PD Conference Design

It’s no secret that the majority of PD conferences for educators tend to follow a “one size fits all” model that tries to make everyone happy. While fun, these conferences aren’t always the best use of educator time and money, and at least some of us think we can do better. With that in mind, last night on #CAedchat, +Karl Lindgren-Streicher+john stevens, and I led a discussion on PD conferences, in which we tried to develop a better understanding of what educators want from their conference experiences (Qs here and Storify digest here). To help drive the conversation, we shared a survey with the #CAedchat community asking a number of questions about what conference participants want to see, including questions on presenting vs. attending, session length, keynotes, etc. By the close of the discussion, we collected 67 responses, which can be found in this Fusion Table.

ISTE 2014 in Atlanta

To generate better discussion through justification of responses, we intentionally kept the questions very simple, with only two responses each. For example, we asked respondents to choose whether they preferred “unconference” discussions or speaker-led sessions with no room for combination. In other words, we encouraged participants to stay off the fence. Moreover, we left responses vague to allow respondents to interpret the choices themselves. Long vs. short sessions, for example, could be interpreted in a number of ways, based on each respondent’s own interpretation. This way, we can better target the subjective reaction and emotional response of each participant, since that’s the ultimate goal of a study of sort.

In the end, we hoped that the #CAedchat discussion and deeper understanding of the data would allow us to work toward better conference experiences, and we encouraged everyone to write a blog post on their ideal conference, based on our conversations.

Designing a better conference experience based on the opinions of conference participants requires us to not simply give in to all the requests and preferences conference participants have. If so, the conference experience that caters to everyone would end up pleasing no one. Rather, design is about going deeper to uncover needs that the respondents themselves may not even be aware of, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do with both the #CAedchat discussion and survey.

A few caveats: our survey was very cursory, with a relatively small sample size. And owing to the fact that we only used Twitter to circulate it, our respondents are self-selecting, in that they are likely to be regular conference participants. Ideally, we would have surveyed those who don’t regularly participate in conferences, with the goal of creating the kinds of experiences that could encourage more participation. Nevertheless, our data was very interesting, and I think there’s great value in using a survey to collect data, followed by deeper discussion of it.

Some of our highlights are given below:

  • Of all the various educator roles represented at conferences, teachers seem to participate less often than others, and only administrators give presentations with less frequency (the unlabeled group below point to entrepreneurs). I think we need to find a way to encourage more teacher participation.

  • Gender plays an interesting role: while women report going to more conferences than men, men tend to present more than women. When we filter the data below by school role, however, women in TOSA roles have given more presentations (6.8) than men (5.2) on average over the past 3 years. Again, I think these data indicate that not enough teachers without formal titles or tech roles are presenting at conferences.

  • It seems to be the case that those who attend more conferences tend to prefer no keynotes or featured speakers and that those who present often tend to prefer longer sessions that are focused on pedagogy and follow the “unconference” model (i.e., more discussion than presentation).

We must be careful to overgeneralize from these data alone, and the commentary in the #CAedchat thankfully added some valuable depth to the study. In looking through last night’s discussion, engagement and socializing with other people (unsurprisingly!) seemed to be apparent needs, regardless of conference type.

A majority of us do PD to learn from others in social environments, where we have an opportunity to share our own thinking with other people. Hence, it may be logical to conclude that, the more we go to conferences, the more we want “unconference” sessions to allow us to converse with each other (in opposition to led sessions).

And we also tend to like shorter sessions, since they give us time to connect with other people and give us a chance to stay engaged with the topic of discussion (we also tend to dislike keynotes and demo slams, unless they engage us in similar ways).

I was a little surprised at the preference for shorter sessions, given my own way of thinking; but after learning from others why they prefer these types of sessions, it makes better sense to me, and if I had the opportunity to design a PD conference on my own, I would certainly have to keep this in mind.

Knowing what I know now, I would design a conference that spanned 2 days, at minimum, and I would keep sessions relatively short, reserving one longer block a day for a deeper dives into various topics. I would create as many engaging social opportunities as possible by emphasizing the “water cooler” conversations that are had in hallways, giving participants a chance to share ideas out on butcher paper, Post-It notes, etc. One keynote could open the event, and we would provide closure through reflecting on our experience in small, thematic groups. At the end, it’s no surprise that quality conference experiences are build by the people who attend them.

In this brief study, we’ve identified some trends that aren’t surprising at all and a few that are, I think. There’s plenty of analysis left to be done, though, and anyone interested is welcome to use the Fusion Table and Storify digest to dig deeper. In the meantime, I would love to see some other people’s blog posts describing their ideal conferences. And I’d also welcome more feedback on the questions we discussed last night. Feel free to reply here to keep the conversation going.