You spend a lot of money to attend a conference for professional learning. You get flights lined up, hotel, transportation, etc. Then you go to the event. You spend the first hour trying to find the registration desk. You wait in line for a half-hour to get your badge. Then you plop down on the floor and start looking over the schedule guide to see what sessions you’ll attend.
There’s so many choices, it’s almost overwhelming. It’s like walking into Costco without a shopping list. You go in wanting one thing, and you come out owning a 3-lb lobster claw that you didn’t know you needed. Once you do decide on a session, you stand in line for 15 minutes hoping to get in. Others are over capacity and you can’t get in, which causes you to speed walk 1.2 miles down the convention hall only to walk in late to a session and find the dreaded seat in the very middle of everyone.
After several hours of this, you are ready for an early happy hour. You see people laughing and having fun, but you’re not sure what they are laughing about and if they are in fact having fun. At about 2pm, you find a local watering hole with fellow attendees trying to hide their badge of shame around their necks as you are all clearly failures.
Or are you?
I would argue that you are not the failure, but instead that the conference event failed you. In its desire to pack the house with thousands of people, the large conference has lost focus on what’s most important: the attendee experience. Sure there are amazing speakers from all over and great content, but the UX (user experience) is severely lacking. Why go stand in line for a movie you might not want to watch?
On day 2, you wake up with a headache both from the early happy hour and the brain fog that comes from being overwhelmed. You go to the keynote, hoping for some inspiration. However, you are now “cattled” in and out of a 5000-seat arena where you end up skipping sitting down because you forgot to charge your laptop. So, you find a spot on the floor next to one of the 4 plugs in the 30,000 sq. ft. room. The keynote speaker is good (they usually are, to be fair) but now what? Do you engage in conversation with someone? Do you rush out the door before the closing remarks in the hopes of not being a part of the herd?
All of these above scenarios have been part of my experiences attending large conferences in the past. I feel like I spend much of my time being shepherded around or looking for the next session, but rarely walk away with my money’s worth in terms of knowledge and experiences. In fact, the best learning usually happens in conversations and dialogues with colleagues or things posted on the conference hashtag.
With all this in mind, in 2012, we created an event called iPadpalooza. We didn’t want to call it an “iConference” because we really wanted it to be something quite different. We wanted it to be a learning festival. A place to experience something different as an attendee. A place where the things that matter the most, the interactions, discussions, and collaboration are the focal point of the event.
Flash forward to present day.
Taking all past experiences, both good and bad, when it comes to professional learning, we are attempting something, well…different. The event formerly known as iPadpalooza is now LearnFestATX (after all, it’s about the learning, not a device). Last year, rather than just changing the name and moving on, we decided to beta test some new concepts in professional learning with a much smaller audience. Following that beta test, we discovered what worked and what didn’t. Taking just the parts that worked and adding in some of our own magic, we have created what we feel will be an event from the future, for the future.
Our motto this year is “Ready Learner One” along with a retro video game theme (sometimes the past can best prepare us for the future, right?). Many of the things we are trying are still top-secret, but here’s just a few highlights of things you could experience as an attendee this summer:
Three Different Perspectives to Learning:
As someone attending, you’ll experience learning in three different ways. The first way is the most traditional in terms of learning as part of a large group (during opening and closing events) or a medium-sized group (during interactive and make-n-take sessions). The second way is learning as part of a collaborative team either with our Teacher Shark Tank or the APPmazing Race. The third way is learning as an individual by reflecting in our Mindfulness Lounge, participating in our digital petting zoo, lunchtime interactions, or attempting to win our massive easter egg hunt (details revealed at event).
While the traditional conference puts featured speakers in certain rooms and only for certain times, we want our featured speakers to be much more part of the event. They should be learners too. As an attendee, you should have multiple opportunities to interact with them as well. Sure, there will be some scheduled sessions, but now with our new Mindfulness Lounge and Expert’s Lounge, you’ll have opportunities to sit, relax and reflect with some of the top educational experts around. Our featured speakers will also be playing multiple roles in some of the experiences that are taking place, from Impractical EdTechsters to the Ed Tech Family Feud to a Poetry Slam, you’ll see these folks in roles that stretch their thinking and yours.
A Different Kind of Keynote:
I can’t give away too much here, but for those that attended our beta-test last year with the “Silent Disco” presentation style, we’ll be doing that on a much larger scale during our opening session on June 12. Also, we’ll be bringing back our “What’s HOT in Ed Tech” challenge for the closing ceremonies. Let’s just say it involves some new ways to “spice” up a talk to a large crowd. We’re also super-pumped to have Manoush Zomorodi as our day 2 Keynote speaker. These large groups events will have tons of audience engagement as well as boat-loads of door prizes.
