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

CC BY 4.0 Making Conferences Worthwhile by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

11 Replies to “Making Conferences Worthwhile”

  1. Great post! I agree, the model is in need of change. It always astounds me why presentations are not recorded for selling, sharing or promotion beyond the 2-3 days of the actual conference.
    Sadly, I think conference attendance may just be another tick in the PD box for some rather than an active part of an integrated PD approach. I wonder how the decisions to attend, how they may or may not participate and the overall expectations of the conference experience might change if people were actually spending their own money to attend.

    1. Indeed! It take so little effort to record a speaker, even just in audio. I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I was on the organising committee for this particular event we still didn’t think to actually record the keynotes. Doh!

      What’s worse is that they were excellent and I really wish we had recorded them!

      Next time!

  2. There is a whole movement exploring this space. Have you been to an unconference Chris?

    Unconferences are fantastic events and many are run in Australia. The format is different for the ones I have attended – and the focus is on the skills and knowledge and practical sharing…rather than the “big international names” and “networking”. Those other things can be a part of an unconference, but they look very different.

    That said – there is something about the performance of a live oration – not death by PPT, but a fine speaker, delivering a speech live that when done well makes some keynotes shine.

    1. Hi and thanks for the comment. Yep, the real physical conference I was referring to int this post was actually one that I was on the committee to help organise, so we were trying really hard to do some different things. We actually had a small unconference component to it, as well as a “Learning Bytes” session (a bit like the short sharp Teachmeet style blasts) as well as a couple of keynotes, some regular workshops and some student presented sessions… so we were definitely trying to play with the standard conference format.

      I really like the unconference model myself, and have been to some very good unconference sessions. I’ve also been to some turgidly horrible unconference sessions to, so trying to include too much unconference style stuff in an event where people are paying significant money to attend can be a real risk. I think we actually got a pretty good balance in this one we ran this week.

      My point was not to denigrate the idea of a conference at all… I think they still have a place. I just think that they need to try to ensure that what they offer is something unique and worth coming for, and not something that would work equally well in an online mode. Both types of learning events are valid, but I just think we have to be careful we don’t mix them up.

  3. Great comments, Chris. I attended a big conference this year and by far the most useful ideas I got from it were from the people I met and sat next to. Those conversations continue and are more fruitful than the one-off presentation that, a little diappointingly, were overwhelmingly people talking with powerpoint slides. Good as they were, there was a very limited amount of information I could retain from 45 minutes of listening to someone talk. The best sessions involved active participation, just like any good lesson for our students.

    1. Exactly.

      I was at ISTE a couple of years ago in Philadelphia and was very keen to see the keynote by Stephen Covey. When I got into the auditorium along with the other 5,000 people, I discovered that he was just coming in by satellite feed! I figured I could watch Covey on YouTube anytime I liked so I left and went back to the bloggers café where I bumped into Brian Smith, a guy I’d only known through online spaces, and we spent the next hour playing with Arduinos and a bunch of other very cool Maker-style stuff. That was a MUCH better use of my time that watching a keynote via video conference!

      That ISTE was my first and I had so many conversations with people over the three days… I actually started keeping track of all the people I had a meaningful conversation with… it was well over 100 people, many of which I’d only ever known from online. I actually blogged about it here..

  4. There is a certain culture among modernists that written literacy is the one true literacy. It’s ironic that lecturing captive audiences is progressive education still – but one simply doesn’t not write it down. EdTech is organised around status and brands these days, SXSW. ComicCon, BlizzCon, MineCon, G4C is organised around culture that rails against modernist views. I think ABC Splash is probably the best new idea right now … only because it doesn’t follow factional lines and is focused on media education, not products or personalities.

    1. Dean, you always make me think… even just unravelling the double negatives hurts my brain sometimes! 🙂 I was looking a Splash the other day, but you’ve prompted me to go have a better investigation of it, thanks!

      1. Cheers, as much as I like technology, I really wonder whether the way ‘new user’ teachers are inducted is into an open community, or must they first go through the growing merchandise shop to get there. Behind the neo-liberal rhetoric of individual freedom lies the master’s fear of the rebellious slave. I think that’s why teachers whom are open to new models (if they are shown them at all) struggle to break into the ‘core’ of what you and I (being somewhat ancient users) just took as “the network” back then. I think the induction method could do with some rethinking.

  5. Great post.

    There is definitely a lot of waste in the current conference processes. But they are still a great way to bring people with common interests in the same context, so that they can connect.

    I see my participation in conferences as a way to increase and diversify my personal learning network, and I’m quite happy to skip sessions and sit down with new people as appropriate, as you did at ISTE. I don’t feel like I’m cheating my employer by doing this, I’m actually getting more value out of the experience.

    Keeping an eye on the backchannel conversations is another great way to interact with the connected people. Unfortunately, many conferences don’t think of coming up with an easy, unique hashtag and, most of all, encouraging those conversations before, during and after the event.


  6. Really interesting post, Chris. I’m in higher ed and the comments you make about conferences apply equally to lectures at university. Most lectures are recorded now (at least at my uni) and there are a lot of complaints about lack of student attendance. But why should they attend if there is nothing to be gained by being physically present? The lecture needs to re-imagined as something more interactive, giving students a chance to get involved, ask questions, be a part of a community. Otherwise why not just get that information online. Getting physically together is not longer necessary, so let’s make it count when we do!

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