I’ve spent the weekend relaxing after an intense four days in Hamilton at the ULearn13 conference with more than 1400 educators from New Zealand and a handful from Australia. It’s been an opportunity to reflect on the event and the things I learned and observed, and about the contribution of this event to the learning and development of schools across our country.
I recall one of the first of these conferences (not known as ULearn then) that we organized back in 2001 (I think). Nick Billowes and his team were determined to include a conference like this as a sort of ‘staff meeting’ for teachers across the country who were involved in the ICTPD programme as it was then known. I was invited to present the opening keynote, after which there were just a handful of workshops run by NZ teachers. There were around 70 people at that event – and I recall the organizing group struggling to think of people they might invited to run the 5-6 workshops they needed for the programme. How things have changed!
This is the thing that makes the ULearn event a little different from many other conferences. While there are the keynotes and spotlight presentations for inspiration, the 300 or so workshops run by teachers for teachers makes it most significantly a peer-to-peer, knowledge-building event. Further, the face-to-face workshops provide simply one aspect of this – the catalyst for connecting if you like. The extraordinary back-channel communication (e.g. Twitter and Google docs etc.) that is generated from these workshops creates a wealth of information for delegates to reflect on and use when back in their schools, and many of the connections made are continued well into the year ahead – sometimes leading to collaborative projects that become the topic of a workshop at a subsequent ULearn conference.
As an example of this, this year we had a delegation of participants from the University of the South Pacific. A contact made at last year’s conference with Geoff Wood from Rosmini College led to a connection with teachers in Fiji as part of his ‘over the back fence’ project, which was presented as a workshop at ULearn13.
With such a crowd of people it can be difficult to cater for everyone’s needs, but the organization of ULearn is underpinned by the same conceptual framework that all of CORE’s professional learning is based on. Using a concerns based adoption model (CBAM) as a guide, the programme is deliberately planned to include opportunities for people to engage in ways that meet their particular needs – as well as the needs of their school.
Of course, there are always exceptions. On the last day of the conference I spoke to one of our conference sponsors who was in the trades hall area, who told me of how she’d been harangued by a delegate the previous evening, complaining that the conference offered her nothing new and was a complete waste of the money her school had paid to send her there. When asked if she’d used the break times to connect with other teachers and find out about the interesting things they were doing back in their schools the woman replied “there aren’t many interesting people here!”
But that’s an extreme example – the vast majority of people I spoke with and observed were making the most of every opportunity to connect, engage and learning with and from each other. In particular, it was again inspiring to observe and speak with many principals who had brought a number of staff with them to the conference, planning beforehand the things they wanted to focus on, and using the break times to reflect on and process the things they’d learned to ensure that when they return to their schools they have the opportunity to apply this new knowledge to the benefit of their students.
To me this is the way the ULearn conference should be approached. The greatest value is realized when it is seen as a part of the ongoing professional learning within a school, and when school leaders and teachers see themselves as a part of the rich tapestry of a networked, knowledge building community that extends well beyond the boundaries of their own institution and of the timeframe of the conference itself.