Dive Deeper Before the Madness:
While the main LearnFestATX runs on June 12th & 13th, we will also be having our 3-hour deep dive PreFest LearnShops on June 11th. No more fighting for a spot or a seat. Just buy your ticket, select your sessions, and you are guaranteed a seat.
In summary, I’ve always been of the belief that learning is an active sport. Sometimes that’s a team sport, sometimes it’s an individual sport. But the bottom line is, you get out of it what you put into it. This is true of either a traditional conference or our event. The biggest difference is, at our event, you don’t have to try to seek out those learning opportunities. At our event, they seek you out.
I hope that you’ll join us this summer at LearnFestATX. We do believe that learning as a team can be powerful too, so we offer great group discounts if you want to come hang out with colleagues or meet new ones. With our event, you have the ultimate level of voice & choice. Something we want our students to have as well, so why not model it in a professional learning environment?
Come see what all the fuss is about this summer in Austin:
Hint for those of you that read all the way to the bottom of this page. Try and reach out to a featured speaker to get a 20% off discount!
Editor’s note: LearnFestATX was recently listed as one of EdSurge’s top Ed Tech events to attend in 2019!
I’ve attended every SXSWedu since the beginning. As it’s located in Austin, it’s a great opportunity to learn and share with leaders from around the world right in my backyard. This year, we are sending quite a bit of staff to stretch their thinking and grow as professionals. As usual, Ron Reed and the crew at SXSWedu put together a dynamite line-up that doesn’t disappoint. One thing I created to help guide staff is create a “manifesto” of sorts for those that are either going for the first time or are just needing help not being overwhelmed by all the great sessions in their lineup.
If you are a first-time or veteran SXSW-er, hopefully some of these tips will help you as you make your way towards Austin next week.
If you are with a group, create a Slack channel
Attending a large conference with a group can be engaging but you also can run into serious FOMO (Fear of missing out) on sessions you don’t attend. I invited all of our staff attending to our own district Slack channel. Slack is a great way to share resources and communicate in a group format that won’t crowd your inbox during an event like this. I consider it kind of like a group text on steroids. We will still encourage staff to follow along at the #SXSWedu hashtag, but using a private group Slack can be powerful when reflecting and sharing after the event is over.
Parking can be tricky…and Uber is gone
The days of free parking in downtown Austin are over (unless you are comfortable walking a long distance). That said, most of the parking around downtown is reasonably priced ($10-$15 bucks), but I’d encourage you to car pool if possible. Here’s a map of downtown parking for some ideas of where to find parking. Also, as Uber and Lyft pulled out of Austin since the last SXSWedu, you’ll want to use an alternate ride-share company like Fare or Ride Austin to get around down town. If that doesn’t work, there are always a bunch of pedi-cabs!
Registration is located on the Northeast corner of the convention center (Exhibit hall 5). You should have been sent a badge via email from email@example.com that has your Quickcode to scan when you get there. You can also link your account with the social.sxswedu.com account to upload your picture ahead of time if you don’t want them to take it when you get there.
You can pick up your badge starting at 4 PM on Sunday (advisable if you want to avoid longer lines on Monday).
Lunch places are always changing year to year so check Yelp for some good options. Prices do vary and “rush hour” is generally between 11:30-1:00. Some newer places downtown include Cafe Blue and one of the BEST pizza food trailers down Rainey street behind Craft Pride called Via313 (Detroit-style pizza). One of my favorite burger joints continues to be Casino El Camino on 6th street. Of course, if you are looking for BBQ and don’t want to wait too long in line at IronWorks, I’d highly recommend LaBarbecue (order the rib, it’s pricey, but worth EVERY penny!).
SXSWedu has several events that happen in the evening. There are multiple movie screenings happening throughout the week. One of note is a screening of the movie “Hidden Figures” on Monday from 7-9pm at the Stateside Theater (with a Q&A panel with @RafranzDavis and others to follow). Another event that I am personally involved in is the CatchOn Launch Party on Tuesday at 7:30pm-11pm at Cedar Street Courtyard. It’s a start-up company I’ve been advising on and we have all sorts of fun stuff planned for that evening including a little live band karaoke! Your SXSWedu badge will get you into all of these events.
