What would an evaluation conference look like if it was run by people who know and care about presenting information to support use? (hint - that should be us)


All too often conferences fail to make good use of the experience and knowledge of people attending, with most time spent presenting prepared material that could be better delivered other ways, and not enough time spent on discussions and active learning.  

With closing dates for two evaluation conferences fast approaching (the Australasian Evaluation Society and the American Evaluation Association), could you propose something more useful, that would demonstrate how much we know and care about communicating and using information?

Evaluation conferences can make an important contribution to strengthening evaluation capacity.  Participants can learn about new methods and processes, engage in discussions about pros and cons of particular choices in evaluation, get feedback on their work and challenges, and connect with colleagues and potential partners for future projects. Evaluation conferences can also play a role in strengthening or creating evaluation associations and their linkages to important stakeholders, such as users of evaluation, providers of evaluation services, and trainers of evaluators.

There are a number of evaluation conferences with open calls for proposals and this week we want to encourage you to consider engaging with them in ways that will advance the theory and practice of evaluation. 

Evaluation conferences should demonstrate that they are planned by and for people who care about and are good at taking in and presenting information.  Traditional conference formats make poor use of the opportunities provided by bringing a number of people with common interests and diverse experience together.  Classically, almost all the time is taken up as people read a prepared paper or speak to a PowerPoint.  There is a chance for a limited number of questions and answers or comments at the end.  Usually the time is taken up by a few people who are quick to put up their hand.  Then just as the conversation is getting interesting, the session ends.

There have been efforts to try other formats that will do a better job.  For example, the AES conference and the EES conference have experimented with the notion of Open Space, where people use a time and room that have been set aside, identify an agenda and discuss the issues.  The AEA has been using a number of innovative formats for several years. 

This year the AEA conference, with its theme of From Learning to Action, has explicitly called for proposals with innovative formats.

Why not propose a ‘flipped conference’ session – where the presentation is done beforehand (presenters make it available online, participants read it and send back comments and questions online), and then the face to face time is structured around the issues that have been identified in the feedback?

Would it be possible to have a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where presenters upload a brief video or narrated presentation, and those that get the most questions or comments get a slot at the conference to engage in more detail?

Or would one of the innovative formats provide a good process?  These are the formats already in use at the AEA conference:

Birds of a Feather Gatherings:  relatively small and informal discussion-based gatherings, aimed at building networks and exploring ideas. No formal presentation; instead the facilitators ensure that there is time for introductions amongst those in attendance and come with questions or ideas to spark discussion around a particular topic area.

Demonstrations: Demonstrations are formal 45- or 90-minute presentations that show how to use or apply an evaluation concept or tool. These sessions differ from Skill-Building Workshops which provide a hands-on experience.

Ignite Presentations: Ignite Presentations use 20 PowerPoint slides that automatically advance every15 seconds for a total presentation time of just 5 minutes.

Other Experiential Learning Session: Do you have a unique and interactive way of presenting contact? Choose this session type to submit a session that does not fit in to our traditional categories, but that challenges learners to engage with evaluation content in an innovative and interactive way. Potential formats for this session type include, but are not limited to sessions built around simulation, peer to peer dialogue and case base learning.

Roundtables: Roundtables are 45-minute oral presentations with attendees seated around a table. Roundtable presentations typically include 15 minutes of presentation, followed by 30 minutes of discussion and feedback.

Skill-Building Workshop: As part of a 45- or 90-minute session taking place during the conference, workshops teach a specific skill needed by many evaluators and include one or more hands-on exercises that let attendees practice using this skill.

Think Tank: A Think Tank is a 45- or 90-minute session focusing on a single issue or question. Initially, a chairperson orients attendees to the issue or question and relevant context. Then, attendees break into small groups to explore the issue or question and finally reconvene to share their enhanced understanding through a discussion facilitated by the chairperson.