Making Conferences Worthwhile


Having just experienced an interesting juxtaposition of two quite different conference modes, I was struck by the following thoughts…

I spent most of last weekend putting a presentation together for the k12 online conference.  This virtual conference was started by a small group of teachers and has run every year since 2006. It is composed entirely of online video presentations of up to 20 minutes in length. These videos are presentation of ideas, best practice, classroom examples and big thinking submitted by educators from around the world. Presenters submit proposals just like a conventional conference, and these proposals are vetted by a selection panel for quality and relevance. Selected presenters then produce their 20 minute video and submit it and each year, over a 2 week period, these videos are released publicly.  There are a few live events and such to accompany them over the 2 weeks that the “conference” is running, but importantly these video presentations live on afterwards on the website for anyone to use and benefit from.  If you’ve never seen them, they are all available at  Go check them out.  The conference starts this year in about 2 weeks time and I recommend it to you.

 Alongside that, I spent the last two days at a real physical conference here in Sydney. It offered many excellent opportunities for networking and sharing. We heard from excellent keynotes, did a number of hands-on workshops, and best of all we had lots of student participation.  It was a great couple of days that I personally got a lot out of, and in my mind there is clearly still a place for this kind of face to face conference event.

However, what struck me was a couple of sessions I went to that could very well have been released as 20 minute videos and been just as effective.  These sessions were basically just someone presenting a set of slides and explaining them.  While I did get some useful information from these sessions, I could have just as easily got the same value from them if they were short video presentations, much like the k12 online experience.

It got me thinking about what types of experiences are best suited for real physical conference events.  Unless we get a chance to interact, ask questions, contribute to conversations, get hands on experience, and do things that require your actual physical presence, then perhaps those other things don’t belong in a real physical conference.  I feel a bit cheated when I go to an event (and pay good money to do so) only to feel as though what I experienced could have been just as well communicated virtually through video or some other means.  I feel a bit the same when I go to a real physical conference and find that one of the “keynotes” is being beaming in via satellite on a big screen that we all just sit and watch.  I expect better than that.

Just like we talk about the SAMR model of technology integration to do things with computers that are more than just a computerised version of what we currently do with pen and paper, perhaps we need to be thinking about what a modern physical conference should look like by making it into something more than that which can be experienced equally well virtually.  If I can get value out of a conference by simply following the twitter hashtag (and saving myself $1000 in travel expenses) then conferences are going to have to start offering a lot more than sitting in a room and hearing someone speak at me.  Prior to the rise of social networks, live streaming, blogging, etc, you basically HAD to turn up if you wanted to get value from the event.  That’s no longer the case.

I attend quite a few conference events each year, I’m guessing more than most people, and often the ONLY real benefit of attending is the networking and connections. And increasingly, real physical conferences are simply just a chance to meet people in “meetspace” that I’ve already known online for quite a while. I really enjoy the chance to meet people IRL that I’ve only known through the networks, but I don’t feel the need to pay huge amounts of money to do so if the rest of the conference doesn’t give back anything above what a virtual event could have given.

I’m not against real physical conference events – far from it – but I do think they need to morph into something that offers considerably more than the current format used by most of them. I don’t want to attend a conference to have someone show me PowerPoint slides or show me how to do something that I could have learned by watching a YouTube video. I want a compelling reason to attend (and those reasons do exist!) but I need something more to show for having attended the event than just a increase in the amount I owe on my credit card.  Conferences need to provide more than just information, because I can get that anywhere.  They need to provide experiences… moments that could not have happened any other way. Moment that change the way I think, teach or see the world.  (Do you think people go to events like SXSW or Burning Man for the information? I doubt it! It’s about having a peak experience)

I find it strangely odd to hear people talk about conferences as their big chance to get some PD. Sure, professional associations are important and I hope you all belong to one that suits you, but be aware that the chance to grow professionally is not something that happens annually or biannually.  PD in this day and age is a matter of being immersed in the right networks of people, and it’s an all the time thing that never stops.  Whether it’s something like Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn or Google+, or Scootle Community or listening to podcasts or reading blogs or watching YouTube or some other means… the point is that it is constant.  You CANNOT stay up to date anymore by attending an annual conference, or waiting for your state association to keep you informed.

PD is no longer something that is occasionally done TO you by an external third party. It is something you do FOR yourself, by yourself, constantly.  That’s just a professional responsibility.

Creative Commons photo by Zigazou76

Reshaping Conferences

<understatement>I’ve been to a lot of conferences lately.</understatement>

The Champion Schools Conference in Wellington. ACEC in Mebourne.  ITSC on the Gold Coast, then Adelaide, Sydney and Perth. They’ve all been very good and I’ve gotten something from all of them.  They’ve all had slightly different angles and focuses, but it’s pretty clear that any worthwhile education-based conference these days tends to have the same consistent underlying message, one that most active members of the edtech community would have heard many times before… The world is changing, technology is helping drive that change, and schools need to move with that change if they are to remain relevant.  That’s it in a nutshell.  Of course, there are many much deeper conversations we need to keep having about the how, why, what, when and where of enabling these changes, and we need to keep pushing the message out to those teachers still unaware that these fundamental changes are shifting the ground beneath them.

I have a friend who used to work in the newsroom of a major television station. He once explained to me how, when a really big story broke, the newsroom’s job would be to tell that story over and over for the next few hours or even days.  There would be the initial newsbreak, but then it would get spot coverage each hour, followed by continuous newsbreaks, a piece in the nightly news and then again in the late news, and so on. I once asked my friend why they saturated the media so much with news stories like that, and questioned whether it was overkill to keep reporting the story ad nauseum, to which his reply was “In a newsroom, we know that when we are thoroughly sick of hearing about a particular story, the general public is only just starting to understand what it’s all about.”

