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Peer-Learning: The Next Frontier for Conferences

Peer-Learning: The Next Frontier for Conferences

E-180’s Knowledge Market at C2MTL. Photo by Allen McEachern.


You need to stay in touch with the latest innovations in your field. You know some of your peers are going to be there. You need to renew your network and develop new partnerships. And hell, you’ve never been to Maui.

You register for that conference.

You travel 3,000 miles. On the plane you check out the schedule, the list of attendees. You make a rough plan of talks you’d like to attend, but more importantly, people you’d like to meet, those “valuable strangers”. You arrive onsite, alongside 5,000 other people: some of them interesting, some of them less so.  Your team doesn’t care if you’re away: emails labelled URGENT are still coming in and you spend most of the talks checking your iPhone – you’ve heard it all before, anyway.

Each time you have a 20-minute break to network, you scramble to hunt down the participants you’d like to meet, holding on to your glass of wine like a compass, hoping that the Gods of Serendipity are on your side.

Maybe you got lucky and met the people you were hoping to meet… maybe not.

Back on the plane, you question the value that this event has brought to your life, and wonder if you’ll ever register for a conference again.

Sound familiar?

This is how most people experience events.

The broadcast-based educational model is dying, and events should pay attention

Meanwhile, collaboration is changing everything: from the way we travel to the way we learn. Increasingly, human beings are moving from spectators to actors in their lives and claiming the authority to become active in fields where they have been passive for so long. As learners, we set up our curriculum for the year, not relying on a new diploma, but rather on our own gumption, peer-learning communities and MOOCs to learn new critical skills.

What lessons can events learn from the recent whirlwind of changes that have been taking education and learning by storm? How can we rethink the traditional conference model, to ensure it is in sync with participants’ new learning habits?

Our main takeaway: content is now accessible online, through a variety of channels. Human beings, with their wealth of experiences and knowledge, are the biggest asset of any great event. You’d never leave your content to chance: why would you leave relationship-building to random chance? As an event organizer, these insights can help you become the matchmaker that makes sure your attendees find and learn from their valuable stranger, while under your care!

1. Great content brings the right people together

There was a time when the only way people could access inspiring content was by being directly exposed to it, by being physically present while said content was being delivered. Although this is no longer true, great content still serves as a channel to bring the right people together, in the same space and at the same time.

A mistake conference organizers often make is to think like a new teacher: more content is more value, so let’s jam-pack the schedule with more examples, more case studies, more facts. An experienced teacher knows that it’s not because you are teaching that they are learning. Teaching is not only about content, but rather about guiding learners through a meaningful learning experience, where content plays only part of the critical role. The activation of the content through real-life challenges and engaging discussions, for instance, is key to learning.

So the question is: what additional value could you provide to your attendees if you reduced the amount (but surely not the quality) of your content?

2. The person sitting next to you might teach you more than the person on stage

Many conferences and events still rely on a three-day, one-way information broadcast model to engage their passive attendees, while most of them are really just wondering who else is in the audience and how they can learn, not from the expert on stage, but from the expert probably sitting right next to them.

By having the right content, event organizers bring the right people together. They are acting as the host of the best party ever, too often forgetting that part of their job as a host is to help their guests meet the right people. This is the reason why most attendees will travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to attend a conference. In an age where everything can be found online, this is now the biggest value-add of events, since meaningful relationships are just easier to build in person, as Alex Pentland from the Human Dynamics research group at MIT reminds us. Which leads me to…

3. Meaningful relationship-building takes time

Back to the jam-packed schedule: if you are serious about fostering the development of meaningful relationships among your attendees, you have to make room in your schedule for it.

You have to explicitly give your attendees permission to adopt a new behaviour, as most of them, having been educated for 15 to 25 years in a lecture-style schooling system, won’t naturally be choosing relationships over content. We’ve definitely seen attendees ditching content to focus on brain dates, but most of them have a hard time owning their schedule and deciding to skip class to meet-up with their meaningful stranger while actually, they probably should be attending the talk.

The solution: make room in your event’s schedule for peer-learning, and call it as such.

Now your attendees only need the tools to find their meaningful stranger.

4. A title and a name only say so much about someone

Here’s a good story to illustrate this. Following a partnership with global event organiser Richard Attias and Associates, E-180 acted as matchmakers for peer-learning during the Doha GOALS Forum, in 2013 and 2014.

In 2013, we met attendee and speaker Hamza Abdullah, known for walking away from a lucrative NFL contract to pursue his faith by addressing the fifth pillar of Islam, which is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. As a Doha GOALS 2013 attendee, Hamza had completed his profile on our matchmaking platform, stating his Offers and Requests for knowledge.

Hamza was very generous of his time, and definitely popular for his Offers (one of which was “How to win college scholarships through sport”). But one of his Requests earned him special attention: he wanted to discover how to start an NGO, as he had been deeply moved by his trip to the Middle east and wanted to give back to his community.

A name and a title – Hamza Abdullah, NFL Player – wouldn’t have done justice to the wealth of knowledge he was willing to contribute to the Doha GOALS community, nor to his learning needs. A directory of titles and names on a mobile app can’t account for the fantastic diversity of human experience suddenly available when you gather 5000 human beings under one roof.

New learning habits, new conference model

As your participants’ learning habits are changing, so is your role as an event organizer. Just like an educator would do, you will add a great deal of value to their experience by helping attendees getting more clarity on their own learning goals and potential contributions to the event community-at-large, making sure to broadcast not only your great content,… but also theirs.

E-180 | Labs‘ mission is to transform events, spaces and organisations into peer-learning hubs, through what we call Brain Dates. Learn how here!


Christine Renaud

Christine is the CEO of E-180. She graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a Knox Fellow, focusing on informal learning. She has shared her work on collaborative learning at conferences such as SxSW, C2 Montréal, Morgan Stanley’s Women Summit & TEDxLA.