September 6, 2017

Part of my job as eLearning Coordinator is to plan and manage the staff development of the school. That means that my principal sends me all the information about edtech conferences and I get to decide if we want to pay for somebody to attend. At first, these conferences were lifesavers, but recently I have started to question if they still provide good value for money.

Here are a few of my reasons:

1. The Conferencing business

When we started out, one of our parents warned me against falling for the conference business. At that moment I did not understand what he meant but having attended numerous conferences, I started to see the point. Conferences are big business. Sending a teacher to a two-day Edtech conference cost on average R2 500, excluding transport and accommodation. While I am very happy to spend money on professional development, I am not so happy when that money gets spent on luxury locations, fancy meals and goody bags for the participants.

2. Edtech Conferences = paid for holiday

Whenever I ask the staff, who wants to attend a conference I have no shortage of volunteers, as long as the conference is during school time and even more so if it includes a trip somewhere and an overnight stay on the school’s account. However, the moment the dates fall during a holiday people is not so keen to sign up anymore.

I can’t help but wonder if their keenness to sign up for conferences has more to do with a break from school than their interest in the subject. This became very apparent when I encouraged staff to take part in a session or two of the Google Education on Air conference. It is free, and you can watch it from the comfort of your own home. Nobody could find time in their busy days to listen to even one session.

3. Who are the presenters at Edtech conferences?

This is a pet peeve of mine. I have been asked to do a number of presentations at conferences and workshops, both organised by the Department of Education and the private sector, but never once have I been paid for it. While it is an honour to be asked to present and it looks great on your CV, it also takes at least 10 hours to prepare a 1-hour presentation. Nobody who takes their job seriously can afford to put 10 hours of hard work in with no return.

So who does that leave you with to do presentations? Vendors, wanting to sell a product. The only way you can justify spending so much time on something that you don’t get paid for is if you are not making your money from it. But vendors are not educationalists; they have a product they want to sell. I have sat through session upon session where somebody who has not been in the classroom in years (if ever) are giving me a lesson in pedagogy, while actually trying to show how great their product is.

I am not saying that the presenters don’t know what they are talking about. It just amazes me that you can arrange an event for tens if not hundreds of thousands and not budget one cent to pay the people who do the actual work. After all, people attend a conference to listen to the speakers.

4. Conferences have to cater for everyone.

It is part of the reality of conferences that you will have participants of all skill levels. It is possible to have sessions aimed at all different levels but once you add the fact that most sessions are 45-50 minutes and you find that conferences keep scratching the surface and seldom go deeper.
If you are new to the field and you want to get lots of information in a short span of time, Edtech conferences are the place to start. But anybody who has dug into Edtech a little will quickly find that they hear the things they already know over and over again.

5. Do as I say not as I do

I find Edtech conferences one of the great ironies of life. Every speaker talks about active learning and how speaking from the front of the room is often not the most efficient way to present new skills. But if you look back at the programme you realise that you just spend 8 hours sitting passively listening to speakers talking about active learning. It doesn’t mean that conferences can’t be active, Google conferences are good examples of practising what they preach. But the majority are better at telling you what to do than showing you how it should be done.

6. Post-conference support

So many times when I talk to teachers after a conference, they are full of inspiration. However, three months down the line more they have not implemented any of it. The problem is that they leave the conference full of inspiration, but with no concreate plans to implement it. With no plan of when and how you are going to apply the ideas, life quickly takes over, and before you know it, you are back teaching like you always did, the conference just a faint memory.

Even those that manage to try one of the ideas, often find that the first attempt does not live up to the hype and give up on the notion. First attempts are seldom successful; I find that I need to do something four or five times before I have figured out what works for me. But with no post-conference support, it is easier to just give up on the idea.

Getting the most from edtech conferences

Is edtech conferences a big money making racket? I won’t go that far. If you are new to eLearning it is the best way to get lots of information; it is also a great networking opportunity and energy boost. But if you look back at it in a year’s time, I am not sure that you are going to feel that the school got value for the money they spend. However, if you consider an edtech conference here is some tips to get the most from it:

  • Don’t send more than one teacher. While it is fun to have some company everybody ends up attending the same sessions and you end up wasting money.
  • Don’t send the same teacher more than once.
  • Don’t send you most or least computer literate teacher to the conference.
  • Make sure the teacher takes a laptop/tablet along as well as some mobile data. Conference wifi is the most unreliable thing in the universe and an interactive session loses all its value if you can’t connect to the internet.
  • Agree beforehand that the teacher will present a training session to the rest of the staff based on something they learned at the conference.
  • Conferences are great if you are investigating different options for the school. Send the teacher with a list of vendors to investigate.

Next time we will look at what other options there are for professional development, especially when it comes to technology. But in the mean time share your stories in the comments. Have you attended any edtech conferences? Do you think it was worth the money? How do you prefer to get your professional development?

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