer is not just distracting, but actually prevents you from hearing everything, or in extreme cases, anything at all.

    Maybe the way to manage it until we have completely silent keyboards is to have an area specifically for laptop users (with powerpoints close by too) so they’re all together and clearly marked for laptop users and those who would find it particularly distracting or debilitating (like me) would sit somewhere else. I’ve seen this done before where the bloggers and journos were either at the front or at the back of the room.

    I think it’s probably also courteous to ask if someone minds you tapping away next to them before you sit next to them.

  12. Doug: I have gone from being the only person in a conference audience typing away – on an iPaq PDA with keyboard, mind, some time back in 2001 – to being lost in the multitudes. I still use the iPaq: the battery life is WAY better than just about any laptop, and it’s a lot more compact; it also has WiFi, so I can check my email or Websurf when bored.

    And I started for the same reason as you: my handwriting is illegible, and my hand hurts too much; I lose my notes, and they’re never in the same place as me.

    The new tech has passed me by a bit, I will admit: we’re on the end of a loooong and narrow pipe and simply don’t have the bandwidth to do these sorts of things in real time unless we’re out of the country! But I am enthused…!

  13. For tutorials I just digital record, then slam the bits I want into Dragon NS. Cumbersome for a lot of material and many speakers though.

  14. I believe that I was one of those who complained, and I am disturbed to find that I have been categorised as a technophobe. I believe that my observation was well founded, and, to be frank, I find your response thoughtless. I have no objection to you live blogging – in fact I think it’s great. I have no objection to you making notes if your handwriting is as bad as mine. I do object to your assumption that you can do whatever you like regardless of its effect on other people. The sound of your keyboard was loud – louder than most – and I found it genuinely distracting. If you want to blog, fine, strength to your arm. But you have a responsibility to get a quieter keyboard and not to be so dismissive of those who made their feelings known to you. As you point out we Brits don’t often complain – doesn’t that suggest that it really was distracting?

  15. Sorry, I’ve obviously not made myself clear.

    I agree entirely that it genuinely was distracting, and I apologise for disrupting the conference for so many people. I don’t for one minute believe that I can do what I like regardless of its effect on other people: my apologies if I gave that impression. Of course I don’t.

    After the comments, I stopped using my laptop in the plenary sessions, and tried to be very careful in using it in other sessions to ensure that those around were not going to be distracted. In situations where most people aren’t using laptops, I’m agreeing with you (I think?) that it’s distracting and not appropriate. At other conferences I’ve been to, the norm is to have a laptop, and it’s not a problem at all.

    The mountain we all have to climb is that the use of laptops in such conferences at the OU is very rare. The people attending were a self-selected group interested in innovations in teaching, and hardly anyone was making use of technology. I think that’s a big problem – and it’s a shared one. If we’re not, as a community, making use of these tools in our daily working life, then we’re going to struggle to make the most effective use of them in our teaching. And as the VC said in her keynote, we need to do that if we’re to succeed as a University in the current environment.

    I mean it about a shared problem, and I think I’ve made things worse, not better, by (inadvertently!) reinforcing a belief that laptops are disruptive and a distraction in large meetings, and technology users are inconsiderate. For which again my apologies.

  16. How very strange. I can’t remember the last conference where at least 1/3 of the audience weren’t using a laptop during talks (and all of the audience had laptops). I guess it’s the difference between a discipline which researches technology (and hence uses it) and a discipline which researchers the use of technology (and hence only needs to study people who use it).

    Still, I find it odd to think you come across an audience so technology averse in this day and age. They’d better get used to it in a hurry. I can remember the days when I used to encounter one or two laptops in the audience. It changes… and quickly.

    1. I know, it was odd, and potentially worrying. This was an internal conference, not an ordinary academic one, but in other respects it felt quite similar.

      I hope our new VC might help with the transformation. We really need to get a shift on here.

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