Tales From the Field: My First #heweb

Smartphone? Check!
iPad or laptop? Check!
Twitter account? Check!
Eagerness to share and learn? Check!
Sense of humor? Check!

Equipped and ready, I headed to the 2011HighEdWeb National Conference in Austin, Texas (October 23-26). It was my first time to attend.  If all goes to plan, it won’t be my last.

The Venue

Austin is a great city for work and for play. Access is relatively easy—at least I didn’t hear anyone complain about having a hard time getting there. (Hours in airplanes and airports due to climactic conditions or airlines don’t count!)

The city has something for everyone.  With the hotel’s being downtown, sportive people could walk or jog along the lake; cultural sorts had several museums nearby; and nightlife types had a wide selection of clubs, music venues, and restaurants within reach.

The Hyatt Regency Austin resiliently accommodated the larger-than-predicted group. Some long lines at the elevator could be frustrating at times, but the catering department certainly did keep the breakfast and lunch lines moving.

Growing pains can be a double-edged sword.  HighEdWeb is undoubtedly elated that its conference attracted more attendees than ever before, but unfortunately, the Hyatt Regency sold out much sooner than expected. As a result, many attendees had to stay in hotels across the lake from the Hyatt. Understandably, for those people, the distance and the shuttle bus rides complicated their experiences.

The Sessions

If colleagues think conferences are vacations, then they haven’t been to HighEdWeb!

I was not able to attend any of the pre- or post-conference workshops; however, everyone whom I talked to who did found them worthwhile. I heard particular buzz about the Web leadership workshop. Web teams are hungry for best practices in Web governance.  Administrators, are you listening?

The two primary conference days were densely packed with informative sessions presented by passionate practitioners. I have never been to a conference that had eight sessions plus a keynote in one day.  It was almost like a school day where every class is relevant and applicable.

The conference offered six tracks that tidily corresponded to areas of expertise necessary for the development of higher ed websites:  Applications and Standards, Content, Marketing and Management, Social Media, Technical, and Corporate Offerings. You could focus on one track or you could sample across the smorgasbord. While I focused on one track, I enjoyed dipping into the other tracks when I could.

Best of Track Sessions

The Best of Track Sessions are unique to HighEdWeb (as far as I know), and they’re a great feature.

After the session days, the conference leadership team tallied the evaluation results and announced the session in each track that received the highest score from attendees. (Attendee opinions did count and were read!) On the last day, two session slots were devoted to encore presentations of the Best of Track sessions.

Thus, all attendees got to see at least two of the best sessions of the conference. Not only did this system provide excellent exposure to well-presented sessions, but it also allowed attendees to see presentations on topics they might not have otherwise seen.

An added bonus: Winners received coveted red staplers!

The Mobile App

The Mobile App was a brilliant and entirely appropriate addition to the conference.

Personally, three aspects of the app stood out for me:

  • Session Evaluations–A self-professed hybrid with one foot planted firmly in paper and the other planted firmly in bytes, I was surprised to find myself submitting session evaluations as often by phone as on paper. Of course, many eagerly evaluated sessions exclusively through the app.
  • Conference Schedule–Having the conference schedule a part of the app was also very handy. Referring to a Smartphone is a well-established reflex for this community.  In fact, for many, the Smartphone is never out of hand or sight!  No need to pull out a catalog or paper schedule.
  • Twitter Feeds–HighEdWeb is the most avidly tweeting group I have ever encountered, so naturally, many of the late-breaking conference changes and updates were tweeted before they are posted anywhere else.  I have a Twitter account, but I am not a Twitter-er.  The News feature of the app allowed me to check the latest updates and comments via #heweb11 and @highedweb. This easy access to the Twitter feeds made me feel in the know even though I didn’t tweet regularly with the flock.

Though Blackberry users and those without Smartphones missed out on a handy conference tool, they were not lost without it. The bright, shiny conference catalog contained the same info as did the fabulously nifty (in my opinion) pocket schedule that was tucked in every conference wallet/name badge.

The Audience

The impressively large international group was composed of attendees from every state but Hawaii, New Mexico, and North Dakota. I enjoyed talking to several Canadians but did not have a chance to discover what other countries were represented.

Diversity

Over the course of the conference, I visited with MarCom specialists, programmers of all kinds, faculty members, social media gurus and Web specialists of all flavors. I also talked with individuals who are all of these specialists rolled into one person.

  • Some people were on their third or fourth conference while others were first timers like me.
  • Some were by themselves and some were with a large group from their school.
  • Some were very young, and others were less young.
  • Some were terribly technical while others were more marketing and writing centric.
  • Community colleges, four-year universities, research universities, small private colleges, big public universities and others were represented.

How interesting, fun and enlightening it is that all this expertise comes together on the Web and at HighEdWeb!

Leadership

The leadership and conference teams form a close-knit group whose members devote year-round time, effort and energy to HighEdWeb—both the organization and the conference.   I believe we, the attendees, benefit from the atmosphere their camaraderie and zeal create.

The Society

HighEdWeb was sure to provide plenty of social outings, er, uh, opportunities for networking outside of the sessions.

Each night of the conference featured a social event. These large events provided casual opportunities to mingle with colleagues whose paths you might not have crossed in sessions or at breakfast/lunch. Plus, you were already out and could easily continue the party as long as you wanted.

If you didn’t want to participate, no problem.  No one made you feel left out for passing on an evening event.

The Collegiality

With this being my first year, I knew almost no one.  Two of my colleagues were also at the conference, but we had decided beforehand to divide and conquer.  During the conference kick-off session, we were urged to sit with a stranger at each and every event. I took the advice to heart. It never failed me.

No matter where I sat, I was next to someone unknown to me. I enjoyed meeting a wide variety of people with a wide variety of backgrounds who work in a wide variety of institutions.  Everyone was friendly and eager to tell tales from the trenches.  We easily shared information about our jobs, our schools, our triumphs, and our failures.

Which brings me to what I feel is one of the greatest gifts of this conference . . .

Some high ed websites are maintained by a team of one. Others are maintained by fragmented teams spread across departments. Still others have a dream Web team.  But no matter what our circumstances may be, we tend to feel alone in our challenges and frustrations when immersed in our day-to-day fire extinguishing and windmill jousting.

However, when we come to HighEdWeb, we see that we are definitely not alone. We support, help, and teach one another.

The We’re-All-In-This-Together Spirit. It’s priceless.