So, as much as I might keep hearing the same fundamental messages being relayed over and over at most of these conferences, it’s still true that there are lots of regular classroom teachers for whom many of these ideas are quite a revelation.  The impact that digital technologies are having on our students, the need for a shift in the way we approach the design of learning tasks, the imperative for offering students choices and options as a means of maintaining engagement, and the general idea of teaching less so students can learn more… these are still totally new ideas for many educators.

While conferences might try to promote these ideas through the lens of educational technologies, the true importance of them is firmly rooted in pedagogy, not technology.  While we talk a lot about how digital technologies are a useful tool for “21st century learning”, technology just happens to be a powerful enabler for these new pedagogical approaches.  It may appear that we edtech types are constantly promoting the use of technology just because we happen to like technology, but it runs deeper than that. We promote the importance of technology because, if you have been embedding technology into your teaching for any length of time now, you’ve seen first hand just how effectively it can start to shift the way your classroom operates.  You know it can increase engagement, raise the quality of the work, make the learning more authentic, more on-demand, because you’ve seen it.  And while you might value the role of technology in enabling all these things, you also realise that it’s not really about the technology, but rather the learning.

One of the great frustrations for those of us “in the echo chamber” of edtech is that, while we can see the value that technology brings to our work with kids in classrooms, we sometimes appear to just be enthusiastic about technology for the sake of it. We implore our colleagues to try blogging with their students, or to give wikis a go, or consider allowing that boring essay task to be submitted as a podcast.  And so often our enthusiasm for the power of these tools is all too easily perceived as technological zealotry, and the promotion of technology as a solution to every problem.

So, back to these conferences, and their intended purpose of shifting the participants understanding of 21st century education.  It’s been really interesting to see the lights come on with many of the participants. It’s really gratifying to hear teachers say things like “I’ve never even considered many of these ideas before, but I’m going to take them back to classroom and give them a serious go”.  For at least some of the people I’ve been meeting at these conferences over the last few months, they left excited about the possibilities and felt inspired to learn more and to apply their newly discovered ideas back in the classroom.

One of the ironies of most conferences is that they are so often based on the idea of having someone stand on the stage or at the front of a workshop and simply talk at the participants… ironic because that’s usually the very model of teaching that the speakers are saying we shouldn’t be perpetuating. (For the record, I stand accused… as someone who has delivered some of these talks, I’m as guilty as the next person)  In slight defense of this sage-on-the-stage model though, in some circumstances it’s still the most efficient way to share ideas with a large group.  It’s just ironic that we still design conferences to help us learn what a 21st century classroom should look like by doing exactly the opposite.

It’s not all like that though. One of the standout conferences I’ve attended is the Innovative Technology in Schools Conference run by Apple. While it still has some elements of people standing in front of the whole group and talking at them, it also has a significant “unconference” component, where teachers work in small organic groups on passion projects that deeply engage them as learners.  It’s been great to see a conference attempt to model itself on the principles of open discussion; of offering choices, options and highly personalised learning pathways; of forming groups based on the interests of the participants; of giving the necessary time to allow participants to create and change. And of course, of enabling all of this with the rich use of technology. In short, of treating the conference participants as actual 21st century learners rather than just attendees. The ITSC event stands out to me because it tries to actually BE the way it claims education should be, and in doing so it offers the participants a chance to actually “walk the walk”, rather than just “talk the talk”.  Quite a few participants remarked to me that the penny finally dropped about the way education could be different because of the way the ITSC conference itself modeled how that change might actually look.

There was also a real focus on the creation of an appropriate learning space for participants.  Rather than the typical conference situation of having rows of chairs all facing the front, ITSC had a range of flexible seating and working arrangements, with lots of round tables, leather couches and beanbags.  It had large plasma TV screens around the room where groups could gather and share. It had powerboards on every table, reliable open wifi, and a wiki server for participants to create collaborative digital workspaces on demand.  These are the sorts of things that we know 21st century classrooms should look like, and can really help create an environment where the learning really hums along.

Importantly, participants were also asked to actually make something during this conference that they could both share with the group and also take away with them. Even more importantly, they chose what they made based on their unique interests and what would be useful to them. They chose who they teamed up and worked with. They decided what they needed to learn to complete their task and they learned it on the fly. They used technology in authentic ways to enable the process. It was genuine 21st century learning in action, and it was quite a powerful conference experience.

There are lessons in the ITSC events for all conference organisers.

Where there's a Will…

Will RichardsonIf you read blogs about education with any sort of regularity you will no doubt recognise the name Will Richardson.  Will’s blog, Weblogg-ed, has become somewhat of a keystone in the edublogosphere, not just for the things he writes about and the thinking he does about education in the 21st century, but also because he is just so darn prolific!

Thanks to the jungle drums of Twitter, I was really excited to hear that Will is coming to Australia to deliver a talk entitled The Why 2 of Web 2.0.  I don’t know Will personally at all, but we have bumped into each other a few times in various chat rooms and UStream sessions.  He was one of the founding ideas-people behind the global K-12 Online Conference (although his commitments at the time required him hand it over to others to run).  His has been a seminal voice of the blogosphere for a long time, having written several books on blogging and the use of Web 2.0 in the classroom, spoken at conferences all around the world.  Will is pretty well respected in the edublogging world.

Given all that, I’d certainly like to meet him and hear what he has to say.

If you are interested in education and the way it applies to 21st Century learning, then try to get along to either Brisbane (May 7) or Sydney (May 9).  I’ve already booked my ticket!

No doubt some of us Sydney bloggers will get together and try to get together with Will while he’s here.  How about you?   Join us?