Five Things We've Learned About Sessions
by Erika Owens
As we near the deadline for SRCCON session proposals (April 10, pitch now) we wanted to share some of what we’ve learned about sessions so far. Thank you to everyone who shared feedback about last year’s conference and helped inform how we’re thinking about things this year.
2.5 hours can be too long
A lot of feedback we got last year about sessions commented on the length of the sessions. Last year, we had 1 hour and 2.5 hour session blocks. We tried to schedule sessions that were more hands-on building and teaching into the longer session blocks. This worked well for some sessions, but others didn’t quite have enough oomph to keep participants engaged the full 2.5 hours. This was also complicated by a 2.5 hour session competing not just against the other sessions in a single time slot, but in two time slots, as the sessions overlapped with two batches of hour-long sessions. We took this feedback and at the Mozilla Festival, we scheduled almost all one-hour sessions. This seemed to work well at MozFest and we plan to take a similar approach this year at SRCCON, while noting that…
1 hour can be too short
Sometimes you really do need more than an hour to dig into a problem or question or teach. We also heard last year that some sessions were not long enough! We’ve heard the same from other conference organizers: session length and structure can present a real challenge. Our plan this year is to encourage 1-hour sessions, but we added a question on the session proposal form to gather some more information about why the facilitator thinks a session would work well in an hour (or, a longer or shorter format). Once we receive all of the session proposals, we’ll figure out how to juggle the scheduling needs of highly interactive sessions on a variety of topics (as well as hopefully not create too much “fear of missing out”).
Build in time for connection
We scheduled half-hour breaks between sessions so that participants could actually wrap up those exciting conversations that always seem to blossom when there’s only a few minutes left in the session. As Erin mentioned, we tried to create lots of opportunities for informal conversation. At NICAR this year, David Eads and I organized a super informal track around just that–small group conversations. At SRCCON last year, I saw small groups hunkered around different parts of the Chemical Heritage Foundation talking through a particular question or speaking in a language other than English. We’re glad SRCCON holds sessions that can be the jumping off point for these smaller group conversations, and that we can provide this type of space throughout the day and during evening sessions, but if there are ways to bring these conversations into the session schedule itself, please let us know.
Embrace the unexpected
It was really amazing to see how the first day of SRCCON influenced the second day. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an event that evolved over the course of two days like that. The involvement of stenographers in many sessions provided one surprise element, but events within sessions inspired each other as well. I recall that Melody Kramer completely reworked her session to be in the format of a game, based on the sessions she had seen the first day. Aaron Williams and Jeremy Bowers' 2.5-hour session created an entry point for people who missed the first half of their session, but still wanted to join in. Embracing challenges and seeking out inspiration creates an energy that feeds participants and facilitators alike. Also, SRCCON staff and volunteers are always available if a sudden inspiration strikes. Maybe we won’t be able to get dirt sundaes for participants to excavate and eat as a metaphor for news development, but just ask and we’ll certainly try. (Yes, I just made that up, but see, it can be fun.)
Plan for what’s next
This is not a requirement for SRCCON sessions, but it’s just so great when it works out. With multiple opportunities throughout the year when different parts of the journalism code community come together–ONA, NICAR, MozFest, SRCCON, SND, regional and topical events–there are so many chances to continue talking or working on projects from one conference to the next. Data Smells began at SRCCON last year, went along to MozFest, and then showed up at NICAR, too. It’s so easy to reach the end of a session and exhale, just glad to have gotten through it, and never pick up the topic again. I’ve certainly been there. But we’re very interested in doing what is necessary to support facilitators in thinking about how projects may be able to live on after SRCCON and in actually helping get folks to other events to continue that work (stay tuned for some info soon about travel support, for SRCCON and more).
We’ve received a score of session proposals already, and we can’t wait to review them all after midnight Pacific time on April 10. We’ll have these considerations in mind as we construct the final schedule, and we always welcome additional feedback about how to make sure SRCCON is welcoming and productive for all participants.