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The higher ed learning professional conference industrial complex is in full swing.
Among the ed tech, online and digital learning convenings that occur in the early part of 2019 are ELI, SXSW EDU, UPCEA and OLC Innovate. Later this year we will have the opportunity to travel to Educause, WCET, POD, OLC Accelerate or any of the over 40 conferences and convenings for those working at the intersection of learning and technology.
The reason that we attend these conferences -- often at some expense to our institutions -- is so that we can be better at our jobs. Conferences are intended to advance our work through the sharing of knowledge, ideas and information across our profession. We go to professional conferences to connect and nurture our network of colleagues who are engaged in similar work as us, and to gain insights and intelligence that can best be gathered when our communities of practice meet together at a single place in time.
The standard conference format for learning professionals -- inclusive of ed tech and online and educational developer communities -- is structured to encourage this kind of engagement.
There will be keynote addresses, usually with some luminary in the field or someone famous for other reasons who will hopefully have something to say about the future of higher education. There are session presentations from colleagues, usually selected in the conference program through a competitive submission process. There will be panel discussions. At many ed-tech conferences, there is a vendor exhibition hall. Time and space for professional networking will be provided, if limited.
Recently, the trend in the learning profession world has been to move away from structured professional meetings to the more fluid unconference. At an unconference, the agenda is co-created (to a degree) by the participants, with discussions coalescing around topics of interest.
What all existing learning professional conferences have in common is a faith in the power of convening. And, in particular, a faith in the power of convening at scale.
What is seldom unpacked about the professional conference-attending experience is the rationale for attending these convenings in the first place. The idea that an effective path to improving our work in higher education is to participate in professional gatherings of this sort seems so straightforwardly self-evident that it is barely questioned.
But what if this is wrong?
What if the way we think about professional development for learning professionals is actually holding back the learning profession? What if what we really need is to create new knowledge? What if what the learning profession really needs is original scholarship? What if the resources, time and energy we devote to attending large professional conferences would be better spent in small-scale convenings, where the goals of scholarly productivity are foregrounded above all others?
There are, of course, benefits to the sending institution and the attendee of having one's batteries recharged and one's perspective enlarged by spending a few days away from campus and with peers from other schools.
As many of these sessions of these events focus on career development, the advantage to the school and the attendee may be around charting a career path.
Through the act of coming together, conference goers are able to translate their participation into some benefit for their home institution and professionally for themselves. This benefit may come from a new practice, a new connection, a new technology or a new idea.
This is a laudable and necessary goal. But is it enough?
What is missing from the normative expectations of professional development gatherings is the expectation that the time will result in the creation of a new piece of scholarship. Absent from professional meetings for learning professionals are structures that are optimally conducive to original research and writing.
If what a learning professional wants to do is produce original scholarship -- and we argue that we all should if we’re to have the kind of sustained impact we hope we will -- then they may be poorly served by the standard professional meeting. Any writing will need to take place before or after the meeting, not during.
Unlike the presentations at more traditional academic conferences -- in which long, complex papers are produced that can serve as the foundation for an article or book chapter -- most of the presentations at professional conferences are talks over PowerPoint. The depth and fullness of the work is often provided extemporaneously, if at all.
What scholars need are long periods of uninterrupted time. They need some protection from distraction. Scholarship is not conducive to multitasking.
Scholarship, unfortunately, is not part of the day-to-day job description of most learning professionals. We spend our days in meetings with faculty and other campus colleagues. Our learning professional work lives are built around reading and writing emails, creating reports, managing budgets, mentoring team members, and meeting after meeting after meeting.
Many of us also teach -- an enormously time-consuming (and rewarding) task. Our greatest scarcity as learning professionals is time. Time to think. Time to reflect. Time to write. And time to rewrite.
How many of us in the learning professions are choosing to forgo the traditional conference in exchange for convenings devoted to scholarship? How many of us are seeking to gather with colleagues from other campuses, but to only interact for small portions of the day when we share our ideas and our writing? In an age where time is our most precious resource, is the traditional conference what we really need?
Is it time to move away from notions of professional development, ones rooted in an older era of sharp divides between academics and staff, and move toward a future that supports the creation of scholarship?
And, if we were do so, what might be the unique flavor our field could bring to this scholarly engagement? Might we combine the applied practices of our field with the scholarship necessary for sustained engagement in a productive, creative way?
How are you rethinking how you invest your professional time away from campus?