Why do we bother with conferences? You have a big, dimly-lit ballroom, a speaker way down the front, a whole bunch of people at round tables or in chairs facing forwards, sometimes a chairperson to introduce the speaker, a presentation, then we leave. During the talk, attendees are usually basking in the light of their own device (admittedly taking notes to read later on) or hopefully on some kind of backchannel. Often, nobody other than the presenter speaks.
The ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference was a gathering of about 20,000 educators, policy makers, and other stakeholders in the same place at the same time with the same general mindset that technology can help make great teaching and learning even better. At the very least, it can pull away some of the admin so teachers can do what they do best.
The organisers had several breakout areas including PLN lounges, Bloggers’ Cafes, Playgrounds and Oases all with different purposes and designs. However, the message was clear: you don’t have to be in a workshop to be learning. Many people took the opportunity to sit in a lounge to try and compute the information overload and others used the spaces as meeting places. Regardless, there were dozens of places for the 20,000 of us to meet and learn.
This is a huge opportunity. Although the extroverts in the audience will always go out of their way to make connections for themselves as others, I think conference organisers now have a duty to become networking facilitators – to grab a few people sitting by themselves in a PLN Lounge and help them chat about what they do and what projects they might like to engage in. Beyond this, organisers could also suggest and respond to the collective needs of the educators in attendance. Surely 20,000 people speaking in unison will get some attention. Surely the big names of education who sit within that 20,000 can help amplify that further. Surely if all 20,000 went back to their contexts and recruited more people, then we have a movement.
I met teachers from Tennessee, from Hong Kong, from Norway, from the UK. I met primary (elementary) teachers and secondary (junior/senior high), I met lecturers and administrators. We are connected by an event, by an experience. We are tethered with a thin glowing line of passionate engagement with our work. We will all become busy when we return to our jobs.
So what do we want from conferences? Are we happy with workshops and lunch? Are we comfortable with breakout spaces and teachmeets? Are we satisfied with a backchannel and karaoke at night? Should we be using these mass gatherings of like-minded people to affect real change in our systems? Or should we all go back to our bubbles and return to the day-to-day?
I believe a conference of that magnitude – or any size beyond a typical staff room meeting – should have larger goals than those we have for smaller workshops and professional learning events. We can still learn together, network, have some fun and grow as professionals. But we can also grow the profession. We can grow education. And we can do it together.