Wednesday, July 04, 2007

NECC Reflection #2: Do We Need NECC?

(Note: I was composing this post in my head – a vast wasteland – and lo and behold Chris Lehmann posts something similar yet infinitely more eloquent on his blog. I’m going to ask those of you who haven’t read his post yet to read through the next few paragraphs before going to his post, that way you can see how my thinking was progressing, and then I’ll link to him below when I bring his thoughts back in.)

There was some conversation in the blogging community at NECC, and even more so on the blogs after NECC, about whether NECC was the best way to accomplish what we need to accomplish. A lot of bloggers specifically mentioned the Bloggers’ Café and how they often found that environment more conducive to their learning than the formal sessions (more than one person noted they didn’t attend a single formal session).

Now, I didn’t spend too much time at the Bloggers’ Café, perhaps 45 minutes one day and maybe 25 minutes another, but I did find the environment very stimulating and thought provoking. And when you contrast that with the formality (for lack of a better word) of many of the sessions, it was clear that there were at least two very different learning paradigms occurring at NECC. I know that conferences have always had informal learning going in between and around the sessions, but somehow by setting up a physical space devoted to that purpose (for at least one small subset of attendees), it seemed to shift that into overdrive (at least for me).

But that’s part of the problem – it was a very small subset of attendees that used that physical space. And all four of the teachers that went with me had an outstanding conference attending formal sessions – with almost all their sessions being very good to outstanding. They left excited, motivated, and with additional tools and techniques to try.

So what I’m struggling with is my very strong belief that ongoing, sustained staff development (which is what we presented on) is the key to long-term change and improvement in schools, yet a one-time conference – even one as large as NECC – doesn’t fit that model. How best can a conference like NECC be part of an ongoing, sustained staff development effort in my (or anyone’s) school? So, do we need NECC? My answer would be yes, but perhaps with some changes. I guess I have a couple of thoughts surrounding this. Perhaps the format of the sessions at NECC can change, and perhaps we need some more informal, “un-conferences” to meet the ongoing, sustained piece.

The first thing I'd suggest changing at NECC would be the session length. In our debriefing sessions, my team of teachers and I all agreed that an hour seemed too short for sessions. A couple of us had attended our state technology conference the week before, where sessions are either two or three hours long (and usually hands-on), and felt like that provided much more opportunity for conversation. After some discussion, we decided that 90 minutes might be a better length for most sessions at NECC (one hour is too short, but two is perhaps too long). For our session, we basically threw out our plans the night before. We had about five hours of content to “deliver” in sixty minutes, yet also wanted to allow time for conversation. As we have seen in our own staff development efforts, it’s from the conversations that we learn so much. And that had been duplicated at NECC at the sessions we had been to that allowed for conversation. So, we shortened our formal presentation to 30 minutes (minor miracle for us) and then left 30 minutes for conversation. We were very nervous because, like most teachers, we dread silence. What if no one asked any questions or contributed any ideas? Luckily, that didn’t happen, and it appeared to work very well. (whew!) But if we’d had 90 minutes, we could’ve shared a few more examples (well, if our Internet connection had worked – neither wired or wireless worked for us – arghh!) and had even more time for conversation.

The second thing I’d change (if I was King of NECC – I’m trademarking the t-shirt right now) is the seating arrangements. Row after row of chairs, crammed together with no leg – or computer - room is just not conducive to conversation (much like we’ve argued about our classrooms, but I digress). Particularly at a conference where quite a few attendees (and even more next year) bring laptops, I think some kind of table arrangement makes more sense. The few sessions I was in that had tables were much more favorable to learning. I know that causes problems with space (you can cram more folks into chairs in rows), but tough – we know the other way doesn’t work well, so why do we continue to do it? Somebody smarter than me - and there are bound to be at least one or two :-) - at NECC can figure this out before San Antonio next year.

The third thing I’d change is size. While it’s great that there are so many things to attend at NECC, I also think it ends up being somewhat overwhelming and something is lost because of that. The research tends to indicate that smaller schools are more successful, even though they may not be able to offer as many choices. I wonder if the same is true of conferences? I’m not sure I even agree with myself on this one, but this is my reflection so I’ll put it out there.

The last thing I'd change I've already blogged about - include students.

The second thought I had was about how to make the excitement and energy of NECC more of an ongoing, sustained event for educators – one that doesn’t culminate at the closing keynote and slowly dissipate over the rest of the summer. (I’m not saying that this is true of everyone, or that folks don’t get a lot out of it, but I think I’m fairly safe in assuming that this applies to more than a few folks.) So I thought about the idea of some kind of “un-conference,” that takes the best of the Bloggers’ Café and edubloggercon, throws in a little bit of the formal session nature of NECC, and happens throughout the year in locations around the world.

