I am very fortunate to have a position that gets me invited to education conferences around the country, and occasionally out of it as well. I have written a number of posts describing the benefits, and the blemishes, of many of them over the last year. I am writing this post, as I am en route to Austin, Texas to participate in one of the big ones, the SXSWEdu Conference. Last week however, I attended a gem of a conference conducted by the Illinois ISTE affiliate, The Illinois Computing Educator’s Conference, referred to as ICE13.

After attending so many conferences, it is easy to point out the flaws of any, or each. Most conferences require RFPs, the requests for proposals, to determine the sessions for the conference program far too many months in advance of the conference. The need for this is to have several, and in some cases, too many people, read over the proposals in order to determine which sessions to approve. Perhaps several staggered deadlines for RFPs might allow a more varied and relevant program. Another gateway to relevance could be a period of time within the conference to conduct an Edcamp format for a segment of the conference. I think all conferences could benefit by some innovative schedule planning.

ICE13 was a little different from many of the other statewide education conferences by virtue of its venue. Although I flew into Chicago, I had to drive what, according to my GPS, was a 45-minute trip outside of Chicago to St. Charles and a resort called Pheasant Run. This venue made a big difference in the tenor of this conference. The presentation rooms were spacious and well equipped as most conferences, but what made the difference was the sprawling hotel itself. There were two bars and several gathering areas with couches and comfy chairs throughout. It was hive of connectivity and networking based on discussions and discourse. It was a great place for presenters, keynotes and participants to meditate, mingle, and mashup ideas and concepts in education.

For me the highlight of the conference was what was called the PLN Plaza. It was used as an overflow area for the keynotes as those speeches were streamed in. The best part however was that the keynotes, as well as many presenters, were scheduled for drop-ins to conduct discussions on their topics with anyone who stopped by. It was up close and personal in the best way. This is an experience many bloggers benefit from at the Blogger’s Café at large national conferences. The PLN Plaza was the brainchild of a group of people including: Dan Rezac, Elizabeth Greene, and Amanda Pelsor, all of whom kept things moving along there for the entire conference. It was a comfortable gathering place where I engaged in many discussions, as well as networking, and connected throughout my entire stay.

There seemed to be more Twitter activity at this conference as well. Connected educators seemed to be a topic that was emphasized by many of the keynotes and several of the presenters. Camaraderie between the presenters because of their connectedness was very evident at ICE13. The conference also had more than one Wi-Fi network to connect to, which made many people very happy.

In addition I also enjoyed The UDL Playground. I first saw this at the NYSCATE Conference in New York. It is a place where a number of vendors can demonstrate tools as participants ask questions to learn about Universal Design for Learning. The activities there were interactive and very instructive. In full disclosure, my wife’s company, VIZZLE, was quite active in its participation at both conferences. It would be great if more vendors participated in activities like the UDL Playground to enable educators to engage authentically beyond a basic booth demonstration.

Education conferences are a needed component of professional development for teachers and administrators, but they are not going to maintain relevance without connecting their members in greater numbers during each conference. Unconnected educators are pumped up and energized with each annual conference. That occurs annually. They need to meet people and network with the new people who they meet at the conference. Connected educators are pumped up and energized year-round, and go into hyper-drive at conferences as they connect face-to-face with all of the educators they have been exchanging information and sources with during the year. We need to stop just talking about innovation as a goal and practice it as professionals. We need to innovate in every aspect of what we do, and we do it wherever and whenever we can. Connectedness has been digitally enhanced through technology, and it is an innovation we need to employ extensively.

Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) is an adjunct professor of education at St. Joseph’s College in New York. He previously spent 34 years as a secondary English teacher in the public school system. He was recognized with an Edublog Award for the Most Influential Educational Twitter Series, #Edchat, which he co-founded. Whitby also created The Educator’s PLN and two LinkedIn groups, Technology-Using Professors and Twitter-Using Educators.

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