The Future of Educational Technology Conferences

The summer is in full swing and we are quickly approaching the traditional back to school time of the year. If we were following tradition, we would also be in the heart of “Conference Season.” But as we all know, there is nothing traditional about the Spring and Summer of 2020.

Things are different this year. The two major conferences sponsored by the Alabama State Department of Education, the Alabama Educational Technology Conference and the MEGA Conference, both of which I have long played a role in as a staff member, presenter and participant, were canceled. Several large regional conferences in Alabama, the Gulf Region Innovative Teaching Conference in South Alabama and the North Alabama Technology Conference (sponsored by the district from which I recently retired), were both canceled. Numerous school and district level professional development and training events that I was to play a role, such as Code.org and A+ College Ready Computer Science Fundamentals, were canceled.

To avoid cancelling, many groups worked to present their conferences virtually. The Alabama Leaders in Educational Technology (ALET) went virtual in early June for their summer conference. The Computer Science Teachers Association’s Annual Conference, CSTA 2020, quickly moved to a virtual format, as did the National Math and Science Initiative’s (NMSI) Summer Series professional development event. I have first hand knowledge of the NMSI event, serving as a coach and facilitator. Many other conferences took the same approach. In fact, over the past week, I participated in the Indiana Connected Educators LIVE Conference and the Code Breaker Power Summit. A variety of delivery methods were utilized to facilitate these events including Zoom, Google Meet and YouTube Live.

Changes have already been announced for many Fall conferences. The Georgia Educational Technology Conference (GaETC), scheduled for mid-November, is planned as an in person event, however, they are also providing a virtual option at a much lower cost. This is an interesting approach for a variety of reasons. First, if conditions allow, everything is in place for an in person event. Second, if the situation changes and an in person event is not advisable, the infrastructure is already in place to present the conference virtually.

However, there is another factor to consider. Allowing a virtual option that includes all, or most, of the sessions for a reasonable price opens the conference up to a previously excluded audience. Since I am now independent, I probably would not commit to the cost of travel and lodging to attend GaETC in person, especially with the possibility of it being cancelled. Once I saw the virtual option, though, I immediately purchased a virtual pass. It provides for live and on-demand recordings of all sessions. It is my belief that this is the ideal strategy for conferences to adopt during the current situation but also should be considered moving forward.

When conditions are conducive again for in person events, there are tangible benefits to having face to face interaction with other professionals, including the ability to meet with vendors to explore new products. But there is a whole new audience that could be reached by virtual options that would never be likely to attend, for many reasons, an in person event. If you need a demonstration of this, simply look at the NOTATISTE hashtag on Twitter. Thousands of educators followed #NOTATISTE during the 2019 International Society for Technology In Education conference and one would expect that these virtual attendees would actively participate but were unable to attend for some variety reasons. Speaking of ISTE, the pinnacle educational technology event of the year, the 2020 Conference and Expo, scheduled for June, was postponed until late November and it was announced this week that it will be transformed into ISTE20 Live, a “fully virtual, immersive learning event” scheduled for Nov. 29-Dec. 5.

Almost immediately following the announcement, there were complaints about the cost of the virtual event, especially that ISTE was charging to present. I think that interpretation is a bit unfair. ISTE is, in fact, giving presenters a discount on the cost of attending the rest of the conference in consideration of a presenters contribution. If you want to discuss whether the discount is substantial enough, or that the cost to attend the virtual event itself is priced too high, I’ll listen, but stating that they are charging to present is disingenuous. Yes, many local and regional conferences provide free registration if you present. But remember, you get what you pay for. Having worked on the organizing committees of several conferences that do just that, I can attest that many presenters that apply (and many that are accepted) are just applying to get the free registration. They often do not put a great deal of effort into their presentation because, once selected, there is no way to force them to do quality work. And yes, we would have a handful each year that simply would not show up. Sure, you can move those to a Do Not Accept list for following years, but current attendees have already been punished.

ISTE20 Live registration will include all of the live conference sessions as well as on demand sessions both during and after the conference. Based on the published prices, it does not seem that membership will be included in the conference price as is often the case for the traditional format. That is disappointing since the discount for members is just $10. Regardless, when registration opens next week, I will certainly be looking closely at the full list of benefits. A sub-$90 member cost would be an immediate purchase. That would be equal to the early bird, non-member ticket minus my ISTE renewal that I just paid. But I’ll be running the numbers based on the full benefits once registration is live.

Fully virtual conferences at this scale are new and the pricing of such will have to be worked out, but the benefits, both during a pandemic and after, are obvious. As we move forward, we need to recognize, and perhaps embrace, that this may be the future old Educational Technology conferences.

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