SXSWedu doesn’t follow traditional conference schedules (1 hour sessions repeating throughout). There are variety of sessions from 15-minute talks, to Think tanks, to meet-ups, to Future 20s, to longer workshops. Be sure to create a log-in before arriving and ‘star’ the sessions you are interested in but also note the start and end times as many overlap. Also, note that with the exception of keynotes, most of the sessions Monday through Wednesday run from 11am-6pm and on Thursday they are from 9:30am-2pm with a closing party to follow. (you can sleep in!)
Sessions that intrigue me
I’m super pumped to see Tim Ferriss keynote on Wednesday at 9:30am. I’ve been a fan of his podcast and books for the last couple of years and I’m excited to hear what he has to say about learning and mastery. Sessions that focus on design thinking, student empowerment, and artificial intelligence tend to draw my interest this year. I’m also all-in on the Breakout EDU concept and I’m excited to see good friend and super-engaging speaker Adam Bellow at this year’s event. This year, not only am I attending, but I’m also moderating an interactive panel called “#AppOverkill: Going Beyond the Buzzwords”. I’m excited to hear from the panel of experts we have assembled and we are also going to be doing some different activities to engage audience in the conversation. Come be a part of the conversation and fun at Tuesday at 11am!
Takeaways and Reflections
Attending an event like this can be incredibly rewarding and energizing to those of us in education. However, it’s important that those that attend also bring back and share their learning with others on campus.
Here is a list of questions to keep in the back of your mind as you attend sessions and look for things to bring back. (Thanks to Lisa Johnson @TechChef4U for curating this!)
- What are the top sessions/topics that you liked?
- What are the top sessions/topics that you would like to take back to your campus to impact change?
- What are the top sessions/topics that challenged your beliefs?
- Who was someone you connected with that impacted you?
- Who are the top people that engaged you?
- What are the top resources you found most impactful?
- What are the top pieces of research or studies you feel are most impactful for our students and/or teachers?
- How will I share my new discoveries from this event with my staff?
While there are many other questions you are thinking about than the ones above, keeping these in the back of your mind while attending SXSWedu allows you time to reflect when it’s all over and also think about ways to share your new discoveries with others when you return.
…..and all those mega-conferences don’t know how to act.
There’s a movement afoot in the Ed Tech world. It started with Ed Camps and has evolved into something even bigger.
It’s the “boutique” conference.
A couple of years ago I was chatting with good friend and fellow “boutiquer” Felix Jacomino (head cheese of Miami Device). We were chatting about iPadpalooza and his (then) upcoming first event. We were talking about ISTE, the preeminent Ed Tech conference in the United States when he said something both profound and prophetic.
“ISTE is like the Walmart of Ed Tech conferences.”
That phrase resonated in my brain like a Taylor Swift ear worm. I couldn’t escape it or put my finger on it but Felix was dead on.
At ISTE you have thousands upon thousands of people attending for any variety of reasons and from any variety of places. Some come to learn about interactive white boards (still). Others come to learn about Microsoft Office. Others iPads. Others Chromebooks. Windows. Mac. Apps. GAFE. CCSS. PDFs. Gifs. Etc.
If you are an event like ISTE you have no choice but to go the “Walmart route” when it comes to sessions to ensure your customers have access to everything even if it might taste a little bland. While I think there will always be a time and a place for that, districts are also looking for something more meaningful. They are looking for something more tailored for their staff and their Ed tech goals. In the past, like Walmart, the attendee was forced to sort through the hundreds of isles of products (sessions) looking for that one specific item (learning) and try not to get lost or end up on stage at EdTech Karaoke (guilty as charged).
As we formerly launch the registration for our 5th annual iPadpalooza, there is a growing abundance of options available to educators and leaders. iPadpalooza started as a learning festival to share and grow in the realm of iPads but it’s now grown into something more than that (we welcome all devices!). While at its heart it’s meant to inspire and make learning fun, it’s also meant to be an experience. No not some sort of Burning Man in the desert experience (do they have wifi out there?), but more like you are a part of the learning experience and not just an attendee.
This year’s theme is “Summer Blockbuster” and is centered around the explosive potential of mobile learning but also the movie stars we have in and around education. Because this is a “boutique” event, we can offer flexibility in terms of when you can come (we have single-day passes this year) and a little extra for those wanting to dive even deeper (this year we have added some “Pre-Palooza” workshops in addition to our iLead Academy).
