The Trouble With Ed-Tech Conferences

The educational technology conferences I’ve attended–InstructureCon, Online Learning Consortium ET4Online and Educause Learning Initiative, among others, seem to suffer a bit of mild hypocrisy in the form of “Do what I say, not what I do.” While we (educators, faculty developers, learning designers) preach the gospel of active, inquiry-driven, holistic learning, we rarely create these kinds of learning experiences for attendees at our sessions and conferences.

The typical ed-tech conference begins with a “Welcome Session,” which amounts quite often to a litany of thank-yous, logistical announcements and instructions from the stage in an enormous ballroom filled with rows and rows of chairs. The crowd is soon ushered out to attend three days worth of 45-minute session blocks, stacked one upon another in rapid succession. In these sessions, presenters most often speak to a slide deck from the front of the room to a passive audience. These sessions are interspersed with the odd keynote address from a Very Important Person lecturing from a podium into a microphone to hundreds of rapt attendants.

What are we doing?

This program design is not, of course, unique to ed-tech conferences, nor is it universally true in my experience. Notable exceptions include unconferences like EdCamp, pre-conference workshops (wherein you pay extra to learn in a hands-on fashion), and Ignite Talks which attempt to democratize the speaking circuit. But despite what we know about how people learn, what people need and how real change occurs, we tend to fall back into traditional models of education.

And so, what do we know? How do people learn? What do they need, and how does real change occur? A few tips:

Start by Building Community: Engage people socially, emotionally and intellectually with one another. Don’t just invite them into the conversation; invite them to be the conversation.

Give People Time: Lengthen sessions to allow for deeper dives and greater engagement. Offer fewer sessions and more breaks to allow for rest and synthesis. Facilitate reflection.

Mix Up the Format: Lectures have their place, but they limit who can learn and when. Diversify session types to include conversation, working groups, brainstorming, application, participation, inquiry and exploration.

Mix Up Your Media: Go analog. Use audio. Incorporate movement. Try art. Design your slides to optimize learning.

Redefine Expertise: Reject the notion that the presenter is the only one worth learning from. Embrace and make space for collective wisdom to emerge. Value what everyone brings to the table.

Free the Keynote: Invite presenters who are interested in cultivating something new with your community, not just repeating their own canned wisdom. Highlight more women, more young people, and more people of color.

The upcoming OLC Innovate conference has made efforts in many of these areas and is emerging as a leader among its peers. Some highlights that I’m excited about:

How can we as a community begin to follow our own best practices? How can we unleash our creativity, unlock old patterns and generate conferences that serve the mission we seek?

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