By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor
Having just wrapped up a successful iPadpalooza and seeing all the chatter around ISTE 2014 online, I wondered: What makes a memorable and meaningful conference experience?
At iPadpalooza, we had 98.4% of people tell us they would come back to our event next year. Rather than being happy about that number, I focused on what the 1.6% didn’t like. Was the live music too loud? Were the speakers or presentations not what the attendee expected?
I used to be guilty of attending conferences and passively waiting for information or presentations to amaze me. I’d leave disappointed and wonder what attending these conferences would mean for me in the future. However, all of that changed when I started taking a more proactive approach to my conference experience. Here are a few steps to help anyone attending either his or her 1st or 50th event.
Prior to the Event
Laying a good foundation of prep work prior to attending a conference on the scale of ISTE or the variety of something like iPadpalooza can make huge a difference.
1. Find some people to follow - This doesn’t mean cyber-stalk or physically tail someone during the event. Rather, look at the big-name speakers or presenters and start to follow their work on social media. This will give you a flavor of their presentation style and may indicate what kind of content they might offer during their sessions.
2. Identify sessions ahead of time –Looking at the program guide for the first time at the registration booth puts you at a disadvantage. Most events (especially edtech ones) post their session titles and descriptions well in advance. Take that opportunity to do some early research on topics that interest you and areas that you want to improve upon professionally. Additionally, as popular sessions can fill up quickly, always have a back-up plan.
3. Plan on giving yourself time between sessions – George Couros blogged about a conference in Australia that left 30 minutes in between sessions. While that’s a great way to have time in your schedule, most events only allow for 15 minutes or so. When planning out your days, be sure to leave a couple of longer breaks throughout the day. This extra time will allow you to reflect on a session or connect with colleagues and maybe actually have a professional lunch that is longer than 30 minutes.
During the Event
4. Don’t sit in sessions you don’t want to be in– EdCamps have mastered this strategy by the “voting with your feet” way that they run their events. If you are “stuck” in a 2-hour workshop on the theory of how Disney’s Frozen can be applied to advanced physics, you either didn’t research the workshop well enough or the description was completely off. (First clue – it was called “Let it Go: Why Liquid Nitrogen is the Bomb.”) Don’t be afraid to walk out to your back-up session. If that one is full, find a quiet place where you can observe and follow the conference hashtag. At least that way you might pick up on some great things shared at other sessions.
5. Meet somebody new and connect – The easy way to do this is to have some virtual introductions via social media beforehand and then approach them when you see them in person (assuming their social media avatar looks like them). The more challenging, and sometimes more interesting, way to do this would be to find an attendee sitting by themselves and just introduce yourself. You never know how their story may help inspire you in the long run and vice-versa.
6. Capture your thoughts and reflect daily – I like to blog about the things that I have learned at conferences. This isn’t so much to share with others as it is for me to identify the things that I found valuable in my learning each day. Not a blogger? Use a tool like Storify to capture bits and pieces of a hashtag and make your own recap with others’ social media posts.
After the Event
7. Go back and share what you learned – As teachers, we know that our students learn by doing. Therefore, take what you learned and teach someone else. The blog that I mentioned in step #6 is a great way to share what you learned. For the slightly more daring, ask to have some time at an upcoming faculty meeting to give your 5-minute Ignite-type talk about highlights of your learning to the whole staff.
8. Follow-up with attendees and presenters online – Now that you’ve made some connections with new people from the event, be sure to send a message in the weeks afterwards to strengthen that connection.
9. Blackmail yourself – Learning new and inspiring ideas at an event can be great momentum going into the beginning of the school year. However, often weeks or months pass before you even get the motivation to apply something you’ve learned and by then you are too tired with the day-to-day of school life. Rather than blow it off, blackmail yourself. Outwardly tell colleagues (online or in person) that you are going to try a new concept that you learned. Then, set a time when you are actually going to try it and publicize this as well. I like to send myself an email in the future using futureme.org or the like. Setting up that email immediately after the event ends can immediately reignite you months later.
These steps or tips are not foolproof, and they do require a bit of heavy lifting on the part of the normally passive conference attendee. But, if you apply some or all of these steps, you’ll find yourself not only enjoying conferences more but also sharing that joy with other colleagues and students down the road.