One of the many things that educators are missing this year are in-person annual conferences. Conferences provide educators with a variety of opportunities to learn about the latest innovations in their field. Education conferences can provide teachers the means for earning professional development hours/credits by attending presentations and sessions facilitated by expert speakers and thought leaders. By connecting with other education professionals, educators acquire a broader understanding of the prevalent issues and concerns in education. There is no doubt that these conferences serve many purposes and are incredibly valuable. BUT, this year, conferences have taken a hit of sorts. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many conferences were cancelled, postponed, or customized to be delivered as virtual experiences for attendees.
Clearly, attending a virtual conference is not the same as an in-person event. The excitement usually associated with traveling to another area to attend a conference, including all the plans to reconnect with friends from other schools, is dampened. No more lugging bags of free pencils, shirts, memo pads, mini packs of manipulatives, mouse pads, and travel bottles. No more excitement over winning a free doc camera or set of manipulatives for your class. No more fun dinners post conference day talking with colleagues about the sessions, speakers, and swag. But does this mean that virtual conferences don’t have value? Here are some benefits and drawbacks to attending a virtual conference.
You can save lots of money! By not having to travel, the costs go way down. Many times, schools can only pay for the cost of the conference not the associated expenses (air/car travel, fuel, lodging, meals). In addition, because conferences are not being held at large event centers, registration fees are significantly decreased. That extra pocket change can go towards your coffee!
There are more conference options. Since registration fees are substantially decreased, the opportunity to attend different conferences is increased. In the past, one or two conferences was the maximum in year (unless you were a speaker or an educator guest of an exhibitor). Theoretically, with the money that would have paid for one or two conferences can now pay for three or more.
Time saved is a treasure! This is closely related to saving money. Extra time is not needed to travel to and from a conference location. No loss of sleep or energy that adversely affects attentiveness during sessions. This is a win-win for everyone, including speakers because they have the extra energy needed to present to a screen.
Connect with educators from around the world. It’s exciting enough to meet educators and ed leaders from different parts of the same country, but virtual conferences allow for wider reach including worldwide. Being able to compare notes, share strategies, and swap success stories with educators from another country is too good an opportunity. But wait, is this possible? (More on this later.)
It’s not just videos! A virtual conference can mean pre-recorded sessions, but there are also live sessions which are better than just videos. I don’t know about you, but I can search all the TED Talks I want online. I want to see someone live and have the chance to interact with them post-presentation, if possible.
Fill in gaps with closed captioning. Much like how I prefer streaming my shows, closed captioning is a great feature of watching a virtual session. The distracting background noise or low-quality sound often associated with live events can be resolved with closed captioning. If the session is recorded and transcripts are made available, these can be used to fill in any gaps of the information missed.
Join from anywhere, anytime. There is more freedom in joining a session from any location with Wi-Fi connection. If sessions are offered as recorded videos, joining when convenient is also an advantage. With the responsibilities, and distractions, at work or home (or work from home) flexibility is key.
Get comfy. Flannel pajama pants and a dress shirt. Need I say more?
Distractions are highly probable. Because conference attendance can be from anywhere, distractions could increase, and attention spans shortened. In traditional conferences, speakers would speak/present for an hour or more. This is probably not the case with virtual conferences where sessions could be broken into 20-30-minute blocks. Because interaction with the speaker is limited, the incentive to continue focusing is decreased.
Social interaction is all but cut out! With in-person conferences, educators could strike up conversations, compare notes, make plans for future conferences, etc. Friendships can be forged! But because of the lack of social interaction in virtual conferences, the possibility of meeting others is limited. Yes, there may be attendees from other countries but how can you meet them? Unless the presenter sets up break-out sessions, meeting someone new may be through chance or colleagues.
Wi-Fi connectivity can be spotty. Connectivity issues are a frustrating side-effect of virtual anything. Weather, local construction, low bandwidth, etc. can all present a challenge to smooth connectivity. What is more annoying than an awesome speaker just about to share an amazing new strategy or experience and…the screen freezes?
Too comfy. Flannel pajama pants and a dress shirt. Need I say more?
A lot of what can make or break a virtual conference experience is attitude. If the attitude going into a virtual conference is lukewarm, then expect to be bored, distracted, and totally uninterested in reviewing recorded sessions or slide presentations afterwards. If the attitude going in is positive, seeing this as an opportunity that might not have been possible before, then the results of attending can lead to new ideas and strategies to take to the classroom, innovative products to talk with colleagues about, and the motivation to attend more virtual conferences. The benefits and drawbacks are entirely up to you.