Crowdsource, Curate, or Combo?

The most common model for selecting presenters for educational conferences is pretty straightforward:

  1. Announce a call for proposals (or call for papers, call for abstracts, call for speakers, etc.)
  2. Collect proposals
  3. Have a committee of volunteers review the proposals
  4. Select presentations based on the reviews
  5. Build a session program that accommodates the selections

Although the process works for the vast majority of meetings, it’s hard to argue that it can’t be improved.

One suggestion we’ve noticed recently is to open the process up to crowdsourcing. Basically, the idea is to leverage the power of social media by turning over the selection (and possibly scheduling) tasks to attendees. For a more detailed explanation, see Michelle Bruno’s postat TSNN.

Another suggestion, seemingly at odds with crowdsourcing, is to have a curator manage the selection and scheduling tasks. The idea here is that conferences, like museum exhibits or other curated collections, are far more effective if the content is carefully selected and organized to “tell a story” to attendees. For more information, see Jeff Hurt’s post on Velvet Chainsaw’s Midcourse Corrections blog.

So which is it? Crowdsourcing obviously works for larger conferences, like SXSW, but does it also work for smaller meetings with more focused content? And how about curating? Does it work for every type of conference or only for those that can be organized around a clear theme? How about a hybrid? Is it possible (or even desirable) to combine the two into a single model?

New Feature: Text Limits  

We’re really excited to announce a new feature in ProposalSpace: text limits.

Call admins can now assign a word or character limit to any text field in a proposal submission form or role form. Just select “Word Limit” or “Character Limit” from the pull-down menu in the question settings, then enter the number of words or characters you want for the limit.

Text Limit Screenshot

We designed the feature to follow Twitter-like rules, so responses are allowed to exceed the limit.

Text Limit Screenshot

Extra text is displayed with ellipses, which can be clicked on to reveal the full response.

Text Limit Screenshot

Check it out and let us know what you think!

Ignorance is Bliss

Call administrators: Have you ever come across a proposal that, for whatever reason, you just want to ignore? Now you can [with ProposalSpace]!

Simply select “Ignore” (from the Options menu) for any draft proposal or unapproved submission and ProposalSpace will treat it as if it never existed. To see the proposals you’ve chosen to ignore, just click the “Show Ignored” link. And to start tracking an ignored proposal again, just select “Don’t ignore”.

Tips for Effective Conference Proposals  

We just came across some excellent advice from Alessandro Angelini for how to create and present the best possible paper for an educational conference, including how to:

  • Find a suitable conference
  • Write a strong abstract
  • Write the paper
  • Prepare the presentation
  • Present the paper

You can find it at http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2010/11/03/angelini

Free Software? Better Budget for It.  

Thinking of using free abstract management software? It might be enticing, but consider the following:

  • Free software almost always has to be installed. If you install it yourself, it costs time. If you have someone to do it for you, it costs money. Either way, installations can fail for reasons beyond your control. Delays may or may not be what a conference organizer can afford.
  • Free software rarely comes with reliable, fast support. Even if you get it installed without any problems, you’re still looking at configuring, maintaining, and troubleshooting it without much assistance.
  • Free software often comes with limited functionality. If you find yourself in need of additional features, you either have to modify the software yourself or upgrade to the paid version. (This is known as a “freemium” model, where the free version is really just a gateway to the paid version.)
  • Updates for installed software come in the form of releases. In order to stay current with new features and bug fixes, not only do you have to regularly track releases, you also have to apply them.

Paid and hosted software avoids all these issues. There’s nothing to install, nothing to maintain, and support is readily available whenever you need it.

At first glance free is attractive, but be careful: free can end up costing you a lot.

Why a Hard Deadline Is Better Than a Soft Deadline  

We argued previously that a soft deadline for submissions is better than a hard deadline. Now we’re going to argue the opposite: that a hard deadline can be preferable to a soft deadline. We’re not doing this to confuse you, we’re just trying to point out that each has its own benefits and that your choice should depend entirely on your own unique situation.

Unlike a soft deadline, which is nothing more than an initial target for authors to shoot for, a hard deadline is the absolute final date and time you will accept submissions. You always have the option of accepting late submissions on a case-by-case basis, but as a general rule, authors who miss a hard deadline are out of luck—at least until the next call.

