ULearn13 reflections

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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.

4 thoughts on “ULearn13 reflections

  1. Thanks to your team Derek for another awesome conference! Remembering back on my first conference I was so overwhelmed by discovering my first professional network, people who were buzzing with the same things i was, sharing their passion and expertise, so many exciting things going on and the potential for so much more. I literally couldn't sleep for the 3 days of conference there was too much going on inside my head. (Incidentally it was also the first time i met the amazing Gwenny and spent my break time quizzing her on how she as one person could pull off such a feat of organisation and how do you get a job like that!) 10 years on and I am still buzzing to be at conference to make new connections and to reaffirm and celebrate old friendships. To me it is absolutely all about connecting with people and developing new opportunities to collaborate – i do this on behalf of my students and the schools i work with, and so that I don't get siloed in my own professional spaces and thinking. 

    Though I think there has been a bit of a shift in expectations from some of the conference participants over this time. There are many who have forgotten, or don't realise that this conference is all about teacher/ educators sharing their passion and experience, and it is not about the educational gurus serving up PD tailored just to you on a silver platter. This conference is all about how you should come prepared to engage with your colleagues and the learning that is being so openly and generously shared here. 

    On that note looking forward to connecting again at L@S, better get myself organised so that i can contribute next year 🙂

  2. What an interesting reflection, and thank you for the link to CBAM – a new one for me. The fact is that other people and other things only become interesting if one is INTERESTED and INTERESTING in the first place. We should always have something new to share that raises the bar if we feel that it needs raised. I always find that the simple act of sharing a story of my own unlocks untold stories of great interest. People only have themselves to blame if they cannot find something new amongst 1400 attendees. Perhaps that one attendee and others like her, if there are any, should create a story for themselves over the coming year and present at ULearn14 on Interestingness. 

    1. Thanks Ewan – spot on comment. I suspect the person mentioned may be an isolated case, but agree with your conclusion, and like your suggestion about creating a story for herself. After all, isn’t that the essence of our learning, that we can tell the story(ies) of the journey we are taking?

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