Conferences must change with the times

TCEA Tweet-upWhen you work with schools across the nation, you soon realize that February and March are never going to be your own again. These are the months where many states schedule their state educational technology conferences. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to Texas (TCEA), Washington (NCCE), Washington DC (CoSN) and of course, my home state of California (CUE).

If I could have cloned myself, I could have gone to Florida (FETC), Illinois (IL-TCE), Arizona (MEC), Michigan (MACUL), New Jersey (NJECC) and probably more I’m forgetting. (I can’t even bring myself to find all the full names and links to these terrific conferences! Bad blogger!)

TCEA Tweet-upThese conferences give technology-using educators a chance to reflect and recharge, hear inspiring speakers and talk to colleagues from near and far. This year, more than ever, I met folks who previously have only been virtual avatars, Twitter buddies, or names on blogs. The opportunities to use Web 2.0 tools and social networks to build a Personal Learning Network has changed many educator’s lives, and brought new spark to a traditionally isolated profession.

I believe conferences must change as well, or risk being a relic of the past.

Technical difficulties, of courseAt CUE, I participated in a day long “unconference” event called EdubloggerCon West run by Steve Hargadon of Classroom 2.0 (a social network for educators.) Instead of submitting session ideas months in advance, and a faceless committee deciding which sessions are presented, the attendees shaped the day to our own needs. A wiki was used to plan the event. People signed up, and added their ideas to another page for ideas about what to talk about.

At the event, the first item on the agenda was to decide what the day would become. Imagine that, the attendees shaped their own day of learning to their personal needs!

Alice Mercer and Gail DeslerSomeone volunteered to edit the wiki, and an agenda emerged on the fly. Some people wanted to talk about technology and language development. Some people wanted to talk about project-based learning. Concepts got merged and people stepped forward to offer new ideas. There were some mini-sessions (5 minutes!) on various tools. At the end of the day, the wiki stood as both a record of what happened, and links to the tools and ideas we talked about.

It was an interesting day, both for the learning taking place and the concept that conferences could change and adapt to new technology that allows more personalized learning. It felt like a mash-up of the best conference sessions you’ve ever been to, combined with the most interesting conversations you tend to have when committed, passionate educators gather after-hours.

Lisa Linn at EdubloggerCon WestWhile this exact format might not work for thousands of attendees, there are certainly elements that can be adapted and experimented with. Conferences as we know them today are going to change as technology and culture change — or become obsolete.

Steve is getting to be pretty good at structuring these events. It’s an interesting combination of leadership, experimentation on the bleeding edge of technology, herding cats, and stepping back gracefully to allow others to share the spotlight. It’s one of those skills that looks magically effortless when it’s done right, but isn’t. Sort of teaching.

EdubloggerCon WestThese days, change happens quickly, even for those who feel ready for it. In fact, the name EdubloggerCon seemed cutting edge a year or two ago, but now it’s too focused on one tool in a universe of possibilities. It’s really about changing education for the modern world.

Congratulations to CUE and executive director Mike Lawrence for allowing this experiment to take place and not being afraid of the future.

If you are attending the National Educational Computer Conference (NECC) in San Antonio in June, there is a similar event being held two days before NECC starts. More information here.

8 Replies to “Conferences must change with the times”

  1. It was great to meet you and others who I have interacted with online but never in person at the CUE conference.

    It was interesting how much sites like classroom 2.0 and twitter have nearly added to my personal network and added to the conference while I was there and in reflecting back.

  2. OK, so buckle your seat belts… 🙂 After the fun we had at CUE, and a light-bulb idea that came in the “Bloggers Cafe” there, I approached the conference organizers at NECC and suggested that we hold a parallel “unconference” in the NECC Bloggers Cafe during NECC. Kind of a “fringe” conference, for those who are familiar with the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh ( They were not only all for it–they had tried to facilitate it last year through the NECC wiki.

    Because I was in the Open Source Pavilion the whole time during NECC last year, I didn’t really get to be in the Bloggers Cafe, but I suspect that it was, largely, a “fringe” conference even without the wiki organizing. But it would be fun to re-emphasize this, and using NECC’s wiki I set up a page and schedule for events that could take place during NECC but “on the fringes.” For example: some serious speed demo times, and a series of 7 or 8-minute talks that either weren’t accepted formally at NECC or weren’t current when proposals were due. Here’s the link:

    I’ve also set up to be a place where conference goers at any conference could self-organize unconferences, fringe conferences, chat rooms, twitter accounts, etc. I think David Thornburg said it best when he said that 25 years ago, going to an ed tech conference was “joy.” I think these conference ideas bring that joy again…

  3. Sounds like a great idea! I did go to and added our Council for Exceptional Children conference in Boston. Hopefully people will be able to get together there. Thanks for this post and thanks to Steve for setting up that conference page.

  4. MACUL has actually been working on this concept for the past two years. A small group of members in our organization wanted a place to meet, converse, share, and host their own sessions for some of the more cutting-edge technology practices that usually don’t make it in time for presentation submissions. Thus our Guerrilla Sessions were born (

    We’ve been slow on the uptake as this has been a grass roots movement, but at this year’s conference our second round of Guerrilla Sessions produced 5 “unconference” opportunities for attendees to learn about fair use of digital media, podcasting, grant sources, and even provide a time for members of our social networking site to meet face to face.

    I love the idea of using the wiki to organize sessions, as we’ve just been going with the low tech bulletin board at the conference route. However, the nice thing is that our organization provides us with a room and a projector for our Guerrilla Sessions so we can treat them for much like a regular conference session as far as presentations go.

    If you can attend MACUL next year in Detroit, I highly recommend coming 🙂

  5. Sylvia, this is a great timing! I’m gathering resources and ideas for the strand I’ll be leading at NJELITE in July entitled Teaching & Learning with Technology. David Warlick is leading the “Mapping the Future” strand and a few other NJ educators are leading the others.

    I’m already putting together the network needed to make our strand a unique and powerful learning experience. For me, Educon set the standard!

    Hope you’ll be able to contribute ideas, advice and perspective to make it as good as it can be!

    Best, kj

  6. I can testify to the power and value of EduBloggerCon at last year’s NECC. The conversations I was part of during that one day, along with those that grew out of it in the Blogger’s Cafe, made the whole trip to Atlanta worthwhile.

    The EduCon 2.0 conference this past January in Philadelphia also grew out of EduBloggerCon and was a good example of how educational meetings need to change. Most of the sessions were actually discussions among the participants (including students from the Science Leadership Academy, the host school) rather than formal presentations. And most of the topics for those session were determined through online exchanges during the months between inception and the event.

    I’m looking forward to what will come from EduBloggerCon in San Antonio, not to mention from the “fringe” conference that Steve mentioned. NECC is certainly an example of a conference that needs changing.

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