While my heart belongs to the mothership event here in Austin, I love the fact that these are now starting to spread into other states (not unlike TEDx events) including Indiana, Minnesota and now Louisiana. Each one is unique in that it brings in local talent and flavor into the festival-like atmosphere. At iPadpaloozaSouthTX they even created their own theme of “Day of the Tech” based on the “Dia de los muertos” holiday.
What I love most about these spin-off events is the ownership taken by districts and educators as part of the mobile learning movement. It’s not just seeing someone experience the stress and joy of hosting an event that MUST have a level of fun and local spirit, but also seeing them experience the smiles on the faces of attendees. It’s about the tweets of minds being blown and passion being ignited. It’s about discovering something they haven’t seen or thought of before and rethinking how learning can change in their classroom.
Ultimately, that is why you go to a boutique conference. Not necessarily to look for a specific thing, but to have a specific thing find you.
Who’s ready to go shopping?
There are very few moments in life when you know you are a part of greatness. I recently returned from a trip to the Youth Education & Technology Integration (Y.E.T.I.) conference and let me tell you, this was true greatness manifest in a conference. The event itself is kind of like burning man for educational technology (only with out all the fire and naked people). To keep mass-media and the twitteratti on their toes, event organizers actually keep the location secret until mere days before the event. Both the speakers and attendees are selected completely at random using a complex algorithm of Twitter followers multiplied by latest eBook ISBN number downloaded. I was lucky enough to be picked as both an attendee and panelist for this year’s event. An while I signed an agreement not to share what I saw (they have a Vegas-like motto of “what happens at YETI doesn’t get tweeted”) I can’t help myself. This event is too powerful not to share with others. So here goes my recap, I’ll leave it posted as long as I can:
This year’s event took place at the gorgeous [omitted] over a mild, partly cloudy weekend. Due to the natural terrain and the landscape of the area, no rooms were needed. Many of the natural grottoes acted as small meeting rooms and the larger caves served as auditoriums. The acoustics were incredible and because of the location being near the equator, cell carriers signals were amplified along the walls giving attendees incredible 5G WiFi connections.
Speakers & Sessions
One of the most incredible parts of this event are the absolutely ridiculous variety of speakers and educators they have on hand. I attended a session that was an actual a hologram of Bill Gates speaking to Jaime Escalante. Some sessions lasted only for only a few minutes and others, like Bill Nye’s lengthy monologue, lasted several hours.
There were no start or stop times for sessions too which was a little disconcerting at first. Sessions were declared over when an organizer or attendee elected to bang a giant ceremonial gong. To announce the beginning of a new session, a giant alphorn (you know, like the ones from those Ricola commercials?) would blow signifying a new session and new gathering of folks.
Another thing that sets this conference apart are the sponsors. With the terrain being what it was at YETI, sponsors got creative. Most of their “booths” were actually giant floating platforms, controlled by drones. I was excited to see that both Google and Apple were working in partnership with Facebook as sponsors for the event, even handing out free “Privacy Jackets” (a jacket that apparently blocks all outward internet traffic and data tracking from your devices).
I was asked to be on a panel discussing the legitimacy behind this new wearable idea called a “thoughtband.” The concept is simple. Wearing a piece of technology on their foreheads like a Bill Walton headband, students’ thoughts are displayed in scrolling LED fashion. Before we were even able to get into the discussion about data-mining or mind-mining for that matter, someone (who looked like a famous politician) got up and banged the gong, thus ending our session. I wish I knew what he was thinking…
Nothing is normal at YETI, including the keynote. This year’s closing keynote session started at midnight and lasted until the sun began to rise. The closing keynote was delivered by noted scholar and thespian Jon Lovitz. His message of prosperity, educational equality and the need for more 80’s rap music in education rang true with the crowd of thousands. Following his talk, he asked the crowd to initiate in an awkward flash-mob edu-rave of sorts. With the 80’s band Baltimora playing their one-hit wonder “Tarzan Boy” in the background, the attendees went into a sort of strange crowd-surfing/internet-surfing mosh pit of sorts. Culminating in one of the strangest multi-tasking activities I’ve ever witnessed as attendees danced and texted on their smartphones, responding digitally to YETI’s essential question for 2015: Will the wearable flip-flop change the foot of education?
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately, my violation of one of YETI’s 7 tenets of attendance (though shalt not video-record) caused my immediate removal before the end of the event. Organizers wiped the video off my phone, but I was able to sneak back over a hill and capture about 11 seconds of the closing coronation where they named one attendee the Patron Saint of YETI15.
