This is a topic I have written about before, and I will probably continue to write about in the future. I guess we should start by defining a big education conference. For the purpose of this post and my experience let’s make it conferences of over 1,000 attendees. Most big education conferences came about by professional organizations wanting to provide a gathering place for their constituents to meet and share ideas and best practices, as well as the latest tools for learning. The goal is to best educate educators about education. It seems like a simple goal, which should be easily accomplished. The easiest method of delivery is to have teachers teach other teachers. This shares experiences, successes and failures.
The first hurdle is the “when” of the conference. Someone determined that it must be held during the school year in order to get the best access to the most educators.
The conference can’t conflict with other big Education conferences. It would be a drain on the number of attendees, as well as a smaller pool of keynotes and key presenters to draw on.
The second hurdle is the “where” of the conference. Once a conference gets over a certain number of attendees there are limits to access to hotel accommodations. There is also the geographical deterrent. We live in big states in a big country. Whatever the location selected, some educators will need to travel further than others. To be equitable locations are often rotated in order to share the burden of travel. Unfortunately, some educators live in areas where the burden of travel will always be a consideration no matter where the location.
The third big hurdle of the big conference is planning. Most organizations planning the big events have some full-time staff, but they mostly rely on volunteer help to plan the big events. These volunteers are also full-time educators. Some organizations employ professional planning organizations to plan the event. Many of those planning organizations begin to determine the needs and direction of the event with less consideration to the culture of the organization. The event becomes the focus and not the organization.
The fourth big hurdle is the overall expense. The planning organization, the venue, and the need for a transportation system to and from the event all contribute to the overall expenses and ultimate ticket price of the event. To offset these expenses Education and Technology industry is often asked for contributions in the form of sponsorships. With great sponsorships there sometimes comes influence in the conference. Not every session is conducted by an educator. Often there are vendor sessions. Some are informative and objective, while others are blatant product pitches.
The planning of the vendor floor is also a hurdle. It is a great source of revenue, so it must have a prominent part in the conference. Sessions are planned around access to the vendor floor. The organization and support of the vendor floor is a priority at most conferences. Technology and scheduling are the biggest considerations for this segment. The vendor floor is the conference bread and butter.
Of course the heart and soul of any conference is the session planning. The printing of the program has a very big influence over submitting, approving and scheduling sessions. It creates the deadlines for the Requests For Proposals often ten months to a year before the next conference. Once RFP’s are approved, rooms need to be assigned in consideration of anticipated attendance to the session. Times need to be adjusted to address the length of the sessions. Signage must be made up.
These conferences are not just thrown together, but meticulously planned. We need to give more thanks and recognition to those who take this on every year.
The complexity of this endeavor however, tends to shift the focus from the original goal of way back when to that of a new goal. Somehow we got from “how to best educate educators about education”, to “how to best deliver a conference”.
Of course this does not apply in total to any conference, but every conference shares some responsibility for going at least a little astray from the original goal. It must be about the learning and not just the conference.
It would be great for educators to have a list of expectations for a session before they write their RFP. Having the rubrics used for assessing the RFP is also a winning strategy. It is most important to provide feedback to the rejected RFP’s so that educators have an understanding of why they were rejected. We do that as educators working with kid learners, why would we not apply the same method to adult learners.
We realize and appreciate the need to meet a printing schedule for session descriptions, but would it be possible to stagger RFP submissions, so they were not all submitted a year before the conference. How is a year-old plan relevant in a technology driven society?
If we as educators recognize that lecture and direct instruction are not the most effective methods of learning, should we not expect conferences to rely on those types of sessions less? Maybe more interactive sessions, more conversation driven sessions, more panel discussions weighed more heavily with audience questioning would all reach that goal of learning more effectively at a conference
In light of the Edcamp model of PD, as well as the connected PD of the personal Learning Network, maybe the big conferences need to seek more relevance. We need to understand all that goes into planning and executing a big conference, but conferences may need to reassess their goals. Educators need to learn more about their ever-changing profession in the most efficient, effective and relevant ways possible. That will take a number of methods to accomplish. None of it can be done at a conference unless it is efficient, effective and relevant. We need better ways to share what we learn from conferences. More live streaming and hashtags might be a strategy.
Conferences are much-needed for educators, but if we add up all the attendees at all the conferences for an entire year, it is a very small percentage of the total number of educators in schools. Sharing and collaboration need to be a focus for attaining the goals that we have set. We need to better educate our educators in order to better educate our kids.