(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?