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Bite-Size that Satisfies: Brief Content Sessions on the Show Floor

How one association applied its online microlearning strategy to its annual conference education, addressing emerging topics while keeping the exhibit hall bustling.

At the 48th annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers in July 2018, many of the 2,500 attendees came away with useful lessons and ideas for their work simply by detouring a few steps from the exhibit floor for 15 minutes at a time.

That's because in an area near the hall entrance, surrounded by inflatable walls designed to dampen outside noise, presenters led brief, focused discussions related to emerging topics in university operations and finance—topics that have not yet gained enough traction to displace an existing breakout session from the conference schedule, but ones that attendees want to know about nonetheless. One example: students paying tuition with Bitcoin.

“A lot of our membership are CPAs, so we were looking at how we could refresh the conference and maximize continuing education credits, but without spending extra money,” says Altovise Davis, manager of program development for NACUBO. “Our leadership was willing to adapt; they said, 'What should we be covering to stay relevant and deliver the right information to our membership?' So, we thought to create smaller, more intimate sessions that were easy to attend, and came up with a curriculum we call Snapshots.”

This idea actually came to the association unexpectedly, after NACUBO's executive committee drafted a blueprint in 2017 that focused on developing microlearning segments to be delivered online to members. For that initiative, “we transcribed our ten most popular podcasts and identified all the themes. We found many simple concepts our leaders were talking about in each podcast that we could break out and deliver individually in two to three minutes,” says Tadu Yimam, senior director of online learning and publishing for NACUBO. “We asked our podcast hosts to come back into our on-site studio and repeat the podcast for video, and we are now splicing and packaging those for online distribution.”

Even though her job focus is on the electronic medium, “we think it is important to align our efforts across both our online and in-person offerings to be short and more digestible, to match the time constraints of our members,” Yimam adds. And it turned out to be quicker to implement the new concept at the in-person event; the online initiative debuts at the end of May.

The Logistics, and the Results
For the 2018 show, “we went through 200 presentation proposals and chose 40 for formal breakouts, and eight more to use for Snapshots,” Davis says. The 15-minute Snapshot sessions use both soft and hard furniture to create a conversation-friendly space rather than having all attendees face forward; session leaders present a few thoughts and then facilitate a peer discussion. Further, Snapshot sessions use LCD screens rather than projectors, and session leaders use handheld microphones. Some other events that conduct in-the-hall education, such as the meeting and event industry's annual IMEX show in Las Vegas, use attendee headsets matched to the frequency of the presenter's microphone to eliminate outside noise. But that limits the number of possible attendees because amplification cannot be used in conjunction, meaning that standing-room attendees cannot listen in.

At the NACUBO show, Snapshot seating in an area of the show floor called The Lab was for 60 people “but we exceeded that number most of the time, and we got 100 in some sessions,” Davis notes. “We were far enough from the exhibit booths that outside noise wasn't a problem, though we must work with our exhibit floor manager and business-development team to make sure hall announcements don't interfere with sessions.” But with Snapshot sessions running four per day in consecutive fashion, Davis needed only a 75-minute window each day when announcements were curtailed.

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Attendee response to the debut of Snapshots was “really positive,” says Davis. “They did not feel that Snapshots took away from any breakouts or other event elements. It just felt like part of the floor experience—they could go grab lunch and talk to exhibitors first because we did not start the sessions at the start of show hours. And when there was no Snapshot session happening, they could use the space to relax or have a conversation.”

For NACUBO's 2019 annual event in July, there will be a second in-the-hall learning space set up identically to the first, called Tech Talk. As for topics, “we saw a bit of a gap in our formal content regarding emerging technologies that our members' institutions can use,” Davis says. While these sessions will last 45 minutes, “we'll only have them overlap the Snapshots curriculum by a few minutes at most, so that people can do both if they choose. And they'll be able to walk the show floor for a while before the sessions begin.”

Overall, “we want to be at the forefront of association education,” Yimam says. “We've had a content studio to do distance learning for 12 years. Now, we're live-streaming and video-recording sessions from our in-person events. So, people can participate remotely in real time, and all members can access the recordings afterward, which means that conference attendees can map out their show days strategically and not feel like they'll miss anything.”    

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