A hard deadline is better than a soft deadline because:

  • It avoids confusion. You can publish one deadline and authors won’t have to figure out if it has passed or been extended.
  • It forces authors to budget their time for unforeseen problems, which can lead to earlier submissions.
  • It shows you mean business. A hard deadline lets authors know that you are serious about the organization and planning of the conference.
  • It lowers your stress. Once the deadline has passed you no longer have to worry about submissions.

The key to a hard deadline, of course, is that you never extend it. Otherwise, you’ve just created a soft deadline.

Also, when setting a hard deadline, be painfully precise about the exact date and time of the deadline. It’s true for any deadline, but especially true for hard deadlines: include a time—and time zone—along with the date. And if you’re going to set your deadline for noon or midnight, don’t use “a.m.” and “p.m.”.

What to Include in Every Call

Wondering what information you should include in your call? Here’s our checklist of the key pieces of information every call should have. (You can really never have too much information, though, so consider these the minimum.)

  • Submission deadline (Yes, we have seen numerous calls that neglect to mention the date submissions are due. If you don’t have one, set one. People need to know how much time they have or they may never even begin to work on their proposals.)
  • Purpose / theme (Don’t assume everyone knows exactly what the call is about. Assume instead that this is their first time to hear about it. At a minimum, give them a general description of what you’re looking for. If possible, provide a list of specific topics.)
  • Qualifications (Let people know up front if there are any requirements they must meet—like being a member of your association—in order to respond to your call. If the call is open, be sure to mention that, too.)
  • Contact information (There will be questions. Don’t make it difficult for people to get answers. Always include contact information so they can easily reach you with questions, comments, or concerns.)
  • Examples (This isn’t absolutely necessary, but examples of previous submissions are a terrific way to show people what works—or doesn’t work.)

For conferences, you should also include the conference dates and location. That way, people can determine whether they can attend.

Lastly, if the information for your call is on your Web site (which it should be), try to keep it all on one page. Not only does it make it easier to find information, it also makes it easier for people to print it all out.

New Feature: Test Mode

Call administrators now have the option of testing a call in ProposalSpace before making it live.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Once your call is complete (has all the information required for activation), you simply click a button to place it in “test mode”.
  2. The system automatically generates a special URL, which you and your testers use to create and submit test proposals.
  3. Administrators, review chairs and reviewers have full access to the call—as if it were active—for three days.
  4. After three days, the call is automatically taken out of test mode. If you need more time, just let us know. We’ll be glad to extend the test period.
  5. Any data entered during the testing period is automatically deleted when you activate the call.

Word’s Hidden Costs

You should never distribute your call as a Word file for people to fill out and send back to you. It might seem like a fast, easy solution—especially for smaller calls—but it will end up costing you more than you think.

Here are just some of the challenges you face using Word:

  • Although Word is ubiquitous, different versions and platforms mean you can’t be certain everyone who downloads your file is going to be able to open it, edit it and send it back to you without compatibility issues.
  • You can include pages of instructions and use highlighting and colorful text to draw attention to required fields, but you’re still going to have to review every submission to make sure it was filled out properly.
  • You’ll need an iron-clad organizational plan to track every submission you receive, including revisions.
  • Most authors expect an acknowledgment that their submission made it safely into your hands. You’ll need to send a confirmation email for every submission you receive.
  • Any file you get back could be carrying something you don’t want on your computer. You’ll need to make sure you scan every submission for viruses and other malware.
  • You’ll need to back up every file you receive on a regular basis in case something bad happens to your computer or network.

Using Word to distribute your call might make sense because it’s easy to use, readily available and basically free (if you’ve already got a license). But once you start to receive submissions, the costs—especially time costs—really start to add up.

First Impressions  

How many times have you heard someone say (or have said yourself): “This food is terrible. Try it.”?

Well, that’s the impression we got when we came across a recent call for abstracts that included 25 pages of instructions explaining how to use their online submission system.

Think about the message that sends to potential submitters. How many are going to look forward to submitting an abstract when they’re being told—quite clearly—that not only is the first bite going to be hard to swallow, but that if they’re selected, the rest of the process is probably going to be just as bad?

No submission process should require reams of instructions. But that’s beside the point. The real point is this: Your call is often your first impression with potential submitters. Don’t waste it turning people off.