Professional learning

Over the years, I’ve attended many conferences in many locations. For the most part, they’ve been technology conferences but not necessarily.

  • WesternRCAC Symposion
  • ECOO / Bring IT, Together
  • OSSTF, ETFO (and its predecessors)
  • Ontario Subject Associations like OSLA, STAO
  • Ontario School District Conferences
  • Prairie Rose
  • ISTE
  • CSTA
  • OTF
  • and I could probably go on longer if I allowed my mind to wander but that’s not the point

Doesn’t education love an acronym?

So, what is the point?

The point(s) are that they were all similar in the fact that there were many people all together at the same time. Whether in attendance as participant or presenter, I always left smarter and inspired to change my practice somehow as a result.

That’s not going to be happening any time soon. By any time soon, I had been thinking that maybe things would be off the rails this summer and maybe into the fall. As it turns out, it’s going to be much longer than that. I’m now aware that the CSTA Conference that would have been normally held next July will be online instead. SIGCSE was going to be held outside the United States for the first time ever moving to Toronto next year. Instead, it’s moving online as well.

One aspect of a conference can be relatively easier replicated and that’s the talking head speaker. From my perspective, that’s one of the least useful part of any conference! In fact, I’ve been known to walk out of and away from a session that adopts that type of approach. Bizarrely, my approach has always been that I could just watch a video online for the same effect.

I look at everything else

  • meeting up with colleagues and sharing what we’re doing well and what’s not going well
  • small group collaborations
  • hands on activities (I love to play)
  • interacting with exhibitors and their latest products
  • something absolutely new that I can experience before paying money to check out
  • going out for supper or drinks with old and new friends
  • taking a tour of the location either formally or informally
  • getting up and moving around (I’ll meet you at …)

It’s not just professional learning events that are struggling with this. Movie festivals, special events, etc. are trying to re-invent their experience in the days of not being able to gather. Again, bizarrely, these approaches might well make things better in the long run, when the traditional gather together events resume.

The easy way out is just to provide a slate of talking heads. The more sophisticated approach will look at the new and innovative. Particularly if I’m going to be paying money, that’s what I’ll be looking for.

You? What does professional learning look like for you in the short and long term? Are you more or less likely to register for something in these difficult times?

9 thoughts on “Professional learning

  1. Doug, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately. I’ve tried to participate in a couple of online conferences now, and I really struggle. I’m too distracted from other things to do around me, and I find that a lot of the sessions become lecture-type ones because of the platform. I quickly disengage. I tried to facilitate a session with a conversation, and nobody wanted to unmute. We ended up having a good discussion in the chat, but it didn’t seem to have the same feeling as talking. Maybe I just have to become used to this new way of conferencing, but I have to wonder if I’ll be more reluctant to register for this kind of PD. If that’s the case, what will I replace it with? Curious to hear how others feel on this topic.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think that you’re alone in this, Aviva. Even the traditional face to face conference has faced dropping numbers. If you remember when ECOO started going to Niagara Falls, we had outgrown the space in Toronto and there was a fear that we would outgrow the space in Niagara. But, numbers have dwindled. One of the things that I was unsuccessful with during my tenure as President was to create a Speakers’ Bureau where one of the goals would be to help people become better session facilitators. I have seen some amazing facilitators during my own learning so I know that there could be a great deal to learn.

    The talking head format is familiar and so I think that people want to become good at it. So, it’s not to blame them; often people haven’t been exposed to other methods. The TED talk is another platform that really features that but some of the best talks there get away from that single person talking format. I always thought that there was a strong message there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I meant to include this link in the reply above.

    There’s a really powerful message there about conference sessions that are often 75 or 60 minutes long. At ECOO, it was dropped to 50 minutes for a number of reasons. I would argue that that is way too long for an online talking head session and that it needs to be lower or there needs to be other elements of the presentation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really wanted to visit Toronto for itself as well as SIGCSE. I also really wanted to be in Chicago for CSTA. But that is not to be. I am disappointed. I’ll “attend” CSTA for sure and SIGCSE maybe. It will not be the same though for all the reasons you listed.


  5. Having attended many conferences (and especially numerous EdCamps across Ontario), I too have reached the point of looking for extended opportunities beyond the traditional speaker experience. ECOO has been very successful over the years by augmenting speakers with hands-on workshops, via the pre-conference day from years gone past, or the more recent inclusion of the Minds On Media events hosted by Peter Skillen and Brenda Sherry and other half-day workshops.

    With a laid-on conference, topics are sourced and are established weeks or months in advance, and the sessions are selected beforehand. The learner attends, chooses sessions of interest, and then joins in to the existing programme.

    EdCamps bring additional learner agency into the mix by allowing participants to set the agenda on the day of the event. One of the best ways to engage with others about topics of current interest is to host a conversation about that topic and meet other like-minded folks who join in.

    In both instances, the serendipitous connections that take place BETWEEN the sessions can often be just as valuable as what has been carefully planned or facilitated by the event organizers. The “Law of Two Feet” empowers folks to leave sessions and simply gather in the halls for impromptu conversation on topics of their own interest.

    The reality is that much of what we take from learning opportunities these days is dependent upon the mindset that we bring to those experiences.

    What is it about a “conference” that is so appealing? Is it really nothing more than a framework that pulls us all into a common learning space where we can participate actively with other folks, learning about topics of mutual interest? Do we actually need someone to organize that for us? We have schools for kids because they are still learning how to learn, but do we need that as adults?

    • What are you looking for in a learning experience?
    • When you have the Internet at your beck and call, what do you need to do to re-engineer a learning experience so that it better works for you as an adult learner?
    • What is missing from the experience when “all that is available” are the slides and/or a recording of a past event? How can you augment the slides/recording with what you need to still benefit?

    For a number of years now, I’ve been putting a Papert quote on the backs of various t-shirts (Code To Learn, Microbit, GumbyBlockhead) that sums up something that I’ve held as a core belief since undertaking my B.Ed decades ago.

    “I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge.”

    Conferences are a time-established institution that provide for a periodic gathering — and, for most, they are organized externally and attended as they occur. We take from them what we do. However, there are many days in a year between the various conference events — be they face-to-face or virtual. We are all empowered to learn on the days in between, and reach out to commune with others about topics of shared interest.

    Let our COVID-inspired explorations begin!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Doug!

    If it wasn’t obvious, the post above should have been attributed to me, personally, rather than the account that I was logged in as when I posted. If you want, you can edit to change the attribution.



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