I am very fortunate to be able to attend a number of Education Conferences each year. This offers me a perspective of education conferences that is not afforded to a majority of educators. When one considers the total number of American educators compared to the total attendance at these conferences and then factor out the people who repeatedly attend each year, it is easy to see that most educators do not get to these national conferences. That is a shortcoming I believe that hurts the profession. There is much to be learned and shared at these conferences that can make a difference to an educator.
Of course many of these conferences are so vast that it is difficult to report on the whole conference when one can only experience a small part of it. It brings to mind the five blind men trying to describe what an elephant looked like based on only one part of the elephant that each had physical contact with. Each description was completely different, and not one accurately described the whole elephant.
My last three conferences were Educon, FETC, and TCEA, wonderful conferences all. In each of these I met with many connected educators and participated exclusively in sessions of discussion or panel-driven discussion. I find these types of sessions more in line with what suits me in learning. I feel that I can personalize the sessions for my needs, and I can even participate in the content of the discussion personally becoming a part of the learning. Educon of all the conferences is the one conference that focuses on these types of sessions. Of course that would make it my conference of preference.
The other conferences generally depend on “sit and get” PowerPoint demonstrations, or “bells and whistles” software presentations. There will always be a need for these sessions, but I question the balance, or lack of balance, they have when compared with discussion sessions at any given conference.
The glaring deficiency in any session is that it must be submitted and approved 8 to 12 months in advance. How does that maintain relevance? How is the latest and greatest in education even represented at these conferences, unless it is discussion? Discussion can be more timely than any presentation that is eight months old.
Discussion adds the ability to deal with topics of pedagogy and methodology as opposed to just the mechanics of a lesson. Discussions of education that do not take place in school buildings can take place with educators of varied experience to share and elaborate. This is the fodder for reflection. Reflection goes a long way in changing the way we approach things. It often prompts change and promotes reform.
I believe that the success of the Edcamp format where discussion and collaboration are the focus, and the popularity of real-time chats on Twitter and Google Hangouts are all indicators of change. Educators are personalizing their learning in larger numbers. This may be a trend or something bigger. Whatever it is, we need to adjust the way conferences are providing what educators need as a profession.
As a connected educator, I loved being with and sharing ideas and discussions with other educators with whom I am connected. Our conversations were not the same as those of unconnected educators at these conferences. As I talked with educators who were not in collaboration with others on a regular basis, I found a need to define and explain things to them that are discussed and understood online by connected educators daily. I am not saying that these unconnected educators are not good teachers, but maybe not as informed as a professional needs to be, or as relevant as a professional could be. We are in a profession that deals with information and learning. We need to be relevant in two areas, content and education. Online collaboration enables that to happen more efficiently and on a constant basis. These online discussions are carried further in a face-to-face setting of a conference. Those not involved with online collaboration are often playing catch up in the discussion. A worse alternative is that they withdraw from involvement in the discussion altogether.
Technology has moved collaboration from a way of learning that only happened in a limiting face-to-face setting, to one that takes place anywhere at anytime breaking down the previous borders of time and space. For educators not to take full advantage of this new-found ability is a missed opportunity. We need to support, enhance, and encourage collaboration in all of its forms, online and face-to-face. Ideas that are born at conferences can be continually evolved online. The discussion need no longer end after the closing keynote. Ideas that are born online may be expanded and improved in the face-to-face collaboration of the conferences. We don’t need the opening keynote to start the thinking and connecting. We are professional educators who need to do a better job educating ourselves as educators. If we are to better educate kids, we need to better educate their educators.