Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Concerns with Educational Conferences

Let me start by saying that I LOVE attending conferences.

They are inspiring, empowering, and always leave you with a boatload of connections and ideas to aid in becoming a better educator.

They provide an opportunity for individual teachers to share their learning and the things they are trying with many people in a face to face environment. It is a way to celebrate what great teachers are doing.

So don't get me wrong, I love all of those aspects. But ultimately, they are very isolating and limiting, which is a bit ironic. Let me explain.

First of all - how many conferences are there throughout the year that are in the middle of the week?  For most teachers, it is challenging to get administrative approval to take time off for conferences. In my experience, teachers get somewhere around two personal days a year.  I attended a conference last year that would have eaten that up. If I didn't have support from my district technology budget, I wouldn't have attended any of the conferences that have inspired me thus far in my career. And I'm not sure where I'd be if I hadn't attended them.

Secondly, and this is the big one, is they are so incredibly cost prohibitive.  Once again, if you are lucky enough to be in a school or a position (as I have been) where you can be covered by the tech budget, then you can go to these things.  But how many teachers can a district afford to send? Coming up in November is the Midwest Google Summit. The registration is nearly $300, and then you have to travel there, and if you attend both days, likely stay two nights in a hotel.  That comes out to over $500 once you factor in food and hotel rooms, even if you share a room.  If teachers aren't supported to go, $500 and blowing two personal days is a lot to ask to learn when...

You have Twitter. You have edcamps.  You have G+.  Now I don't know about you, but the main reason I've heavily involved in those things is because I heard about them...AT A CONFERENCE!  So once again, we have a case of the haves and the have nots.  It is great for those of us who have experienced those powerful opportunities to laud the connections on Twitter. But if you haven't had a great launching experience, as much as someone praises the values of something like Twitter, it is hard to convince them how great it is.

I wish I could tell you what the solution is. I know the venues, and the food cost money. I know it is probably only fair to compensate those who plan the conferences. But, I know hundreds of companies pack the expo hall at some of these events, and I know they have to pay for that floor space.  I know I've attended Edcamps where I learn as much as big conferences, make twice as many connections, and they are cheap and covered through donations in most cases.

Big conferences have name recognition.  They provide a platform for those that are trying to influence education.  But too many teachers are left out because of the cost. Because of the timing.

I am probably a hypocrite, having given presentations at several paid-for events.  But I would never limit what I have to share to just those people that attend.. That is one of the only ways in our current structure to make this work. The few that get to go need to share with the rest.

My wish is that more people could experience the career changing moments I have at this events.  I just worry that a majority of educators are unable to go because of restrictions, cost, and time.  The goal of these conferences shouldn't be to improve the few, it should be to improve education for all. Yes, those of us that get to go are charged with sharing what we learned. But it just isn't the same as experiencing it for yourself.

That brings me to another conundrum.  I love edcamps. They provide a great solution to this problem. However, that still isn't catching even a sizable fraction of teachers. At least in my state, I know it isn't for a lack of location opportunities.  So on one side, teachers can't get to conferences because of cost. On the other side, when cost isn't an issue, teachers don't show up.  Why not?  

I don't know. It is hard to give up a Saturday when you are putting in 70 hours a week.  How can you possibly think of incorporating something new when you have the one million standards you have to cover by next Tuesday in time for three weeks of standardized testing?

There has to be a middle ground.  There has to be a way for teachers to get invigorating professional development, but in a way that meets them where they are at.  My experience today at the Google for Education Online Summit (and in the past at Edcamp Home) gave me a glimpse of what that could look like.  But even if these events were free and held weekly, how do we get teachers to participate? Adminstrators and schools need to support these opportunities, and see them as ways to level up their staff and improve the learning.  They need to attend edcamps, connect on social media, and give their staff TIME to do these things.  

The problem may be with big conferences. The problem may be with edcamps. The problem may be with schools and administrators. The problem may be with teachers.

But ultimately, the only way to get everyone learning and applying new things, we have to get those operations and stakeholders working together.  All teachers deserve high quality professional development.

It is about time we get it to them.

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