The Debate

A blog post on “Making Connections 2.0” by Martin Weller alerted me to the discussions which have been taken place following a recent conference at the annual internal Open University conference. As Martin describes on his Ed Techie blog one of his colleagues, Doug Clow, who was live-blogging the conference “was told by three different people in separate sessions to stop as his typing was offputting“. The pros and cons of use of a WiFi network during a conference have been further discussed by Doug Clow himself and by Niall Sclater.

A Framework For Use Of Networked Technologies

I have to say that I don’t find such debates surprising – indeed I wrote about this in a paper on “Using Networked Technologies To Support Conferences” (I wish I had Lorcan Dempsey’s skills in coining snappy names – nowadays we would refer to ‘amplified events’) which I gave at the EUNIS 2005 conference way back in June 2005. The paper described some early experiments in exploitation of WiFi networks, including my first experiment at a one-day joint UKOLN/UCISA event on “Beyond Email – Strategies For Collaborative Working In The 21st Century” in November 2004. But as the paper describes, rather than just providing access to the WiFi network and leaving the delegates to make use of it as they see fit, an Acceptable Use Policy was produced which was based on the general principle that “Use of mobile device and networked technologies to support the aims of the workshop with be encouraged” but which alerted the participants to their responsibilities: “The use of mobile device and networked technologies should not be disruptive to other delegates, infringe rights of privacy or breach copyright or cause degradation to the network which would aversely affect others“.

The paper went on to suggest that, rather than imposing a single-minded approach to policies regarding use of WiFi networks at events, there was a need for a framework for the development of an Acceptable Use Policy which would reflect the expectations of the users and take into account the potential diversity of views. The paper suggested the need for such a framework to address policy, technical, legal, social and organisational issues.

Implementing This Approach

This approach was implemented the following year at the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2005(IWMW 2005) held at the University of Manchester on 6-8thJuly 2005. An AUP was produced, together with details of networked applications which users might find useful during the event and an optional talk was held shortly before the opening of the event which provided details of how to connect to the WiFi network and use the applications.

But perhaps the most important approach taken was the evaluation of the technologies by the event participants. The evaluation form asked three questions: “I found use of the networked applications enriched the event“, “I found use of the networked applications distracting or disruptive to the event” and “I would encourage use of networked applications at future events“. A summary of the responses is given below.

Q1: I found use of the networked applications enriched the event

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
6 14 11 3 1

Q2: I found use of the networked applications distracting or disruptive to the event

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
2 8 16 5 4

Q3: I would encourage use of networked applications at future events

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
10 16 5 2 1

In addition the following comments were made:

Use of the technologies:

  • People need to follow the guidelines and TURN OFF laptop sounds
  • Need to be more inclusive – can you find a sponsor next year who will give us/lend us a wireless PDA or laptop?
  • Firewalls made it difficult
  • Tables for laptops and be better equipped rooms with more powerpoints
  • It seemed a little ‘gimmicky’ and I am not sure their use added
    real value/benefit to the workshop. Also the noise of people tapping
    their keyboard can be irritating!

General issues:

  • Please give bigger headlines about this in joining instructions
  • There’s a risk of it becoming too distracting
  • Some people may have been distracted by the availability of WiFi, but it’s up to each person to discipline themselves
  • IRC fun & thought provoking – allowing comment without disruption – could even reduce whispering!
  • I was sitting in ‘geek’ corner so it was disruptive, the clicking & beeping was a but much at times – but a very useful evil .. .and I could have moved so it can’t have been that bad!
  • Made it too easy to ignore presentations but makes it even more important for presenters to be interesting!
  • Non-users may feel under-privileged
  • Useful for sharing info but can be used negatively for ‘bitching’ about speakers
  • Very distracting in seminars
  • A negative effect if people abuse it e.g. surf the Web. Beneficial if people take notes.
  • Lots of people spent the session surfing the Web or checking their email – I found this distractive. Facilitators did not often refer to the Wiki.


It is interesting to note that although some of the problems and potential problems of use of networked technologies had been commented on by the participants, a majority (of 26 to 3) felt that use of networked technologies should be encouraged at future events. This indicates, I feel, that there is an awareness that potential problems can be addressed.

Subsequent IWMW events have made further use of networked technologies, and the numbers of participants with laptops has been growing steadily, will, I think, now over 50% of the audience bringing along and using their laptops.

We’ve explored (and will continue to explore) various ways of addressing the dangers. When I run workshop sessions, for example, I make it clear that laptops should only be used for purposes relevant to the session (e.g. keeping notes, discussions with others, checking relevant resources, etc.) and I try and joke about other uses (“I must be boring if your email is more interesting than this session“).

I’d also like to explore ways of making use of space at events – perhaps the geeks could go to other side of the lecture theatre (when the power sockets are to be found) leaving the other side to those who prefer pen and paper.

Simply suggesting that it’s rude to make use of laptops at conferences – with the implied suggestion that such use should be banned – is, I feel, inappropriate. Why, after all, are WiFi networks being installed in lecture theatres? But to raise concerns is appropriate – and we do need to explore ways in which we can seek to satisfy both the twitterers, live bloggers and Web surfers and those who don’t partake. In part this is being helped by the posts from Martin Weller, Doug Clow and others who are explaining why they do this and the benefits this can provide. But in addition event organisers, event chairs, facilitators, etc. need to explore ways of developing best practices for maximising the benefits of the technologies nut just for the early adopters and enthusiasts but for, if not all, then for many.