While I may risk prosecution or worse yet, not be invited back, I’m making this video public in the hopes that the rest of the world will have a chance to experience just a little taste of what I got to experience. Enjoy:
Happy April 1st everybody.
Having just wrapped up a successful iPadpalooza and seeing all the chatter around ISTE 2014 online, I wondered: what makes a memorable and meaningful conference experience?
At iPadpalooza, we had 98.4% of people tell us they would come back to our event next year. Rather than being happy about that number, I focused on what the 1.6% didn’t like. Was the live music too loud? Were the speakers or presentations not what the attendee expected?
I used to be guilty of attending conferences and passively waiting for information or presentations to amaze me. I’d leave disappointed and wonder what attending these conferences would mean for me in the future. However, all of that changed when I started taking a more proactive approach to my conference experience. Here are a few steps to help anyone attending either their 1st or 50th event.
Prior to the Event
Laying a good foundation of prep work prior to attending a conference on the scale of ISTE or the variety of something like iPadpalooza can make huge a difference.
1. Find Some People to Follow – This doesn’t mean cyber-stalk or physically tail someone during the event. Rather, look at the big name speakers or presenters and start to follow their work on social media. This will give you a flavor of their presentation-style and may indicate what kind of content they might offer during their sessions.
2. Identify sessions ahead of time – Looking at the program guide for the first time at the registration booth puts you at a disadvantage. Most events (especially Ed Tech ones) post their session titles and descriptions well in advance. Take that opportunity to do some early research on topics that interest you and areas that you want to improve upon professionally. Additionally as popular sessions can fill up quickly, always have a back-up plan.
3. Plan on giving yourself time between sessions – George Couros blogged about a conference in Australia that left 30 minutes in between sessions. While that’s a great way to have time in your schedule, most events only allow for 15 minutes or so. When planning out your days, be sure to leave a couple of longer breaks throughout the day. This extra time will allow you to reflect on a session or connect with colleagues and maybe actually have a professional lunch that is longer than 30 minutes.
During The Event
4. Don’t sit in sessions you don’t want to be in – EdCamps have mastered this strategy by the “voting with your feet” way that they run their events. If you are “stuck” in a 2-hour workshop on the theory of how Disney’s Frozen can be applied to advanced Physics, you either didn’t research the workshop well enough or the description was completely off (First clue – it was called “Let it Go: Why Liquid Nitrogen is the Bomb”) Don’t be afraid to walk out to your back-up session. If that one is full, find a quiet place where you can observe and follow the conference hashtag. At least that way you might pick up on some great things shared at other sessions.
5. Meet somebody new and connect – The easy way to do this is to have some virtual introductions via social media before-hand and then approach them when you see them in person (assuming their social media avatar looks like them). The more challenging, and sometimes more interesting way to do this, would be to find an attendee sitting by themselves and just introduce yourself. You never know how their story may help inspire you in the long run and vice-versa.
6. Capture your thoughts and reflect daily – I like to blog about the things that I have learned at conferences. This isn’t so much to share with others as it is for me to identify the things that I found valuable in my learning each day. Not a blogger? Use a tool like Storify to capture bits and pieces of a hashtag and make your own recap with others’ social media posts.
After The Event
7. Go back and share what you learned – As teachers, we know that our students learn by doing. Therefore, take what you learned and teach someone else. The blog that I mentioned in step #6 is a great way to share what you learned. For the slightly more daring, ask to have some time at an upcoming faculty meeting to give your 5-minute Ignite-type talk about highlights of your learning to the whole staff.
8. Follow-up with attendees and presenters online – Now that you’ve made some connections with new people from the event, be sure to send a message in the weeks afterwards to strengthen that connection.
9. Blackmail yourself – Learning new and inspiring ideas at an event can be great momentum going into the beginning of the school year. However, often weeks or months pass before you even get the motivation to apply something you’ve learned and by then you are too tired with the day-to-day of school life. Rather than blow it off, blackmail yourself. Outwardly tell colleagues (online or in person) that you are going to try a new concept that you learned. Then, set a time when you are actually going to try it and publicize this as well. I like to send myself an email in the future using futureme.org or the like. Setting up that email immediately after the event ends and can immediately reignite you months later.
These steps or tips are not fool-proof, and they do require a bit of heavy lifting on the part of the normally passive conference attendee. But, if you apply some – or all of these steps – you’ll find yourself not only enjoying conferences more but also sharing that joy with other colleagues and students down the road.