Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Be Selective with your Professional Development

Over the past week, I've attended two separate professional development conferences. The first, detailed here, was EdSurge and held locally in Mountain View, CA on a recent Saturday. The second, the annual ACSA leadership summit, was over two and a half days (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning) just a bit further south in San Jose. Despite their proximity and educational focus, these two conferences couldn't have been more different in three key areas of professional development: Sessions, Social Media, and Energy.

At EdSurge, the day began with all educators in the room together. After brief introductions, the schedule was presented for the day. Here, 15-20 companies with a product or service related to the field of education would present for no more than three minutes. These companies explained their connection to education and how they could improve the teaching at our school. There were "ooohs" and "aaahs" from the crowd on many of the ideas we saw. We were provided just enough information to want to find out more -- and that's what the next hour was for: time to visit individually with representatives (often the founder and/or CEO) of these companies in the adjoining room. At lunch, there was an hour long presentation by students ranging the entire spectrum of K-12. With their brutal honesty  and yet an optimistic outlook on the future of technology in education, the student panel finished with a standing ovation from the crowd. Lunch, I should note, was provided during the panel presentation (free of charge). From there, 15-20 more companies presented followed with an opportunity to meet their representatives over the next two hours. Time was then provided to socialize and mingle. The day ended with a "fire side" chat.

With its format, EdSurge allowed for the element of choice among its participants. Did you want to listen to the presentations? Great, join us in the banquet room. Instead, would you prefer to spend your time meeting various companies and learning about their product? That's fine too. The schedule was completely full of sessions for the day with each individual choosing how they best wanted to spend their time. I spent a large portion of the day hearing from companies, both in the banquet room and individually at their tables, and then tweeting my discoveries. You could follow the EdSurge hashtag for other updates, although it was challenging to keep up with the steady flow of tweets and excitement. And yes, as silly as it may sound, there was a lot of excitement and energy throughout the day. There seemed to be a sense of being part of the "cutting edge" in educational technology. To a group of educators willing to give up their Saturday to attend, it was an amazingly positive, eye-opening day with social and educational connections made throughout the event. Simply put, it was a Saturday well spent.

In contrast, the ACSA conference began with a variety of professional development sessions. Many of these sessions were 2.5 hours in length and covered topics on student discipline, common core, and closing the achievement gap, all worthwhile topics. Our school team attended three of the possible conferences and thoroughly enjoyed all of the sessions we attended. From 11:30 am to 1:45 pm, there were no free sessions available. While you could spend over $50 to attend a luncheon coupled with a talk from one of the earlier presenters, this large amount of down time led to many attendees to fend for themselves offsite for lunch. The sessions restarted at 1:45 and continued until just prior to the General Session Keynote at 3:30. The speaker for the Keynote was amazing - Amanda Ripley chronicled multiple student stories into one thread about how we can, need to, and must change how we approach education. At the end of the evening, our team headed home and reconvened for the following day.

Day two at ACSA was even more frustrating from a session scheduling standpoint. After a morning session at 8:30 am on Design Thinking by @mrbprincipal, our team mapped out the remainder of our day. After the day's General Session Keynote at 10 am, there were no more sessions until 3 pm. This time gap led to much frustration in our group as we wanted to receive professional development during this time but instead were forced to spend time walking around San Jose. For the final session at 3 pm, there were just a few relevant selections and I chose poorly. Stuck in a session for the next 90 minutes, I had time to rescan Twitter for any updated tweets with hashtags from the weekend. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were only a few dozen tweets for the entire conference at this point. To a connected educator, this felt like a missed opportunity to experience additional professional growth and collaboration. After the last session, no one is our party felt interested in attending the evening's dinner event. Truthfully, the lack of energy and excitement about the days' events led to these decisions -- "ho hum" could sum up the feedback I received from the eight other school members I invited to attend.

Looking ahead, I realize that I need to be more selective in the conferences we attend as a staff. Sessions need to be shorter with more on-topic discussions. Choice and Collaboration are two of the most important elements of a successful professional development opportunity. In this day and age, conferences I attend that don't have a large social media connection via Twitter feel like I'm stuck in prehistoric times. While I realize the clientele between an EdSurge and ACSA conference pulls from two, only-sometimes overlapping parties, it's the responsibility of older, more established conferences to energize their experience for true 21st century learning. Without these changes, I see a lot of time spent at EdSurge and EdCamp conferences with the decision to forgo other seemingly out-of-date opportunities.

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