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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Making #heweb14 Sausage (Not a Sandwich)

On Thursday, I returned from the Higher Education Web Professionals Association (or "HighEdWeb" if you're more into the brevity thing) 2014 Annual Conference (#heweb14) in Portland, OR. This was my third HighEdWeb, after getting the band together at #heweb11 and a twofer of presenting at #heweb12 (see my wrap-ups here and here), and, along with presenting this year in the Usability, Accessibility, and Design track, I helped cochair the Management and Professional Development track with Henderson State's Tonya Oaks Smith (with whom I also had the pleasure of presenting a talk back at #heweb12). From great sessions, even better social events (shout-out to Karaoke from Hell), and a final keynote with Chris Hardwick that brought the house down, #heweb14 was probably the most consistently awesome conference I've ever attended.

This was my first time being on the other side of a conference, and I have to say that, despite the fact that I have frequently hung out with the organizers of conferences I've attended, I had no clue how much coordinated effort goes into putting on an event of this size. Between the conference and program committees, there were a couple dozen of us involved, all ably captained by Conference Chair Sara Clark of Missouri State. It really is amazing that something with so many moving parts, all of whom are volunteers, manages to run as smoothly as these things do every year. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, consider the fact that from the week before the conference until the day after, the committee sent over 1200 text messages to each other. Not a few of these were just us goofing around with each other, but they also included everything from "Does anyone have a key to the office?" to "My presenter isn't here yet, what do I do?" Somehow, though, this is all seamless to the attendees.

At the wrap-up, debriefing dinner, Sara asked us to share three things about the conference: something we thought was positive, something that could be improved, and something that we'd overheard from the audience (or "OH," in Twitterspeak). I can't think of a better way of summing up my experience then repeating what I said there.

Positive: I think that what sets HighEdWeb apart from any other conference I've been to is the fact that it is put together by people who are really there for the right reason, they are having so much fun and are so enthusiastic about what they're doing, and that is infectious for the attendees.

Improvement: All of those moving parts make for a lot of confusion if you're not familiar with the processes, so I felt a little bewildered and overwhelmed occasionally. I'm sure that if I'm lucky enough to be involved in next year's conference, though, that feeling would lessen.

Overheard: I spent much of the sessions in the MPD track monitoring the backchannel on Twitter, and what struck me -- and I think this was borne out by Dave Cameron's "Human at Work" presentation winning best-in-conference -- was how many of the talks that had little to do with the web itself were really resonating with attendees. A conference that was ostensibly about technology turned out to really be about nurturing peoples' humanity.

At various points in the conference several attendees, some of whom I'd never met, made a point to come up and thank me and my fellow organizers for everything we did to make the conference happen. Really, though, it's the organizers who should be thanking the attendees for giving us the opportunity to get so deeply involved in something so incredible.

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