I recently had the pleasure of attending the Lausanne Laptop Institute.  It’s held in Memphis every summer and even with the intense heat that is a southern summer, the audience grows every year.  I’ve been several times before and it is one of my favorite conferences—suitable both for hard-core techies and academics.


Since it is a conference for those who focus on the use of technology in schools, there is a pretty active backchannel on Twitter.  So, what is a backchannel and why does it matter?  To me, there are two components of the backchannel, Twitter (this post) and live-blogging (discussed in part two).  Each works alone, but when they are combined effectively, their power grows exponentially.


In the time period around a conference, a hashtag marks those tweets that are designed to communicate about the conference. Every tweet about the conference will include the hashmark, usually an abbreviation of the name and the year.  For the laptop institute, the hashtag was #li11 Early tweets might include the call for presentations, participants looking for co-presenters, registration deadlines, etc.  As the conference begins, there will be official tweets for time changes, transportation information or even valuable tips such as “there is a second line for lunch in the back of the café, it’s much less crowded.”  These are nifty things to know, and those who follow the conference on twitter not only get news first, they become valuable conduits of information to those around them.


During the conference, another type of tweet emerges and dominates the twitter stream.  These are snippets from sessions that the participants found most meaningful.  In their resource-packed bookCommunicating and Connecting with Social Media, the authors point out that these types of tweets encourage the senders to reflect, if briefly, on a few key points from the speaker’s talk.  In addition, the hashtag allows others to easily find and peruse the thoughts others are sharing.


For example, during Jeff Utecht’s keynote “trailer” at dinner, he asked us why we continue to gather at conferences when so much content is available online, for free.  Vinnie Vrotny (@vvrotny) tweeted out “at #li11, @jutecht keynote essential q was why gather at a conf or classroom when content is freely available? What is our role #isedchat” This tweet resonated with a number of people, both conference attendees and those following the hashmark from afar.  The addition of the #isedchat ensured that other educators noted the tweet as well.  An enthusiastic discussion about the value of making face to face connections with virtual colleagues ensued, among a crowd of both virtual and IRL (in real life) conference attendees.


The conversation continued throughout the next few days.  Tools such as TweetDeck and HootSuite help the uber-connected participants keep track of multiple conversations.  Others content themselves using one of the basic Twitter apps on a smartphone or the actual Twitter website.  Some of the distant participants in the conversation had not been aware of the Laptop Institute prior to the twitter chatter.  At least one has vowed to attend next year, and will doubtlessly participate in the “on-site” backchannel then.


Perhaps the best part is that the conversation doesn’t end when the conference does.  New connections are made that continue via twitter as the phrase  “I’m going ot follow you now” is repeated throughout the conference.  In addition, while #li11 has gone quiet, many of those who participated joined the already existing #isedchat crowd, making that conversation all the richer.  Thursday nights at 9pm–check it out and join in the conversation.


Part two–the backchannel when 140 characters just isn’t enough. . .


Sarah Hanawald

Sarah Hanawald

Director of Technology at Saint Mary's School