10 ways conferences (or PD) could be better


Teaching | Monday, May 12, 2014

10 ways conferences (or PD) could be better

10 ways conferences (or PD) could be better
10 ways conferences (or PD) could be better

Conferences and PD are great places for educators to gather useful information and ideas. But there are several areas where they miss the mark. Here are some ideas. (flickr / Sebastiaan ter Burg)

If you want to ditch your textbook — or your textbook mindset for instruction — one of the best places to spark innovation is a good conference or professional development event.

You get good ideas. You add tools to your tool belt. You meet new people and get to network.

In my first several years of teaching, I always saw teaching conferences as magical places. I felt like I almost magically became a teacher after attending.

Many of these are great.

But many could be better.

As the world changes, as technology changes, as teaching changes, so conferences must change too.

Many educators end up helping with conference planning in some way. But even if they don’t, many more are involved with delivering professional development to peers in some way. 

From my perspective — as a seasoned conference attendee, an experienced conference presenter but never having organized a conference myself — here are some ideas to make conferences and professional development better:

1. Utilize social media. This is a free, low-prep way to engage attendees with material and with each other. It also lets conferences send reminders and changes to attendees. It’s as easy as picking a hashtag on Twitter or claiming a chat room on TodaysMeet and promoting it with signs all over the conference area. Constant verbal reminders and contests will bring tweeters and sharers out of the woodwork.

2. Offer edcamp-type experiences. There’s a reason edcamps are gaining lots of popularity. It’s professional development by attendees for attendees. At an edcamp, participants arrive and decide among themselves what they want to hear, who can present on it and what they’ll say. Participants already have lots of information that others would like … that’s why networking is so beneficial. Giving them some time and space to do that can be valuable.

3. Differentiate. At many conferences or professional development events, ability levels of attendees varies widely. We differentiate our teaching for students in the classroom, but so many presenters neglect the varied needs of their participants at professional development or conferences. Offering additional self-guided options for the more advanced or basic how-to’s for novices is a good first step.

4. Provide time to let it all sink in. So often, from the moment we arrive at a conference, we rush from session to session with very few minutes between. We fill notebooks with notes and our brains feel maxed out. At times, I’ve actually skipped entire sessions (good sessions) to sit in the lobby and go over my notes. There’s a need for this, and it isn’t called “wasting time.” We’re professionals, and we want to use our time wisely.

5. Emphasize solid teaching. So many conference (and professional development) sessions I’ve attended focus instruction on technology tools. Equipping colleagues with the right app or website or software is important, but it goes back to the “technology is just a tool” concept. They’re just fancy bells and whistles without sound pedagogy driving them. I’d rather presenters provide me with sound teaching techniques, ideas and classroom examples than a how-to on a tech tool. That’s what YouTube is for.

6. Consider not meeting in person at all. With free website creation, free video chats and other free web tools, all the benefits of conferences and professional development can be had without setting foot in a physical space together. The Global Education Conference and edcampHOME are great examples of solid professional development available to anyone all over the world. Face-to-face meetings have great benefits, but this might be a nice change of pace.

7. Create an online reflection and sharing spot for attendees. Often, conference attendees can’t attend every session. When they’re done learning, they have lots of new information and ideas to share. If they have a place to share it all with others, they can create a powerful repository of resources themselves. A shared Google Doc is a simple place to start. Using a Google Form with an embedded Google Spreadsheet of results could be a bit more sophisticated option.

8. Invest in session presenters. During planning, many conference organizers want to make a splash with their keynote speakers. They sink so much of their resources into the keynote — who often speaks for an hour and does some shorter sessions later — and hope for good volunteer session proposals to flesh out the remainder of their schedule. Chances are that the average participant is going to have much more contact with presenters other than the keynote during the day. Make sure you’ve given adequate motivation to attract good session presenters.

9. Make wifi access a top priority. Whether a technology conference or not, wireless Internet access is a must-have. At one conference this year, those attending had to pay to access it. These days, with so much being done online, that’s just not an option. Secure a location that has solid wifi infrastructure and sufficient bandwidth for the volume of people you expect. And test it out before the day of the event. People can feel handcuffed without an Internet connection.

10. Make presenters accessible. After attending a session, people often have questions for presenters or would like time to pick their brains about different topics. Creating a time and place for those connections can be very useful. At a conference where I’m presenting this summer, they’re planning for a room or area where presenters are just hanging out waiting to talk to attendees. Sometimes, what we need at conferences isn’t more sessions — it’s more connections.

What else would you suggest for better conferences or professional development? What are characteristics of great events you’ve attended? Leave your ideas in a comment below!

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  • Kristin Daley Conti says:

    I love (like LOVE) PD and agree with your list. I do however miss in-person PD and conferences, hugging PLN friends and seeing people in real life.

    This may be unpopular opinion, but I love conferences with all of the little details: fun name badges, games, prizes, stickers, music, snacks, charging stations, share-outs, photos, fun hashtags, live sketchnoters and after conference hang-outs. While these are all extras and not the most important thing in PD, it makes it fun, inviting, and makes me feel like teachers are worth it! I know you’ve been in the past, so you know… but #USMSummerSpark is my ultimate conference goals! They’ve got it down, and I will fly from MA to WI as many times as I can, as long as they have it. It feels like family, with all of those extras and more! It feels like the red carpet.

    I’ve also been to some amazing edCamps (#edcampGrafton) and Googlepaloozas (#MassCUE) and I like them for the same reasons – fun and teachers get spoiled! Both of these events also have fabulous protocols in place to share, reflect, and take notes like having student council in the room typing on a shared Google Doc, or Demo Slams at lunch.

    I also prefer smaller conferences. Sometimes in big arenas or conference centers, I spend so much time figuring out maps and making decisions, I miss out on sessions. To me, smaller is better.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Oh my goodness … yes to ALL of this. When conference organizers understand the little details, it makes the experience MAGICAL. It can be a drag when the only planning is “who is the keynoter and are all of the breakout rooms filled.” Conferences are an opportunity to have fun! To connect. The stuff that happens in between. And small conferences are where a lot of that fun stuff happens. When they get too big, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Not an unpopular opinion with me. 🙂

  • Cory Bougher says:

    #4 is brilliant! I do feel rushed at most conferences that I let it sink in on the way home….but my brain is exhausted by then!

  • Jason Bodnar says:

    Excellent post! Especially about giving people time to try the resources they learn about and I’m excited to be helping run EdCamp Fort Wayne for next year so I definitely agree with that format.

  • Allison says:

    Differentiation is such an important piece that many PD’ers don’t consider- especially with technology PD! I have been to so many technology PDs that say you’ll be learning “advanced” uses, but I just end up helping everyone at my table figure out how to sign in…

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