(Okay, this is where you might want to read Chris Lehmann’s post, as he’s got a much better handle on this than I do, and in fact is actually hosting one in January.)

A big problem with NECC is the expense. Before last year I had never been to one, and it’s only because of some grant money and the generous support of my superintendent that I’ve been able to attend the last two years. We can argue all we want that in the scheme of things it’s money well spent, but it’s still darn expensive. My district doesn’t have $800+ each to send a bunch of folks to this conference year after year. So, no matter how good the conference is, it’s not particularly good for those that can’t attend (podcasts, vodcasts, blogs and twitter help, but that won’t reach most of our educators, much less our communities).

So, it seems like we need a series of conferences, perhaps regional in nature, that allow us to extend the energy and ideas of NECC throughout the year. Something that is much less expensive (I’m thinking free, perhaps with donations accepted for food or something), much more informal, and perhaps much less intimidating for most educators. Initially I was thinking of replicating something like edubloggercon (which, since I didn’t get to Atlanta in time for that, might be hard for me to do), but now I’m thinking of more of a hybrid model. In a recent podcast, Bud lamented the fact that at a recent conference he was at so many of the folks didn’t know what they didn’t know, and that it was very hard for them to see the possibilities of some of these technology tools because they were unaware of what’s out there. So I’m thinking of some kind of hybrid cross between folks that are fairly savvy technology users, interested teachers, school and community leadership, and students. (It wouldn’t be a requirement, but perhaps we’d ask everyone to bring at least two others along – a teacher that’s interested but not very knowledgeable on the tech piece, and a school leader – building or district administrator, school board member, etc. And, if possible, one or more students as well.) A way to bring all those folks Bud was talking about together in an “un-conference” to learn and explore ideas. A conference where folks can become educated to a certain level about some of the tools, but then have rich, deep conversations about what school could – or should – look like in the 21st century. A conference where conversation and reflection were built in.

This would most likely be hosted at a school, for reasons of cost, space, equipment and the very fact that being in a school just might remind us of what we’re all about. It would be regional in nature, so that folks could drive to it to keep expenses down. It would probably be one day (perhaps repeated four(?) times a year), so that lodging cost wasn’t an issue (although folks that drove a long way could perhaps be hosted by teachers at that school for one night). It would have some kind of a formal schedule, yet be flexible enough for folks to reconfigure somehow on the fly. It would foster learning and conversation and connections, and it would share the results through the web through a variety of means. It would attempt to connect and build off the other regional conferences that had recently occurred. Each conference would have a fairly specific purpose and some goals – there would be an expectation of change when people left for the day, not just a hoped for change. (I think this is critical, imho.)

Now, Chris is hosting something similar in January in Philadelphia. He has some advantages, notably that he’s brilliant and he also has a very large population within driving (or shuttle) distance of Philadelphia. I’m wondering about trying to host a Mountain West EduCon at my school. We’re in the Denver metro area, so we have a fairly large population base to draw from (although it pales in comparison to the Philly area), and we could possibly attract folks from nearby states as well (parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Utah, Texas . . . are reasonably short drives) – but that might be tough for some of them. Perhaps a regional conference works better back East (this is referring to the Eastern U.S.) with large populations close together, but out West we may have to settle for a much smaller “region,” I’m just not sure. And, of course, there’s the matter of picking dates. (I think Chris had the right idea by just picking a date and saying “come on down,” but I’m thinking about weather and state testing and . . . the list is endless.)

So, this brain dump is posted to hopefully elicit some thoughtful responses that will help me out with this idea. I could be very, very wrong with some (or most) of this, but I hope to at least get the conversation started and see if this has legs. I have a few folks in my school and district that would love to help with this, but we would need additional help. Bud? Ben? Other front range folks? Anybody out there think there’s even a little bit of a good idea here? Even if you don’t want to help, is there anyone in my “region” that would be interested in attending such a beast at my school? (Umm, I’ll ask my principal later if this is okay . . .) If the answer to any of the above is yes, please leave a comment and possibly add to the wiki (anyone can edit). This may not go anywhere at all, but I wanted to put it out there. What are your thoughts?


  1. For some reason when I switched from Bloglines to Google Reader, I lost your feed. With so many feeds I never realized I missed yours....Glad to have you back in my reader.

    As someone deeply involved in Professional Learning, your points are spot on and thankfully, some of the changes and concepts are being implemented however sporadically and inconsistently. Certainly variety of learning environments have merits but we are finding that certain learning principles ought to be used more widespread. there a way to post a comment without using my google account? It doesn't link to my main

  2. I think the "vast wasteland" has proven itself otherwise!
    We do need both formats. Some of us may be ready to move on and most of us that we seek to reach are not ready.

