Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Two Cents On Conferences

Based on a completely unscientific examination of my recent social media connections, there has been a lot of chatter about the nuances of socializing during educational conferences. More specifically, some conference attendees have felt left out, snubbed, or simply ignored by their peers. A few post-ISTE15 blog posts addressed this phenomenon, as well as less directly, some reflections from FlipCon15. It seems as though the relatively new advent of virtual PLN's and the seemingly exponential growth of the edu-famous entourage have collided to form the perfect storm at educational conferences. 
Some teachers have friends around the country (or around the world) that they are only able to visit face to face once or twice a year. The conference is like a lifeline for these types of relationships, so of course they want to spend as much time as possible with these colleagues. On the other hand, some attendees have only "known" a favorite presenter or blogger or podcaster virtually, but have learned from or been inspired by him/her. Of course they want the chance to meet that individual in person at the conference to thank him/her or just socialize for a while.

What results is a sometimes uncomfortable situation in which a conference attendee might feel like s/he is back in high school, sitting at the lunch table all alone, while the cool kids whoop it up a few tables away. 

Well, I've decided it's time I add my two cents worth on this topic. Please note that these are strictly opinions based on one person's experience (mine!), but here are my limited credentials:
  • I'm an introvert at heart.
  • I have my own edu-heroes whose podcasts I listen to, blogs I read, and/or Twitter accounts I follow. 
  • I have no problem starting up a conversation with someone on social media, but I am a little more shy in person.
  • I've attended a variety of national conferences, sometimes with close friends, but usually on my own.
So, with that glimpse into my psyche, here are my ideas about what we could do to better avoid creating "high school cafeterias" at our education conferences. I think some of these strategies would help more attendees to feel included, but also allow for those "PLN reunions" to happen. 

Changes at the Attendee Level
1. Individuals that are planning on attending a conference, especially a national conference, should spend time before the conference connecting with other attendees digitally. Get on social media and find out who's going to be there. Set up some "outings" or "meet-ups" ahead of time so there's some guaranteed face to face time. Advertise which sessions you might be attending so that you can pre-connect with others who will also be there. This ensures a friendly face to look for when you get into the room.

2. If you happen to go to a session in which you don't know anyone, introduce yourself to the people sitting next to you. You'd be amazed at the stories and knowledge your "next door neighbor" has. I met some of my most interesting connections at NSTA15 last winter using this philosophy. You might not get the chance to have a coffee with that edu-famous presenter you really wanted to meet, but I'm here to tell you that there are a ton of amazing educators in the audience that would love to meet you and chat.

3. For those educators who do know a lot of people at the conference and have been looking forward to spending time together, I think it's courteous to make one simple change: Avoid adding the conference hashtag to your personal tweets. Looking to get your PLN together for dinner? Sharing an inside joke? Reminiscing about past gatherings? Those tweets are targeted to a specific, select group and don't need to be shared with all the conference attendees. It only makes other people feel like they're missing something when they really aren't a part of this insular conversation that you've made public. I'm not saying that you shouldn't have these Twitter conversations with your buds; I just feel like there's no need to use the conference hashtag with these tweets. Hashtagging should be for conversations about experiences, ideas, and learning that all people can feel a part of.

Changes at the Presenter Level
1. If I were to lecture in the classroom, I wouldn't continue for very long before I took a break and asked students to process that information in some way. Similarly, I feel like part of a presenter's responsibility is to allow time for attendees to bounce ideas off each other during the presentation. This not only allows an opportunity for the genius of the room to be uncorked, but it also has the potential to get people talking to others they may have never otherwise met. You could even be really crazy and purposefully mix up those groups so that attendees don't only talk to the people they chose to sit with. Give your attendees time to verbally process with each other and the opportunity to meet a like-minded friend.

2. Keep in touch with the attendees who contact you. If someone at your session tweets about it, respond with a "favorite" or written reply. If you receive any correspondence later about questions or resources, make sure to take the time to answer. I'm sure it can get a little overwhelming if you receive a lot of requests, but if you're going to put yourself out there as a presenter, I feel like you have a responsibility to "walk the talk."

Changes at the Conference Level
The conference format can go a long ways in allowing for different types of interactions amongst participants. Based on the conferences I've attended, here are some "format" ideas that I think work well to achieve a balance amongst the myriad of attendees' social expectations.

1. Provide communal meals onsite and make sure there's enough time to eat them. Let's face it, a lot of our conference socializing is done over drinks or a cheeseburger. For those attendees that don't know a lot of people at the conference, a communal meal is a great place to meet someone new. No need to worry about finding a lunch date, just simply join a table. Sometimes tables are explicitly organized by interests so everyone has a "home," but they don't need to be. We're all adults and should feel somewhat comfortable (albeit, a little awkward) joining a table of strangers for dinner. For attendees that already have a group of friends they'd like to spend time with, a nice long meal time allows the opportunity to eat outside of the conference and catch up.

2. Plan for a variety of session types, some of which are meant to simply bring people together. Many big conferences will have a "first-timers" breakfast to kick off the conference. FlipCon has scheduled time for job-alike sessions for people to meet each other and share ideas. One of my favorite memories from ISTE14 was attending the "Birds of a Feather" gatherings that united educators around common interests or passions. I met so many intelligent, friendly colleagues at those sessions. Traditional conference sessions can be very one-directional. The presenter or the panel "talks at you" and there is no community connectedness. This is fine for some topics, but conference planners need to make sure that there are also many scheduled, intentional opportunities for conversations to happen. 

A conference is what you make of it and adaptable to what you need from it. Just remember that everyone attends conferences for different reasons. Presenters and conference planners can do a lot to help ensure that attendees with diverse needs are all satisfied. But at the same time, your attitude, courage, and empathy can go a long way in making each conference a valuable experience.

Photo from Denisefg87 on Flickr, available via Creative Commons.