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Are Education Conferences
Worth the Cost?


This week, we asked Education World Tech Team members to tell us about their most memorable experience at an education conference or convention. "Was it worth it?," we asked. "What did you learn? How did your experience benefit the entire staff?" Included: Tips for presenting at education conferences.

As school funds shrink and school needs grow, one of the first casualties of district belt tightening is apt to be funding for educational conferences and conventions. Many administrators, struggling to balance budgets and prioritize, look upon travel for professional development as simplya perk. But are they right? What can an educator find at a conference or convention that he or she can't learn at home? We asked the Education World Tech Team members to offer their insight.

"As strange as it might sound," Jamye Swinford told Education World, "I learned self-confidence at a tech conference. Although I teach daily in front of kids, I was nervous about speaking in front of adults -- and even more nervous about speaking in front of a large group of adults. After attending my first conference, I was asked to present at the next one. I agreedand even though my voice cracked, the presentation was a success. I soon realized that, although I might not know a lot, what I did have to offer was coveted by other educators.

More Conference and Convention Information

For more information on education conferences and conventions, see the following Education World articles and features:

* The Education World Conventions and Conferences Center
* Capitalizing on Conferences
* Professional Conferences Reflect, Restore Passion
* Retreat, Review, Recharge
* Professional Development in Your Own Back Yard: Hosting Conferences at Your School

"I've since attended -- and presented at -- many conferences," Swinford noted, "and I don't think a more worthwhile professional development activity exists. I've attended very few sessions where I have not come away with at least one new idea or technique. The networking opportunities also exert a positive influence on my teaching. Attitudes are rejuvenated. Teachers seldom have time to just talk with others who do the same things they do.

"In addition, the knowledge gained at a conference filters down to others on the staff, either through the students or through a faculty presentation, benefiting the entire staff. Many times, I've seen teachers pick up information that other teachers could use. With administrative support the whole staff profits."

"The most valuable information gained at conferences is information that has practical classroom or professional applications," noted Kim Logie. "I once attended a conference presentation by a grant writer, for example, who spoke from experience about the important things to include -- and not include -- in grant proposals. She also explained why certain things should be included or omitted.

"I've been to workshops by professional speakers, on the other hand, who have not been in a classroom or dealt with kids in years," Logie said. "Those presenters probably have good ideas, but implementing them is difficult because the speakers don't take real variables into account. They can't answer questions about how to help kid who can't read or those who can't sit still.

"Also, the most valuable presentations provide information that doesn't require me to have $1,000 worth of software to implement," Logie added. "Most schools I have taught in were small, or they had money issues that kept them from purchasing expensive software or hardware. Workshops that allow me to use existing resources to accomplish innovative goals are the most valuable to me."

"I learned a valuable lesson last November when I attended the NYSCATE (New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education) conference in Albany, New York...alone," said Brenda Dyck. "As a Canadian, attending and presenting at a conference as a 'lone ranger' was quite intimidating. Except for one contact, I knew no one at NYSCATE, and many questions plagued me: Who would I eat with? What would I do if I got lost? Would I be lonely?

"I discovered that being alone at a conference actually can be a good thing; it positions you to be on the lookout for people to connect with," Dyck said. "When traveling with a group, you tend to rely on those you are traveling with, and it's easy to miss the connecting/learning opportunities that are all around you. When you are by yourself, you are more inclined to visit with those you sit with on the bus or in a presentation. Traveling alone also provides you with quiet debriefing time at the end of the day; time when you can mull over what you saw and heard. It's almost like being on a professional development retreat."

Dyck provided the following example. "One evening, I rode the shuttle bus back to the hotel with two New York state educators. One of them was a Catholic school-district supervisor, responsible for 86 schools. When we discovered we were both 'lone rangers' at the conference, we decided to pair up for the evening's banquet. During dinner, I had the opportunity to hear about the work being done in my acquaintance's school district. She explained that several of her schools were piloting a project in which their strongest math teachers televised their lessons, allowing several classes to take advantage of one teacher's expertise, rather than limiting that teacher's talents to just one classroom.

"Not only did the initiative allow several classes to take part in one math lesson, (a particular advantage in calculus classes, for example, where good teachers are hard to find), but because the math lessons were posted on the schools' Web sites, absent students or students who wanted to see the concepts taught again could replay the lessons. The wheels in my mind were turning as she described the project to me. I could see great implications for the high school students at my school. For her part, my dinner partner was very interested in why a Canadian would come all the way to Albany for a conference, and she asked many questions about how to get on board with the kind of telecollaborative projects I do.

"I wasn't surprised to see a contingent from my dinner table at my presentation the next morning," Dyck added. "In an unexpected way, their friendly presence gave me the emotional support one hopes for when presenting away from home. I felt as though I was among friends. At the end of the conference, we exchanged e-mail addresses and made plans to continue our conversation later."

"I have been to many tech conferences and have benefited from them in different ways," said Lori Sanborn. "Many times, I have listened to a forward thinking individual, such as David Thornburg or Alan November, and have been inspired to reach beyond my comfort zone and strive to find new ways to incorporate technology into the classroom -- and to enjoy the experience. Other times, I have gone to a workshop and come away with only one small idea to try. That idea, however, was the catalyst that multiplied and inspired others at my school.

"An entire staff can benefit from one educator's conference attendance if the attendee knows the needs of the school. If the school is going to make hardware purchases in the near future, for example, that person can visit with many vendors at a conference, see what's available and what's coming, and help plan for it. Also, by bringing back ideas for use in the classroom and by sharing those ideas with others either at staff development sessions or grade level meetings, a single conference attendee can help spread innovative curriculum projects throughout an entire school."

