What Instruction Librarians Could Teach The Rest Of Us About Conference Presentations

How many instruction librarians would actively choose the following scenario for maximizing learning in their classrooms?

Instructor stands at the front of the room, behind a podium, reading from or frequently consulting notes, while students sit passively in chairs facing the instructor, taking notes (or not). The students don’t have computers of their own in front of them, unless they brought their own laptops. The instructor projects Powerpoint slides onto a screen, which is distant from the podium, but the instructor never leaves the podium to go point at the screen or draw attention to certain features or elements on the screen, and doesn’t move around the room. The instructor talks continuously for nearly all of the class time, only allowing a few minutes, if any, for questions — and often runs out of time before s/he is through her content, thereby having to race through the last few slides. Students aren’t invited to talk to each other or collaborate in any way, and the instructor doesn’t ask them to contribute to the presentation in any way.

Does this not sound like the very opposite of active learning?

So why is it still the dominant-to-exclusive model for professional library conference presentations?

At Computers in Libraries last week, it was pretty much one “sage on the stage” after another. And I have to admit that it almost didn’t occur to me to expect anything different. Only late in the day on Tuesday (day 2 of the 3-day conference) did I suddenly realize that I’d been an incredibly passive learner all day. I should have started thinking about it after the Unconferences session, but it took a while to sink in. Now granted, some of those “sages” had excellent presentation skills, and the keynotes, especially the interview of Paul Holdengraber by Erik Boekesteijn, were terrific and inspiring (and, notably, made some use of multimedia content). But if we’d been doing this to our students, rather than to each other, we ought to have been ashamed of ourselves.

To give credit where it’s due: a few LOEX presentations that I’ve been to have broken free of this model — and they’ve been the best sessions, by far, that I’ve attended at LOEX — but those sessions have been very clearly labeled as “interactive workshops” rather than “sessions,” and there’s always language in the abstract that indicates that there will be audience participation. (Which sometimes sounds to me like a warning along the lines of, “if you want to sit in the back and snooze, you might want to pick another session.”) And those interactive workshops have, in the past at least, been a minority of the sessions at the conference, though I hope that will gradually change.

So what can we do about this? As a start, I’ll throw out there that I’d like to see all conference presentations include at least some element of active learning, and I’d like to see some conference presentations radically re-thought in terms of audience participation, to the point where they’re more unconference-like, and the “presenter” is really just a facilitator.

I know, I know – “but there’s all this content that I have to transmit to the audience!!!” Yup. Same here: ever try to tell 25 undergrads everything they need to know about searching JSTOR in 50 minutes? Guess what? It can’t be done. So don’t even try! Give them what they need to get started; give them the tools they’ll need to learn on their own, and then set them loose. Librarians are smart folks, we’ll figure it out.

Update, April 9, 2009: Here’s a great example of what I’m talking about: Sarah Houghton-Jan (the Librarian in Black) did a presentation for the Texas Library Association last week, and her slides are up on Slideshare. Take a look at slides #15, #23, and #32: in each one, she asks audience members to turn to the person next to them and discuss what they’re doing in response to a particular question. This is super, because it can work with any number of people in the audience, it provides little breaks in the presentation, and it gives audience members a chance to learn from each other. Great work, Sarah!


  1. Posted April 7, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Well put. I’ll admit to being a stand behind the podium presenter (although I don’t really use notes), but it’s always struck me as odd that we espouse all this stuff about teaching and then practice the exact opposite.

  2. Posted April 7, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    nicely stated! i have sat through numerous instruction-specific sessions — and the prestener does the “sage on the stage” gig — rather than “guide from the side.”

    practice what we “preach,” eh??? 🙂

  3. Posted April 7, 2009 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    My immediate reactions were defensive, which is how I know when someone is onto something. In our CIL session on unconferences we began with an interactive bit–having people shout out what they wanted to learn–but I fear it ended up being mostly theater.

    In classes, I tend to have a better idea of what to expect–how many people, what the room will look like, etc. But that’s probably not a very good excuse.

    Actually, it occurs to me that I don’t use active learning in my classes nearly enough, either. That I instead depend on the same demeanor I employ in conference presentations–try to be funny, approachable, and practical.

  4. Catherine
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Steve, I was going to mention your session as an example of one that actually *did* include some elements of active learning! I thought that part was great, and in fact it was an audience-member’s question about whether you could do this with schoolkids that prompted my whole brainstorm about undergrads. But somehow it didn’t quite fit into the flow of the narrative in the post, and got left out, and I’m sorry about that.

    I also should have made more of a point of saying that, done well — which you and Kathryn and John and Stephen absolutely did — a “sage on the stage” presentation can be fabulous. But there are many other ways of enabling learning, and I think our profession could stand to explore some of them in the context of our professional conferences.

  5. Posted April 10, 2009 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Catherine, Anna posted some great article and book recommendations over in the comments on my post:


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  1. […] I try not to just link to other posts very often, but I’ve been in catch-up mode since returning from Computers in Libraries late last week and haven’t had time to blog about it.  However, among the many other cool things I did and saw at CiL was meeting Catherine Pellegrino, who this morning posted on her blog about What Instruction Librarians Could Teach The Rest Of Us About Conference Presentations. […]

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