  3. Karl,
    You and your staff did a terrific job at NECC. Your presentation was just enough for the amount of time allotted and comments/conversation from the audience was especially relevant - you always learn a lot by hearing people talk about their own experiences and knowledge. So, a couple of things have been going through my head since getting home. First of all, like all learners, even adults need a variety of learning situations and have a variety of learning styles. I didn't stop at the blogger's cafe because there were a number of sessions that I was interested in attending. So one way I learn is to take in various amounts of information then reflect on it later by filtering what I learned through my own knowledge or by discussions with others. But, the one thing the came to mind as I read through other postings about the cafe is how much we still need that face to face interaction for learning - learning is a social process. I wonder if NECC would sponsor more frequent conferences on a regional basis or on an interest basis. ASCD has frequent conferences but they tend to be focused on more narrow topics and are held around the country. The expense of a one time conference and the location, wherever it may be, will always hold some people from attending but conference in various localities would give more opportunities for attendance and help attendees pick and choose what they're most interested in. ISTE would have to think about something on an international basis as well so that our friends around the world have the same advantages as we do for these conferences.

    Thanks again for the great presentation. I brought a friend with me who couldn't decide what she wanted to go to at the particular time and she went away with lots of good ideas.

  4. Last year a colleague and I put on a conference for our area. It was a stretching, growing, stressful but rewarding experience. The idea for our conference was to bring in two inspirational keynote speakers and then have workshops to choose from all presented by teachers in our area. In my role as an ICT Facilitator I have spent the last three years in schools with teachers helping them integrate technology with effective pedagogy, having these teachers present their experiences was valuable for all concerned.

    In this way our conference was more than a conference, people got to attend sessions and grow in their knowledge but they also got to present, step outside their comfort zone and celebrate the great things they were doing in their classrooms. So I am a fan of hosting a small conference. But I would never give up going to the large conferences to meet up with people who are extending my thoughts.

  5. I'm in CCSD in Colorado and think the mini conference idea is a good one. I would make it a point to be there. Might even consider assisting you with the effort if you needed an extra hand.

  6. This was my first NECC and although I loved every minute of it, I found it overwhelming. I spent weeks beforehand pouring over possible sessions and putting them into my NECC planner. I loved all the sessions, but as a newbie and a singleton, I found it a bit difficult to make connections because, once you left a session, chances weren't great that you'd encounter your session-mates again because there were just so many places to go.

    It would also be great to have some well-advertised electronic or bulletin board posting of after-hours things. I found out as I was waiting for my luggage when I got back home, that there were was a northwest after hours gathering but as I was there on my own, I had no way of finding out about it.

    There was an introduction to NECC, but I found it singularly unhelpful. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed every minute of the conference. I only attended one session that I felt wasn't worthwhile and there are few conferences I can say that about!!

    I think you are on to something about regional conferences held in schools. Prior to NECC I went to a Jamie McKenzie workshop held at Shiloh Point Elementary in Cummings, GA. It was great to be in a school and it really did help me to keep in mind what the bottom line is -- impact on student learning.

    I think that this is a great dialog to have. With all the opportunities to conference online, there could be pre-conference preparation things that could happen so that the content of the conference might be even more meaningful. I hope that you will continue with this conversation over the next few months.

  7. Karl,

    I love this idea. (It'd be great if NECC picked up sponsoring something like this--much like the TechForum one day conferences).

    I like the idea of the informality, and having a variety of people.

    I'm excited about the edubloggercon ideas, but also those feel more like something for me, and not something I could encourage other people to attend if they are not part of the blogging community at all. I think too much of the conversation might not seem pertinent to them.

    So I also like the idea of a community type of mini conference.

    (I also agree about the conference room set up, the blogger's cafe, and evening event postings. I think it was hard to connect with people that you knew were there, especially if you were attending sessions or missed the bloggercon.)

    I am also fascinated by your comments in this post and the previous one about including students, and the ability that these smaller community conferences could provide for that.

    In terms of dates, I'd just say late October/November already are prime conference dates for people, so something other than that?

    Looking forward to seeing this idea develop!

  8. So about halfway through your post I thought "So let's do an event." Then, you suggested, "let's do something," and gave some info on what it might look like.

    So, gulp, let's do something. I'm in.

  9. Hello Karl-

    It was great to meet you at NECC. I would have liked to have sat down to speak with you at greater length, but I understand how conferences sometimes go.

