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A letter of encouragement to you

Dear Colleagues who have not yet attended online conferences,
This letter, addressed to all of you who may be a little intimidated by or feel like you don’t have the time to try an online conference, is my small attempt to both familiarise you with and encourage you to try online conferences next time they come around.  Once you do, you’ll wonder why you never did before.  Originally posted on my blog, it was being read by most people who actually attend, present at or organise these types of events.  I then thought how it wouldn’t reach the educators it was intended for.  So here it is, reposted for you, TESL Toronto membership.  =)

It is absolutely free
Face it, a lot of off-line conferences require money to pay for their location, food and entertainment.  This cost gets distributed to the attendees and more often than not, the presenters (Tyson edit: this is not true of TESL Toronto events; we actually give presenters an honorarium for their time and effort).  Add in travel expenses and time off work, many teachers can’t afford to go.  I know I have been asked many times to go to conferences in Europe and Brasil, but with what money?  What time off from my classes?  I rarely get paid to attend my local events.  Events like the Reform Symposium e-Conference (RSCON) are often free for everyone–no travel costs or exorbitant entry fees required.  And some are held twice a year!

The tech is simple

Tyson Seburn
This is what a typical session looks like when you participate!

Looking at the Googledocs spreadsheet and deciphering which tab suited your timezone is the hardest part, if that says anything.  RSCON uses a platform that simply has you click on a link, enter your name and tada–a window opens up that joins you to the virtual room where the session takes place.  Organised moderators introduce the speaker, the room tools and take care of everything else.  The platform (Elluminate by Blackboard collaborate) is simple and intuitive to use and has an ample variety of interactive tools at your disposal.  You can chat with everyone during the session; you can collaborate with everyone on a whiteboard; you can speak using your microphone.  It isn’t ooga-booga scary and complicated technology. It’s a piece of cake.

Sessions are short
I like 90-minute sessions as much as the next guy…when they’re interesting, appeal to my context and discuss what their abstract says they’d discuss.  However, I’m sure everyone can remember one they went to where 15 minutes in, they wanted out but couldn’t do so without feeling like a rude jerk.  RSCON (30 mins) sessions keep the flow going quickly so even less interesting sessions seem to contain a good amount of information before getting completely boring.   Having said this, leading a session so short is an art itself.  I’ll leave it at that.

It’s very convenient
…so many more 30-minute sessions can be packed in during a day, which leads to such a dramatic variety in topics and perspectives to chose from.  Watching from your home in your pyjamas with your fridge and bathroom nearby means you also don’t have to find the next room during the break or rush anywhere between sessions.  You can also discretely duck out early if it’s not what you expected just by walking away from the computer or closing the window.  If it’s a concurrent session, you just log in to a different session.

Diversity and similarity abound
At local conferences, there’s value to learning from and collaborating with teachers in the same contexts as you, but it’s always beneficial to hear from those in other contexts too.  At RSCON, it doesn’t matter where you were from, there is something happening at a time that suits your schedule.  This allows such a diverse mix of educators to participate as attendees or presenters; you could have one session led by a young learners teacher in Ankara, the next from an EAP educator in Toronto (hi!) and the next from a K-12 educator from Brisbane.

Online networks expand
At local conferences, sure there’s the face-to-face interaction you get and the socialising along with it.  Emails may be exchanged and at least here, that’s often as far as it goes.  Very few educators in my context utilise online social networking for professional development to its fullest or at all. Thanks to the nature of the RSCON platform, most everyone who was involved in any capacity also uses Twitter, Facebook or other social networks.  What an easy way to make new connections to your PLN and keep in touch how suits your needs and interests.  If you’re new to Twitter, online conferences are ideal places to start that initial online dialogue on Twitter.

Missed it?  No problem
One issue with face-to-face conferences is that you can only attend a certain number of sessions and you miss a ton of others.  If the organisers have scheduled concurrent sessions, you just have to accept that you can’t do it all.  On special occasions, some sessions are recorded with complicated equipment and “e-presence” machines, then later put on a website often with exclusive logins and passwords.  Since the RSCON platform is online, all sessions are recorded in a format exactly as if you’d attended.  There is no expensive technology to purchase.  There are no IT departments that are the only ones who could set things up to record.  Once you the session starts, the moderators press the record button, like on a PVR for TV.  Now, you can click here and watch any session you missed.  You’ll even try to participate in the chat box because you’ll forget it’s not live.  Trust me, you’ll try.

In summary, we need more like this
The fact that it is free, requires no travel, makes attending a piece of cake, is recorded and connects a diverse group of educators together easily makes the RSCON an important model for conferences to build upon.  Educators in the EFL industry can only benefit from breaking away from the myths of scary-technology and impersonal style networking.  Local conferences will always have their place, but we need to continually encourage our colleagues to get involved in individualising their professional development.  I can’t wait for RSCON4!  I hope to see more of you there.

We at TESL Toronto will try our best to keep you aware of more opportunities like these.

For further contemplation, please see:
Reflections on RSCON3
The Virtual Round Table Conference

Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

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