On Professional Educational Conferences & Practicing What We Preach

Books upon books and articles innumerous have been written about the urgency of organizational change(s) in higher education in the last decade alone. Calls for reduction of costs and increased accessibility to a more diverse population of students abound. Contemporary conversations about the impact of disruptive changes — including increasing emphasis on hybrid/flipped classroom models and active, team-based teaching and learning — are both significantly timely and a part of a long history of calls for reform and efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of what we do.

Like most organizational structures, universities are good at resisting change. Tradition has value. Resources are scarce and the unknown often seems more risky. Isolation and departmental competition are high and the cooperation required to bring about changes is both difficult to achieve and rarely rewarded. Assessment and accountability can be perceived as threats. These obstacles to change are understandable, real and reasonably well-known. Though they are addressable and surmountable, implementation is of course easier said than done.

Within well-established, entrenched infrastructures, change can often begin informally, from inside out. One of the layers of our internal ecosystem in which I have recently noticed this kind of encouraging transformation is in the fracturing of the conference industrial complex. Which is to say: in the increasing decentralization of large, vendor-sponsored professional gatherings that begin with a keynote speech followed by clusters of breakout sessions, all attended by passive listeners who might venture a question or two at the end of a presentation and walk through a hall of posters on the way to dinner.  Perhaps with the help of social media backchannels, we have begun to practice the changes we wish to see in our classrooms during our gatherings with each other. In embracing alternative conferencing models and shifting importance to the “hallway conversations” we always knew mattered, we seem to have internalized what educational research has sought to show us for decades: the participatory, social nature of learning and the ways that knowledge is cultivated and integrated through communities and connections.

At professional gatherings I’ve attended recently, I am glad to have been a part of unconferences with participant-driven agendas; informal, birds-of-a-feather discussion groups; world-café style conversations; and more focus on communities of practice. Trends that I have also seen on the rise include:

  • vendor lightning talks, ignite sessions or speed-geeking type pitches vs. “vendor halls”
  • more graphic recordings of our meetings
  • fishbowl style participatory sessions in place of panels
  • formalized learning affinity groups, wherein attendees are assigned to groups of 3-4 based on levels and/or areas of expertise, then dispersed to sessions and set to reconvene for 15 minutes at pre-arranged times to debrief and reflect
  • mentor sessions, in which relative newcomers are paired with experienced professionals for quick, intensive, career-related one-on-ones and
  • more events like BIL conference and edcamp and THATCamp

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of inspirational keynotes and TED talks, just as I think auditoriums are important gathering spaces on our campuses. Presenter-driven content has its place — but if we continue to suggest that our universities provide a range of learning spaces and approaches to teaching, we could also explore dynamic alternatives to PowerPoint lectures about the importance of active learning. As we are shaping our institutions to be more flexible and responsive to research-supported pedagogical trends, in what ways might the change start wherever educators gather?

Romy Ruukel is Associate Director of the Digital Learning Initiative.

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