With a premiere Technology-in-Education Conference, ISTE11, coming in a matter of days, I find myself comparing the Education conferences of old to the social media-influenced Education conferences of today. There is a world of differences, but, unfortunately, many of these differences have yet to be discovered by educators who have failed to recognize the juggernaut of social media. For many years I was a board member of NYSCATE, an educational technology group for New York educators. A primary purpose of this group is to conduct an annual conference that draws thousands of educators in order to discuss technology in education. In addition to my participation in this conference, I have over the years presented in many others, both large and small.
A huge difference about today’s conferences is the connectedness of the participants. Educators through social media have been able to connect with other educators without regard to geographical boundaries. Many productive online relationships have continued over a period of time without actual face to face meetings. These conferences are an opportunity for face to face connections. That translates to more time for socialization for the participants. Plans and discussions have taken place weeks before the conference about who to see and what to do. The conference provides a place for people, who have never met face to face, to meet as long-lost best friends would meet after a long separation. Places for social gatherings need to at least be considered, and at most be expanded. These personal connections of connected people may be misinterpreted as cliques, but this is often a perspective of educators not yet involved with social media. The unfortunate result may be a perception of a class distinction between the connected and the disconnected (or not yet connected).
Back Channeling is another big difference between old and new. This is when participants in a workshop or presentation tweet out on Twitter, or Facebook the points that the presenter is making in real-time. Not only are the facts of the presentation, but editorial comments as well tweeted out. This may have a great effect on presentations moving forward. I remember a recent conference having a keynote speaker using a data heavy PowerPoint presentation, and not being very aware of back channeling. After a few Tweets came out about the quality of the presentation, there was an avalanche of negatives flying out from that presentation. Needless to say these tweets were global messages going public to thousands of educators. On the other hand, a great presentation has the potential for going out beyond the limited audience in the presentation. Ustreaming is being done more and more as well. Presentations limited to small audiences are broadcast globally to any educator with a connection. Local conferences have the ability to gain global recognition.
The social media hierarchy is now replacing the superstars of higher education and industry at these conferences. Keynote speakers of the past were often professors from Higher Education or Captains of industry from the world of Technology in Education. Today, social media has chosen its own superstars, people who continue to contribute and influence education through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, online Webinars, Podcasts, and Blog Posts. Some of the best have feet in both worlds. The conference of today is an opportunity for participants to meet those whom they consider to be social media Gurus.
I think an underestimated influence on conference participants is the effect of free online Professional Development. More and more free symposiums are being offered through social Media. Webinars and online interviews are becoming daily occurrences. The conference participants are becoming more aware of trends and issues prior to attending the conference. Presenters need to at least be where their audience is in their knowledge of the subject. Relevance means more to connected educators than it ever has before.
Another influence is the effect that the growing “Unconference” movement is having. Born from Social Media, “Teachmeets”, and “Unconferences” are changing what educators expect from a conference. These are self-directed-learning format conferences. They give most, if not all, of the control for learning to the learner. The learners direct the conference from the beginning until the end forcing the conference to be flexible and adaptive.
Blogging is another Social Media-influenced activity which has a lasting touch on conferencing. On the very first day of any conference, there will be at least one blogger who will publish a post on his or her experience. First impressions last a lifetime. Bloggers will continue to post their experiences and impressions throughout and beyond the time that the conference takes place. Once it took weeks for the word to get out about the success of a conference. On the spot blog posts have changed that dynamic. Micro blogs (Twitter) and Blog posts determine and create conference “BUZZ”. It may determine whether individuals with limited funds may or may not attend a specific conference in the future.
If Education Conferences are to benefit the educators that they hope to have participate, now and in the future, all of these new influences must be considered. Just like education as a system, conferences are dealing with participants who are becoming self- learning aware. The days of content being controlled by a few and the need to seek those few out to obtain it, are gone. Free access to almost endless information and the ability to select only information which is needed by the learner is changing the game.
If you are a person who questions the need for Mobile Learning Devices in education, look around you at your next conference. Take note of the Laptops, Smart Phones, iPads, and Tablets. Watch how long it takes people to scope out an electrical outlet to power up, or recharge. See what happens if people don’t have passwords to access WiFi.
What would happen if we forced those educators to leave their mobile learning devices at the door? What would happen if we singled out and punished individuals for texting during a presentation? What would happen after you informed educators that the filtering will limit their access? What would happen if we required participants to agree to an Acceptable Use Policy before they could connect? Participants at these conferences are learners. Let us keep that in mind when we return to the learners in our own schools.
All in all, this isn’t your father’s Education Conference!