Ulearn is over for another year, and apart from spending most of the weekend resting to recover, I’ve been pondering a lot on the usefulness of this event in the lives of the nearly 2000 educators from around NZ and other parts of the world who attended. I’d wanted to publish my reflections yesterday – but it looks like Tony Ryan has beaten me to it with many of the things he’s reflected on in his very masterfully written blog entry.
So I thought I’d simply confine myself to a single thought that has come up repeatedly for me over the period leading up to, during and after the conference, and that is, what is the value of a conference as a professional development activity?
Here are some of the things that come to mind when I think of what I gain from attending a conference..
- you gain exposure to ideas
- you get to meet and greet people you may have “talked to” online.
- sometimes, you’ll meet people who have shaped or influenced your use of technology.
- you can make alliances with people who share similar interests, or find the opportunity to explore new and evolving interests.
- you have the opportunity to find out about initiatives that are not always shared either online or in print.
- you may get the idea to present your own work, which means you are becoming a thought leader.
- you develop new friendships that can last and make important links for you.
- you most certainly leave better equipped to shape the future of what is happening in your class, your school or the education system more broadly.
While all of these things are certainly big motivators for attending a conference, they are principally focused on change and development at the individual level. But what about from a whole school, or even whole of (education) system point of view?? With the focus on whole school review and development now being emphasised more, what is the role of conferences in this? Our own Ministry of Education is struggling with this issue also it seems. Recent communications suggest that, from a policy point of view, investment in conferences is not regarded as an effective way of building capability in the sector – which probably explains why only three people from the MoE’s ICT unit were allowed to attend.
I do have some sympathy with this view. I have attended conferences in the past that were regarded by those who attended as a ‘junket’ – an excuse to take a trip away, listen to some speakers and spend the rest of the time playing golf. This style of conference certainly does little to develop the capability of the professionals attending (apart from their golf perhaps :-))
But as I think more about it, ULearn isn’t, and never has been, anything like this. Nor has it been a conference that simply focuses on individual P.D. As I had an opportunity to speak to a number of principals and senior staff I know from around the country who were attending the conference, I got the distinct impression that, far from being an isolated event in the calendar that just a few got to attend, many schools are now regarding ULearn (and I suspect other conferences in the education space as well) as more than one-off events. They see them as a significant part of their school’s annual professional development plan.
What makes me say this? Well, here are some of the things I gleaned from the conversations…
- One school principal I spoke with had brought his whole staff to the conferences – it was their choice to spend their PD money in this way in order to experience the event together and to then be able to return to their school to ‘unpack’ and implement what they had learned
- Several staff from another school who attended had met with their whole staff prior to coming and had strategically planned what workshops they’d be attending so they could focus specifically on the things that were a part of their school’s development plan – so that, on their return they could feed this into the school development process with their colleagues.
- I met several principals who have strategically planned to make sure their whole staff have had the experience of attending the ULearn conference over successive years, telling me that “it helped develop a culture of a shared experience that becomes a point of reflection in ongoing school development.
- Several workshop presenters at ULearn were there as the culmination of many months of mentoring and preparation in their own school or cluster, with peer support and encouragement to grow professionally as they shared the results of their own investigations and work with learners with a wider audience.
- A large number of teachers who follow each other on Twitter used ULearn as an opportunity to meet face-to-face, arranging to link up for a meal and also sharing several times together during the conference to build the sense of professional community that was started online. Many of these people are already or are becoming leaders in their professional learning networks in their schools and/or nationally.
These are just a few of the examples that come to mind – but each serves to illustrate that ULearn, with the sense of ongoing purpose it provides, can play a significant role in the professional learning of teachers in our schools/centres, and in the ongoing development of schools/centres as a part of the ongoing, strategically planned cycle of professional development in schools and centres.
Truth is that attending a conference does cost – in terms of money and time, and this sort of investment must be measured against the outcomes at both a personal and organisational level. To dismiss conferences as a ‘low yield’ opportunity is to miss the considerable amount of strategic planning and thinking that goes into leveraging the benefits of attendance back in each school or early childhood centres. Large conferences such as ULearn do indeed provide opportunities for growth that simply don’t exist in other settings – but they must be seen as a part of an overall personal/school development strategy and not just a ‘one-off’.