Information Dump Or Learning Facilitator?

It’s time to decide which one your conference is: information dump or learning facilitator.

Image by BuckLava.

Is there a difference between information and education? Education and learning? A quick review of the definitions for each within the context of meetings helps provide clarity.


Information is concepts, data, facts and research. Communicating information is normally show-n-tell lectures where attendee learning is minimal.


Education is an activity designed to bring about changes in the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of individuals or communities.


Learning is an active process that takes place in the working memory. The learner abstracts meaning from attended words and visuals and integrates them with existing knowledge in long-term memory.

Your conference probably provides a blend of all three of these with the bulk of what you offer being information. Moving forward, conferences that provide the greatest learning will be valued higher by paying participants.

Traditional Conferences

Many meeting and conference professionals secure conference speakers and charge them with transmitting information and prescribed content. Most of the speakers lecture and try to control the way attendees receive the information. 

The problem with this scenario is content covered does not equate to content learned. Conferences need to shift from being content transmitters and information dumpers to becoming facilitators of attendee learning.

Four Ways To Make The Shift

Here are four ways to make that shift.

1.  Adults want to take responsibility for their own learning.

Replace the attitude that the conference attendee is dependent upon the conference organizer and speakers in order to learn. The locus of control rests with the learner, not the presenter. Experient’s e4 2010 conference provided Exchange Cafés where participants discussed issues presented in keynotes or TED-style talks. The presenters acted as facilitators of learning instead of transmitters of information.

2. Adults arrive at the conference with a great deal of experience.

Traditionally conference organizers think that attendees enter the room with little experience that can be used in the learning process. Presenters should recognize each participant’s valuable resources that they can add to the learning experience. This past June, the PCMA Education Conference enhanced learner outcomes by recruiting presenters with strong facilitation skills. Learning improved as a people shared stories and past experiences.

3. Adults are problem-centric not content-driven.

Adults are motivated to learn after they experience a need in their life or work. They want solutions. They want to know how others solved similar problems. For that reason, conference learning needs to be problem-focused, giving participants the ability to discuss and consider multiple solutions — and apply what they learned back at the office.

4. Informal learning trumps formal learning.

We’ve all heard the phrase that more learning takes place in the hallways than in the session rooms. Find ways to capture that informal learning and move it into the education session. Conference organizers should also create more informal seating in pre-convene areas and conference public spaces. That way people can capitalize on peer learning. 

Next month, PCMA’s 2011 Convening Leaders Learning Lounge will offer a blend of informal and formal learning opportunities. This unique learning experience will be self-directed and customized by each participant.

Focus on the participant as learner.

Designing a conference that includes informal and interactive learning options will result in improved outcomes. Look for presenters with strong facilitation skills that can guide learning experiences around specific issues and content. Use the lens of the learner to plan the logistics and shape participants’ experience.

For more information, download the PDF of the Principles of Adult Learning from the University of Wisconsin.

This article was adapted and co-written by Dave Lutz and me  for Dave’s People & Processes column in PCMA’s December edition of Convene. It is reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. © 2010. 

What are some of your biggest challenges in moving from conference education that is an information dump to facilitating learning?

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  2. John Haydon says:

    Jeff – I love your recommendation on having a focus on facilitation, rather than “lecture and control”. When I go to conferences, it’s rarely to acquire knowledge, but rather to deepen existing relationships I may have planted / sprouted with social media.

    I want better ways to find the people I already know at conferences. BlogWorld does a good job with this, and SOBCon does a good job as well.

    You’ll be at 11NYC this year?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I like what you said, “When I go to conferences, it’s rearely to acquire knowledge, but rather to deepen existing relationships I may have planted/sprouted with social media.” That’s so true. Your online relationships lead to face-to-face engagement.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It is greatly appreciated.

  3. Quinne says:

    The biggest challenges are finding speakers who can deliver their material in that way and on the appropriate topic. Yeah there might be people out there that deliver in a better learning environment but the topic might not be the right fit for the conference.

    Or visa versa (which is more often the case)that the topic is very relevant but the speakers are just used to delivering the same way.

    I would say that a mix of both is good and that is what we try to do. And not everyone learns the same way either. Or as John says – not everyone attends a conference to learn something new. I guess just finding the balance is what is most important for conference planners.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Interesting thoughts. Thanks for adding your views.

      I think that good facilitators can help further discussions about any topic. They don’t have to be experts in the field. The audience is seen as the expert. It’s my experience that regardless of the topic, the right facilitator can create a great learning environment.

  4. John Haydon says:

    Jeff – My pleasure – really! Hopefully, we’ll meet at some point.

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