Going to a Tech Conference? Make Sure to Focus on What Matters.

Opinion | Events

Going to a Tech Conference? Make Sure to Focus on What Matters.

By Ken Shelton and Matt Hiefield     Jun 18, 2019

Going to a Tech Conference? Make Sure to Focus on What Matters.

Educators often go to professional development events, including technology conferences for a variety of reasons. For some, it is a rare opportunity to learn the latest in education and technology. For others, it is an opportunity to make or expand their professional learning network or to directly interact with thought leaders from around the country or even the world. But are attendees always focusing on the most important takeaways?

Before the start of a conference, most conference goers look through the program offerings and make decisions about which sessions to attend based on limited information, such as title and speaker. On the surface, this seems like a strong approach. However, the title of a session doesn’t always provide a strong indication of its quality.

Take the perennially-popular “50 Best Apps” or “How to Make a Google Form” sessions that crop up every year. Conferences like these sessions because they’re popular, but most of the content can be found online, and of course, via word of mouth recommendations from teachers. Sessions like these are often a firehose of show and tell with no time to reflect and evaluate. That’s a problem.

Often, what gets lost in big tech conferences is a focus on inclusion and equity. Here are some considerations in approaching each part of the conference experience with a focus on equity, which, ideally, will provide a more practical and effective way of nurturing the learning of all students.

Keynote Speakers

Keynote speakers are almost always good-natured with a trove of useful and inspiring tales to share. Good speakers make the audience laugh, think and reflect. But how many conference speakers have you heard that appropriately challenge participants and even cause a bit of discomfort within this challenge? Keynotes do not need to be so-called safe spaces, but should rather be brave spaces where inequities in our schools (and our conscious or unconscious roles in their perpetuation) are openly examined.

While more than 50 percent of students in public schools are students of color, very few keynote speakers mirror this diversity. When speakers come from similar backgrounds, they can't always speak to the broad diversity of experiences that reflect reality for many students and teachers.

How does this impact the listeners’ experience? Consider the types of stories are keynote speakers telling. Conference goers are often mesmerized by stories of tech genius, innovation and design. However, some of these examples are coming from gifted or specialized programs that are not accessible to most of the student body. Others celebrate “innovations in teaching” from selective private schools with ample resources and low class sizes, or from public schools in upmarket zip codes, which face few of the obstacles of schools in different neighborhoods.

If we really want to make a difference then at least some of the keynote speakers should challenge us to reflect on our schools and the inequity we find in them. One example of a speaker who rises to this challenge is Pedro Noguera. He has many talks posted on YouTube but this one here gives a solid framework around the meaning and importance of equity. Ken also has a keynote he delivers on the convergence of equity and technology called “Techquity.”

Before: Choosing Sessions to Attend

Although terms such as equity and inclusion can be overused in educational jargon, they should not be dismissed as they are the foundation of what a vibrant educational system represents. In general, these sessions tend to be fewer in number, so they stand out. We would recommend choosing sessions with presenters who have a history of equity work as they will be better able to address nuances in practice and systems. We have both been to a few sessions in the past that had a nice title but ended up having little substance.

Really, choosing sessions can and should be based on one criterion: How will the session help me meet the needs of all of the learners in my classroom, school, district or system? By using equity as a primary lens, some sessions seem to instantly fade away while others stand out. Take this webinar on Closing the Digital Equity Gap by Nicol Howard, Sarah Thomas and Regina Schaffer, which discussed the reasons behind existing gaps and practical tips for tackling them. When equity is a central focus, like it is in this webinar, all students benefit from suggestions and the learning is more systematic than momentary.

During: Moving Beyond the ‘Gee Whiz’ and Focusing on Equity and Inclusion

Conference sessions come in a wide variety of formats. Some are “sit and get” lectures with very little opportunities to ask meaningful questions. Some sessions keep an electronic back channel or Twitter feed going (effective in larger rooms) to allow for participation, while other sessions allow for an extended opportunity to ask questions with a discussion framework.

Sessions on digital equity provide a deliberate focus and often lead to deeper and nuanced questions about systemic issues. However, the vast majority of conference sessions do not directly focus on equity. Just because equity isn’t in the title, though, doesn’t mean that an equity lens should not be included.

The same types of equity questions that can be used to choose a session can also be asked of presenters during sessions. Here are some questions to consider asking:

  1. How does this skill/software/strategy enhance educational access for all students?
  2. Are these strategies accessible to English learners and are there options for translation to languages other than English?
  3. If a session focuses on software, is it adaptable to all skill levels? Is the software accessible on any device, operating system or browser? Does the session require broadband access that is not likely to exist in the homes of many students?
  4. If there is audio involved, are there allowances for the hearing impaired? Is there a speech to text option?
  5. Does this strategy empower students? Does it promote a culture of trust and learning or a culture of suspicion and regulation? Does this strategy or methodology simply perpetuate an existing “status quo” stream of thought?

After: Evaluating and Sharing Your Learning

When the session is over, it is easy to not fill out an evaluation. After all, you will probably not see the presenters again and trying to improve the overall conference can often feel like an abstract goal.

But honest, detailed evaluations do not just create better conferences, they can help presenters reflect on their practice. If presenters get feedback that they need to be more transparent on equity issues, some of them will take this to heart.

For their part, conference organizers likely won’t re-accept applications from presenters if the presenters don’t respond to concerns or receive a large volume of negative feedback. A consistent focus on equity from participants will hopefully encourage organizers to be more mindful of the real value of the session offerings.

When giving feedback on sessions, focusing comments on equity is essential. If the evaluation asks for what could be improved and the session never talked about how this tool or knowledge would make learning better for all students, then that should definitely be mentioned. Conversely, if a session does highlight equity, then providing positive and constructive feedback is a way to validate these efforts.

We’d like to add there are a number of conferences that are both diligent and doing an admirable job addressing many of the areas we have outlined here. Those conferences are hopefully serving as a model of what should be rather than simply being an outlier.

Attending a conference requires a significant investment in time and resources. By focusing on equity and inclusion, participants are likely to have a better chance of leaving with useful learning that focuses on what really matters.

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