10 Big Ideas for Better Education Conferences & Professional Learning

If you plan or lead professional learning, whether you have an audience of 20 or 20,000, you are competing with technology–there’s always something interesting on our phones that can take our minds (and ears) away from a lecture or speech. At the same time we are using technology more and we are hungry for the social interaction of in person communication. Here’s a “can’t miss” list of 10 big ideas for better education conferences and professional learning.
These 10 ideas will:

  • Get your participants out of their seats, encouraging people to network and communicate
  • Facilitate ways for participants to co-create and share
  • Create opportunities to earn new ideas and new methods to move the work forward collectively

1. Create space for open-ended questions and conversations.

People are looking for ways to connect in professional learning settings. Create ways for people to share questions or topics that they want to talk more about. This could be on posters and paper, establishing a rotating protocol for discussion, or it could also be done through a tool such as Poll Everywhere or Twitter.

2. Include music and art.

Great professional learning organizers recognize that learners have multiple intelligences. For example, many conferences have artists to create a mural of the conversations and key learnings. At iPadapalooza, educator and writer Tracy Clark shows us the power of sketchnoting. Sometimes conferences even hire bands to open and close the “show.”

3. Create a dedicated hashtag.

Most conferences are doing this now–you should also consider it for small scale professional learning. A hashtag will create a streamlined communication with all your participants. Make it easy for them to engage in the conference hashtag before, during and after the conference or professional learning experience. ISTE does a great job of this for it’s annual conference. While the event is still months away people are already using #ISTE2016.  Looking for a way to close out the conference or learning experience? Storify your tweets.

4. Start a campaign.

You have a hashtag, now what? Think about the famous Ice Bucket Challenge. How can you get people to use your hashtag? Ask for something really specific. Perhaps each person at the engagement takes a selfie in at least one session, or each table group could take an image and share it on social media of their group’s discussion notes or project. This picture below is Bonnie’s table group from 2015 #BPLeadership conference.

5. Get people blogging.

Whether you’re attending a conference or putting one on, you should write about it. The key here is to write about content that is important even outside of the conference or professional learning engagement. Blogs can get people engaged who couldn’t attend and share the learning post engagement.

6. Go mobile.

Consider developing a mobile app that delivers updates, announcements, session schedules and various ways for attendees to interact on social media platforms and with one another. Within your app you could create a feature that live tweets and always includes your conference hashtag and handle. Gone are the days of formal business cards–use mobile apps to connect attendees in real-time and make it easy for them to stay connected.

7. Ensure the learning is relevant.

Professional learning should be action oriented, led by people who have experience teaching adults and focused on creating something that is applicable in attendees’ settings. Buck Institute for Education’s annual conference PBL World (#PBLWorld) includes interactive PBL sessions where best practices are modeled for teachers, leaders and PBL coaches. The Watershed School’s Traverse Conference (#TVRSE16) uses the city of Boulder, CO as its staging ground for all activities. The real world becomes the place where all the learning exists.
Traverse Conference 2015

8. Have your professional learning mimic your core principles.

Big Picture Learning (BPL) stresses the importance of student-centered learning in the community. So it’s no surprise that they encourage student attendance at their annual conference–Big Bang (#TheBang2016). Chris Jackson, Chief Communications Officer at BPL, said, “At last year’s Big Bang, held in New Orleans, attendees got to participate in the creation of a Mardi Gras float and visited one of the first high schools in the South to have gone through integration.” Laura McBain of High Tech High Graduate School and organizer of the Deeper Learning conference (#DeeperLearning), said, “We are intentional about each activity. We want attendees connecting experiencing and creating so every aspect of conference from morning activities, onsite sessions to late-night bocce are emblematic of our design elements.”

9. Use your location as your greatest asset.

Take advantage of your location by bringing in local flavor and culture. If you’ve been to SXSWedu you can agree they do a great job of this. There’s queso at almost every event. At the Deeper Learning conference in San Diego, the conference always has a taco and brewery night along with morning yoga to highlight the active lifestyle within the region. Incorporating local voice and culture make the location come alive for your attendees who’ve traveled from around the country, or the world, to attend.

10. Celebrate all voices.

At the recent iNACOL conference in Orlando in November, our team ran a #VoicesHub— a room for interviews with conference attendees which were then edited to run as Getting Smart podcasts (up on iTunes). Podcasting and audio options, such as the on-air radio station that #TCEA16 had at their conference, help to gather the voices of attendees and share key learnings, long after the conference is over. This is a win/win as you hear and learn from attendees, they are able to reflect on the conference experience and you as the conference leaders have amplification material long after your conference is over. Learn more about hosting a #VoicesHub at your next event.

People will have a great time and learn if the leaders of the professional learning set a tone of “joyful seriousness.” Learning stretches our brains, even as adults. We’ve seen people dress up as characters and put on funny skits, have impromptu dance parties during the day and host happy hours to engage folks after hours.
This blog builds off the success of our blog 23 Can’t Miss Edu Conferences, which we are updating this Spring. Do you have a conference or professional learning experience you think is “can’t miss?” Email us at [email protected] with the title “Edu Conference” and tell us why. We will review for our next conference round-up coming soon.
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Jessica Slusser

Jessica is the Senior Director of Impact at Getting Smart. She leads business development and growth of advocacy campaigns, advisory services, product development, marketing, and Getting Smart's blog. As part of her role, Jessica also oversees team events, conferences, and speaking engagements.

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