"The past seven years, since I have been leading the tech support crew at the TCEA conventions, I have not had much time to 'experience' a lot of conferences myself, but I can share what I have heard other people say," Rusty Sinclair told Education World. "One of the most valuable things teachers report getting from a convention is the opportunity to network with others working at the same grade level or in the same subject area.

"This year, at our convention, to help attendees share what they heard, saw, or participated in, we set up a server that allowed the presenters to upload their files in an electronic format," Sinclair said. "That way, participants could return to their school districts and encourage folks who could not attend the conference to access the handouts for their own benefit.

"One of the best conference workshops I ever attended was a hands-on demonstration using PDA's and probeware," noted Debbie Thompson. "We were able to conduct simple science experiments and, for that time period, we were students again, getting excited over the data we were collecting with the PDA's.

"An entire staff can benefit from a single educator's attendance at a conference if the information obtained is shared," Thompson added. "The way in which information is shared is critical, however. Simply giving an overview of the conference at a faculty meeting will not encourage faculty to use the information. I try to integrate some of the things I learned into technology staff development activities instead. I schedule an hour or so after school for a technology activity -- attendance is voluntary -- and teach those who come how to do something new or how to do something more easily. That way, everyone begins to feel more comfortable using technology."

"So far, the most interesting and, at the same time, the most scary tech conference I attended was the Techxpert Conference held at the University of Nebraska at Kearney," said Fred Holmes. "The main speaker, from the Nebraska Internet Crimes Against Children Enforcement Unit, talked about students using chat rooms unsupervised and the type of people who were preying online for kids. He also provided examples of past cases, recommendations for supervision, and suggestions for how parents and teachers can keep children safe."

"The best conference speakers I have seen were those who were excellent public speakers regardless of the subject matter," Nicholas Langlie told Education World. "The ability to tell a story and keep an audience engaged often is just as important as what you're talking about.

"I am speaking about information architecture at the conference on instructional technology at SUNY Stony Brook this summer," Langlie said. "I am well aware that to convey an engaging message, I must perform well. To perform well, I have to have a script, I have to practice in advance, and I have to consciously remind myself that I want to convey my passion for the subject matter. I've also found that providing supplemental materials is very important. A detailed overview is an invaluable asset to any conference or workshop, particularly when the speaker is not very engaging.

"One staff member's attendance at a conference only benefits the rest of the team if two things are attended to," Langlie noted. "Number one: the attendee must take extensive notes and be detail oriented. Number two: the attendee must be able to get the gist of the topic and retain the main idea from each conference session he or she attends. Ultimately, the people you send to a conference must be able to understand what is being conveyed conceptually and by example, and be able to put that information on paper to share with others. Far too often, people go to conferences and lurk; that's fine if your intention is to network and have a good time, but it will not benefit your coworkers when you come back and cannot remember what you found interesting.

"The benefits of a conference extend far beyond sharing best practices, however," Langlie said. "The value of the human interaction component is immeasurable. To socialize with others in our field adds new depth to our professional lives, a depth that is often not possible in our day-to-day work environment. That particularly is true for those of us with unique jobs. Conferences provide a valuable networking experience, an opportunity for people to interact with like-minded peers."

"Whether or not one individual's attendance at a conference benefits the whole staff depends on the school and on the person," said Jenka Guevara. "Will the school give the participant time to hold workshops with the entire staff and share his or her new knowledge, or does the sharing have to be strictly on a one to one basis whenever the people involved have time?

"A more valuable experience might be to have speakers come directly to a particular school," Guevara noted, "assuming, of course, that the speaker learns about the school and its environment before going to speak there. We have had speakers give us the same talk they always give, without taking into consideration specific information about our school."

"The most valuable experiences I've had at tech conferences have been when I've had to prepare and deliver a presentation myself," noted Bernie Poole. "That's because it requires me to organize my thoughts about something relevant to my students', my colleagues', and my own needs within the context of the academic program I'm responsible for. In addition, one or two presentations that I attend invariably will have a powerful impact on my awareness of what's going on elsewhere in instructional technology (IT).

"The attendance of even a single educator at a conference can benefit the entire staff in many tangible and intangible ways," Poole added. "At division meetings, I'm often asked for my opinion on something related to IT. My responses are very much colored by what I've learned from others in my field. My courses also are crafted using the ideas of others in my field -- ideas I have heard about at conferences or read about in published conference proceedings.

"I really can't think of a better way to disseminate the wisdom of learning and practical experience in any field of endeavor," Poole said. "At a conference, you can be exposed to a broad swath of knowledge in a concentrated time frame. I almost always come away from a conference rejuvenated -- and a little bit more excited about what I do."

Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

* Brenda Dyck,Master's Academy and College, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
*Jenka Guevara, American School Foundation, Mexico City, Mexico
* Fred Holmes, high school LAN Manager/Webmaster, Osceola Public Schools, Osceola, Nebraska
* Nicholas Langlie, online teaching/learning support, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, New York
* Kim Logie, elementary computer teacher, Morrice Elementary School, Morrice, Michigan
* Bernard John Poole, associate professor of education and instructional technology, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
* Lori Sanborn, K-5 technology specialist, Rancho Las Positas School, Livermore, California
* Ernest E. "Rusty" Sinclair, training director, Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Austin, Texas
* Jamye Swinford, instructional technology consultant, Region 18 Education Service Center, Midland, Texas
* Debbie Thompson, director of instructional technology, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Pembroke, North Carolina

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Updated 04/22/2010