    I recall you asking me whether or not you thought that your video has caused any change in the ways that teachers are now teaching. In reflecting further on your question, I am left thinking that some changes have been made - at the very least, much needed conversations are now taking place. We're at least planting a few seeds that will eventually be sown.

    As far as our need for NECC goes, I couldn't agree more with your post. I think that NECC is great (as far as a "battery charger" goes), but it needs to take place on a more frequent basis.

    As a result (and as a result of a post that Graham Wegner recently wrote), I wrote a post the other day in which I explain that I think we need to hold an international EduBloggerCon type conference on a more than yearly basis. I'm also thinking that it needs to be very inexpensive - if not free for participants around the world (possibly all via Elluminate or Second Life).

    What are your thoughts on the matter? You know that whatever we all decide to do, we've got to stick together - or else nothing will ever take place.


    P.S. Thanks for commenting on Russ Lauber's blog the other day. I spoke with Russ on the phone and your comments made his day.

  10. Karl,

    First, let me say that I have been reading your blog for several months and always find your articles interesting. I am also a fan of your visual work - Did You Know?, 2020 Vision, and What If? Thanks for all you share with us.

    Here is something for us to chew on. What if an ISTE World Conference were held every two years? During the off years, NECC would sponsor Zonal Forums. These zones would correspond to different local regions in North America and around the world. The events could be held over a three or four day period. One could further divide these regions into areas and have area mini conferences over a weekend with Saturday being the main conference day. These area mini conferences could be held annually. Understand that I have not given much thought to the logistics of such a system of events. I just think the zonal and area meetings would serve to give many others the benefit of attending a NECC style event without the prohibitive costs of an annual national/world conference. Local events would allow more students to be involved. about having a student chapter of NECC....

    Anthony Powell

  11. Thanks everyone for your thoughts.

    Dean - I'm shocked, absolutely shocked you didn't notice my absence from your reader. Don't worry, you didn't miss much. You do have to use your google account, but you can put the ideasandthoughts url into your profile so that it shows as "My Web Page" in the upper left corner when folks view your profile. That would at least have a chance to directing them to the right place.

    Diane, Carolyn, Anthony, Kathy and others - how do we go about suggesting something like this to ISTE?

    Bud and cthscougar - thanks for volunteering, let's see if we can come up with something.

    Jane and Durff - thanks for the encouraging words.

    Darren - bold thinking, but I still think there's a need for face to face. So many folks would be excluded if we tried to do second life or elluminate, either due to technical issues or comfort issues. I think that's a fine additional idea, but I still think that for the majority of educators/community members, small, face to face conferences are worth exploring.

  12. Thank you for the reflections. I have been physically "away" from technology for ten days -- a very healthy thing to do, by the way-- and am excited by ALL of your ideas (and Chris's) regarding ways to spread the message. Just as the kids learn in so many ways, we need to have many ways for the adults to approach all these ideas and forces for change.

    One thing that I observed at NECC was that there is a definiteHS cafeteria-like nature to some of the interactions. Those who know each other do hang together, eat together, and enjoy the stimulation of seeing each other once a year. Edubloggercon helped those of us who felt like the "out" crowd to feel more comfortable walking up to the table. For those who know others only by name (bloglurkers)-- if at all-- or who are not "up to speed" with the fast-track, the conference remains comfortably seated in the traditional sessions and official offerings.

    Kathy (above) is right that finding the others with whom to converse once the sessions end is VERY difficult for those traveling alone (especially if one is not the type to break in on conversations).

    I would advocate some ways to lessen this new divide. I am afraid that we are perpetuating the them/us of those who are using collaborative, web 2.0 tools and those who those who are not. I overheard too many early adopters talk about "them": the teachers who "won't even try anything new." We would never dare to treat our students with such disdain. We would lure them in. Those who read/write blogs and have new visions for education need to do the same.

    Some unsessions/cafés where edubloggers INVITE newbies to sit down at a table together and join in writing a post might help. This would encourage those who are more comfortable with some support or who feel the need for "how to" time. Once comfortably seated at a table together, the conversation among diverse learners/users can move to the why and the more provocative issues of change. I do not mean that everybody has to be a peer-tutor. But it would be a good idea for everyone to seek out some they never knew and converse with some who may not have seen a bigger picture (have any of us really brought that picture into focus?).

    An open invite and open chair for someone you never met would be a powerful way to open more dialog, whether at regional, national, or international conferences. Give "them" permission and opportunity, and they will come.

    BTW, if there is a way that TeachersFirst can publicize regional, low cost events to our largely "traditional" audience of teachers, we would be happy to do so. We have a pretty good track record of making the new seem approachable for busy teachers. And we are free and ads or agendas. I will just need to be notified via our webmaster email with some mention of what the conference/event is all about and a contact email.