The OSU Extension Service conference started today (#OSUExtCon). There are concurrent sessions, plenary sessions, workshops, twitter feeds, (Jeff Hino is Tweeting), tours, receptions, and meal gatherings. There are lots of activities and they cover four days. But I want to talk about conference evaluation.

The thought occurs to me: “What difference is this making?” Ever the evaluator, I realize that the selection will be different next year (it was different last year) so I wonder how valuable is it to evaluate the concurrent sessions? Given that time doesn’t stand still (fortunately {or not, depending}), the plenary sessions will also be different. Basically, the conference this year will be different from the conference the next time. Yes, it will be valuable for the presenters to have feedback on what they have done and it will be useful for conference planners to have feed back on various aspects of the conference. I still have to ask, “Did it make a difference?”

A long time colleague of mine (formerly at Pennsylvania State University penn-state-logo), Nancy Ellen Kiernannancy ellen kiernan proposed a method of evaluating conferences that I think is important to keep and use. She suggested the use of “Listening Post” as an evaluation method. She says, “The ā€œListening Postsā€ consisted of a group of volunteer conference participants who agreed beforehand to ā€œpostā€ themselves in the meeting rooms, corridors, and break rooms and record what conferees told them about the conference as it unfolded [Not unlike Twitter, but with value; parenthetical added]. Employing listening posts is an informal yet structured way to get feedback at a conference or workshop without making participants use pencil and paper.” She put it in “Tipsheet #5” and published the method in Journal of Extension (JoE), the peer reviewed monthly on-line publication.

Quoting from the abstract of the JoE article, “Extension agents often ask, “Isn’t there an informal but somewhat structured way to get feedback at a conference or workshop without using a survey?” This article describes the use of ‘Listening Posts’ and the author gives a number of practical tips for putting this qualitative strategy to use. Benefits include: quality feedback, high participation and enthusiastic support from conferees and the chance to build program ownership among conference workers. Deficits: could exclude very shy persons or result in information most salient to participants.”

I’ve used this method. It works. It does solicit information about what difference the conference made, not whether the participants liked or didn’t like the conference. (This is often what is asked in the evaluation.) Nancy Ellen suggests that the listening post collectors ask the following questions:

  1. “What did you think of the idea of …this conference? and
  2. What is one idea or suggestion that you found useful for your professional work? (The value/difference question)
  3. Then, she suggests, that the participant tell anything else about the conference that is important for us to know.

Make sure the data collectors are distinctive. Make sure they do not ask any additional questions. The results will be interesting.

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2 thoughts on “Conference evaluation

  1. Bob,
    Having used this method at conferences, it does give the listener insights to what was important at the time. It does not necessarily provide information about end user behavior. As you point out, that behavior is complex.
    molly.

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