Thursday, July 16, 2009

The New Mode of Conference

[Below is a draft of a column that will be coming out shortly in Legal Information Alert. The published version will be well-edited and cleaner. I encourage you all to check that publication out....]

Two weeks ago I attended the 19th annual CALI conference in (beautiful/splendid/amazing) Boulder, Colorado. As conferences go, this one was remarkable for several reasons.
First of all, the venue was fantastic. If you haven’t been to Boulder, add it to your bucket list and move it into the top ten. And if you go to Boulder, even if you have no interest in visiting just for the fun of it academic law libraries, be sure to visit the law school at the University of Colorado.
But more pertinent to this column, there were many surprises. I have been attending CALI conferences for years. When I began attending CALI in about 1992 or 1993, I initially found it to be a disturbing experience. The general topic of the conferences was fairly routine for the early 90’s: books were dead and the world was going paperless. IT attendees tended to look upon librarians with pity, and librarian attendees fell into two camps, either they were revolutionaries who agreed with the prevailing prevailing point of view that libraries were dead, or they were left in the uncomfortable position of having to defend themselves, knowing all the while that their mere attendance at the conference was a tacit admission that things were, at least, changing in mysterious or threatening ways.
As an Associate Dean of library and Information Technology, I attended regularly every year for a few years. But after a while, I grew tired of the rhetoric and attended every other year, and, lately every three years. There were other ways to keep current with technological developments in computer hardware and administrative systems, and none of the rhetoric convinced me that simply by “putting everything on computer” would necessarily make researching or running a law school any better. It always seemed to me that technology should be adapted to appropriate purposes, thereby creating new tools for administration and research, that sometimes, but not necessarily always presumptively replaced old tools. Some tools were destined for complete metamorphosis, or death: print versions of Shepard’s, various indexes, directories, paper filing, bluebook test-taking and admissions tracking to name a few. I remember one member lamenting the near-unanimous of rejection of e-textbooks by 1L’s in a poll after they were part of an experimental class which was given no print casebooks for the entire first year, “Until someone can invent an e-book that has the look and feel of print, students will never accept them!” The fact that the person thought that simply mimicking the look and feel of paper would somehow make the experience better somehow, simply rang hollow. Computerization for it’s own benefit just simply made an existing thing faster. And there were some things that just didn’t need to be done at light-speed.
In those early days, I was also one of the few Mac users. (People accuse me all the time of being a Mac fanboy. Well, I suppose there’s some truth to that. I sure do like Macs.) When I would warn of the impending rise of the Mac, I would usually be dismissed with a sniff.
This year, however, I was very surprised at what I found. First off, the content of the program had generally shifted from the general rhetoric of “death of books,” to “here are some cool things that we can do on a computer.” It was inspiring. The focus was on new products, new capacities and capabilities, completely new tools that do things in ways that we never dreamed of. It was cool. In all fairness, new products and services were always being revealed and talked about at previous conferences, but, in general, the rhetoric and the quality of products tended to focus on their ability to displace old things with new, better ones, simply because they were “automated,” “digital,” or “online.” I only heard a soft-beat of the death of the book drum at the keynote, and, even that one was somewhat apologetic. This changed tenor of the conference for me by allowing me to focus on the neat, new things we can do with technology.
The concept of e-books is no longer how to simply digitize casebooks, but how to use technology to enhance teaching and the learning experience. We learned about fantastic new cloud based products and services like DropBox and Buzzword, we learned about using technology in teaching, about new tools to help build better websites, like Aquila Drupal and about how to build electronic course supplement packages. We also learned about new online products coming from CCH, Westlaw, BNA and Hein that, potentially will make a difference in how we research.
Not only was the tenor of the meeting splendid as a result, there was an amazing new dimensioned that none of us could have dreamed of even a year ago: Twitter. During the whole meeting, there were at least a couple dozen people that were tweeting about every program and activity and nearly every conversation! When you were in a program, you could simultaneously monitor what was happening in every other program. All you needed to do was follow tweets with the hashtag #calicon09, and you found a play by play of the entire program. One time, a speaker got way off the mark with some bizarre ideas about changing law school pedagogy and, during the talk, a debate raged about them. I had left early because my blood had begun to boil and went to a program on cloud computing that was very informative and enjoyable. The tweets confirmed my opinion of the other program.
And then there were the Macs. Roughly thirty percent of the attendees had Mac. Astonishing. The people that didn’t were the ones with new netbooks or ancient albatrosses that nearly looked antique. In an amazing irony, one of the pioneers of use of technology in legal education proudly showed me his new Dell Mini (I think it was), on which he had installed OSX! There were lots of iPhones, too, and lots of talking about and sharing of apps. (MouthOff and Bump, to name two.) The fanboy in me rejoiced!
I felt for the first time that the technological issues that we must face in the future are not a question of “us versus them,” or “brace yourself, you are about to become unemployed,” to, here are some tools and techniques that can really make us better educators, administrators and librarians.
Much information about this year’s program and various CALI resources as well as information about next year’s twentieth CALI annual meeting are available at I encourage you to check it out.

No comments: