I’ve been lucky to have had some recent involvement with two online conference models — one that recently happened and one that will be happening soon. I’m really pleased to see more organized professional development opportunities being offered online in light of the current economic situation and, selfishly, the fact that I personally won’t be doing much in the way of travel for the near future.

The online conference that’s coming up is the ACRL Virtual Conference. This is the virtual component of ACRL’s National Conference which takes place next month in Seattle. I’m on the ACRL Virtual Conference committee, though I can’t take any credit for the coolness of this online conference. ACRL has had a virtual conference component for many years, though in the past, it didn’t offer a lot of bang for the buck — usually a few virtual talks and access to the conference community for networking and conference handouts. This time it’s very different. ACRL has contracted with a company that will be capturing the audio and slides of every presentation, and offering them as a movie at nearly the same time that the live session is going on (with just a tiny delay). This means that people registered for the virtual conference will be able to access every single presentation at the live conference. In addition, there will be live virtual presentations that are completely unique to the Virtual Conference, organized chat discussions, events in Second Life and more!

Attending the ACRL Virtual Conference will only set you back $165 (if you’re an ACRL member); a lot less than the physical conference, especially when you factor in travel expenses. And if you’re already registered for the National Conference, it’s FREE! For those who would love to attend ACRL but just don’t have the funds, this is a terrific opportunity to benefit from the knowledge being shared in Seattle without leaving your office.

The ACRL Virtual Conference committee is actually offering a Webcast kickoff event this week that anyone interested in social software, research and education should definitely be interested in:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 – 1:00 – 2:15 p.m. CST
(11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. PST | 12:00 – 1:15 p.m. MST | 2:00 – 3:15 p.m. EST)
The Virtual Conference kicks into high gear with a new feature for 2009 – the Kick-Off Webcast! On Tuesday, February 17, the Virtual Conference presents Jean-Claude Bradley, Associate Professor of Chemistry and E-Learning Coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University, giving an invited presentation that can be seen as part of the Virtual Conference. Take advantage of this opportunity to interact in real-time with this expert in e-learning and “open science.”

Jean-Claude is someone who has really inspired me with his use of social technologies and gaming in the classroom as well as his research on the potential of social software in improving research. More information about registering and the features of the Virtual Conference are available on the ACRL Conference website.

The other awesome online conference I was involved in was the Iowa Small Libraries Online Conference. In places like Iowa, small library can take on a meaning totally different from ALA’s definition of what a small library is. The libraries targeted by this conference tend to be really small and without the resources to send its library staff across the state to attend a conference. So, instead of having a conference that only libraries with sufficient funding could afford to send staff to, the regional library associations in Iowa created an online conference that any interested librarian could participate in. They capitalized on their WebJunction membership and used the Wimba web conferencing platform. It was just like any normal conference with live scheduled presentations. They even had a virtual exhibit hall where attendees could chat with vendors!

I had the pleasure of giving the keynote presentation at the conference. As someone who has done gazillions of webcasts using just about every platform imaginable, I was really impressed with how well the conference organizers supported attendees and speakers technologically. Things went extremely smoothly and given the professionalism and preparedness of the organizers, I would assume that it continued that way throughout the day. I was absolutely touched that they sent me a little care package with chocolates, socks, a mug and hot cocoa so I’d be cozy and comfortable during my talk (that has to be the most adorable speaker’s gift I’ve ever received). But much more than that, I was so proud to be part of a conference that made professional development accessible to people who may never have been able to get to a national or even state conference. Associations that have lots of rural or small library members should definitely take a lesson from the wonderful people in Iowa who made this possible.

I’d originally wanted to make the ALA Unconference a hybrid f2f/online experience, but most people on Jim Rettig’s advisory committee felt that we should focus on the in-person element. In hindsight, I think they were right. As it turns out, the Unconference is going to be located in a hotel that may or may not offer wireless Internet access (or Internet access at all — I have no idea since we don’t even know what hotel it’ll be in). Given how difficult it can be to get really reliable wireless access at an ALA Conference we could have ended up creating expectations for an online component that we simply could not deliver on. And while the online/offline balance for the Top Tech Trends meeting at Midwinter was brilliantly executed to allow for maximum participation from all (kudos to the tireless organizers of that!), the online components integrated into that same panel actually ended up being a distraction at Annual. While I’d love to do a hybrid Unconference in the future, I’m glad other folks talked us out of it this time around. I’d hate to have created something that would have served to show ALA that Unconferences are not a good model for them.

I feel much more optimistic this year about the growth of online conference opportunities than I did last year. And as budgets shrink and professional development funds become scarce, I hope more organizations will consider creating online conferences — if not as the main event, at least as a component of a F2F conference like ACRL. Because it’s likely that far fewer of us will be able to jet off to Seattle or Chicago or Boston or DC next year and conference organizers will have to be creative to keep their own revenues up.