Some thoughts on the Cascading Change (CaCha09) symposium at ASCILITE09

Sebastian Fiedler

On Monday, December 7. we carried out our Cascading Change symposium at the 26th ASCILITE conference in Auckland, New Zealand. For various reasons the original group of nine contributors was cut down to four who actually made it to Auckland. While I certainly would have liked to meet all the folks who had committed to the proposal, I think we would have been (even more) in trouble with the time-slot of 60 min that we had been allocated. Even if you get nine contributors to limit their air-time to 5 min statements (which already is a hard job) you end up covering 45 min. An open, conversational format is simply not possible in such a time frame.

So, even with the four remaining contributors we covered about 30 to 35 min with a few words of general welcome and introduction and a series of short impulse presentations of about 5 min each, before we could even open up to the larger plenum. We had agreed upon this format in a lively, preparatory conversation on Sunday afternoon before the actual conference kicked off. In fact, I think we should have brought that conversation on stage… but more to that later.

Altogether, our slightly eclectic individual statements/presentations apparently worked as a conversation opener. There was clearly interest in the over-arching theme and present ASCILITErs were eager to chime in an voice their opinions. However, when things just started to get somewhat interesting we already had to wrap up the session and disperse the convention. I found this extremely unfortunate. So, in retrospect I should have never accepted the reduction of the original 90 min time-slot by the planners of the overall conference programme. On the contrary, I think I should have demanded two hours as a minimum to tackle a demanding topic in a conversational format with a (potentially) large group of people.

For me this is not a mere matter of delivering a good performance for an audience. I actually want to hear other voices and opinions on a particular theme and not only broadcast what I have already thought through and then finish that off with a little harmless question and answer ping-pong. The latter seems to be considered the height of audience participation in academic conferences these days.


This brings me to the physical space. The theme of ASCILITE09 apparently was “Same places, different spaces”. Unfortunately, our symposium was placed in an enormous, theatre-style lecture hall that can certainly be qualified as yet another example of the “same spaces” (as usual) that one generally encounters in educational conferences. No matter what you do in such a space… it does not create an egalitarian, conversational flow. There are some actors on stage… and there are spectators. Our attempt to compensate a little by dragging in some chairs from the coffee break area didn’t show much effect, I suppose. It only ensured that the contributors moved at least away from the central podium. An appropriate “space” is just another aspect that I simply should not (and hopefully won’t) compromise about. A symposium simply requires “different spaces” than a good old lecture hall… no matter how fancy and well equipped it is.

I had a few conversations with George Siemens and Rob Fitzgerald during the remaining conference days on the symposium, the presentation formats encountered, and the general failure to create real, genuine dialogue within the actual conference programmes… and not only during the breaks and social get-togethers. In the case of a symposium I am willing to do away with any kind of impulse presentations. I can easily imagine to simply start with a conversation among a group of informed peers on stage… that gradually draws in more and more participants. It would provide a hyperlink-cloud around the individual contributors to get an idea of where they are coming from, and possible end with recommendations on further readings… plus some form of mediated conversation and exchange beyond the event. No presentations, no lecture halls, no 60 min time-slots. Stay tuned… I will try this somewhere sometimes in 2010.

[Sebastian Fiedler]

  1. I ran two events with that kind of format this year. I followed the unconference format. Both of the events went down really well with the delegates. Great conversations were had by all that attended.

    There were some issues.

    Some people can only attend events if they are presenting a paper which means an open unconference format can be a barrier for some.

    Others have to justify their attendance to managers and without a formal programme it can be difficult to justify.

    My view is that conferences such as Ascilite and ALT-C should have an open strand for such conversations. Providing space and coffee.



  2. Sebastian Fiedler said:

    Hi James,

    you are certainly right on the institutional demands. We were debating this a bit with George and Rob over dinner the other night. For example, we were pondering the idea to combine a pre-conference workshop with a symposium (in the actual conference programme). ED-MEDIA actually offers contributors of an accepted symposium the possibility to submit a short paper that is included in the proceedings. Such a mechanism allows colleagues to meet their institutional requirements… and then one can still run a more conversational (unconference) format as the actual event.



  3. I don’t know this conference, but the situation is one I’ve seen throughout the past few years.

    There’s got to be a way to mix up styles.

    Your cloud idea sounds good. Keep me posted, if I can participate.

  4. Here are three examples to consider:

    1/ NING. I’m a new PhD student from Auckland volunteering some time to help get a New Zealand Computer Society Artificial Intelligence Specialist Group launched, including a website at It was remarkably easy to set this site up. There is a sub-group for AI in Education which you are invited to join.

    2/ WIKI. LCA, coming up in Wellington in January 2010, has opened their event website up in a wiki-style. One fellow, Mitch Davis, used this flexibility to add an entirely new feature to the site to help attendees coordinate taxis, etc:

    3/ SLIDES+TV. Kiwi PyCon 2009 in Christchurch did a notable job of collecting SlideShare presentations and videos: