I don’t attend many professional conferences. In a normal year, I’ll make it to one state-level educational technology conference, and maybe 2-3 smaller one-day regional conferences. Once every 4-5 years, I’m able to attend a national event, as long as it’s not too far away.
It’s not that I don’t find them valuable. I’m nearly always able to walk away with new ideas and new persepectives. Often, participating in sessions and interacting with different people gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own practice, and that usually has a positive effect on my work.
But the barriers to attending a professional conference are not insignificant. They can be expensive, especially if an overnight stay is involved. The timing has to be convenient, and the location has to be accessible. When I attend a conference, I also feel like I’m playing hooky. I should be back at school with everyone else. While my schedule is certainly more flexible than a teacher’s (or even a principal’s), I still have the fundamental belief, developed when I was in middle school, that if there is school today, I should be at school today.
This year, of course, conferences have been different. For the most part, face-to-face events have been replaced with online ones. Speakers and breakout sessions have been held in video conferences. In many cases, they’re spread over a week or two instead of being crammed into a couple days. Almost all of them are archived online, available for viewing at my convenience. A significant number of conference presentations have also been made available for free. You don’t have to register, have leave approved, find funding, secure substitutes, and worry about whether it’s okay to be away from work for a couple days. You can just fire up Zoom or a Google Hangout, and jump into the sessions you want.
So far this year, I’ve done that zero times.
I’m not opposed to virtual meetings. Indeed, many of the most important professional conversations I’ve had and relationships I’ve fostered have been online. I’m certainly not intimidated by the tech. At this point, we’re well beyond worrying about getting the video conferencing software to work properly. Those problems were sorted out a year ago. The content is really good. There are lots of people that I really respect who are doing great things, and they’re sharing them in accessible ways that would have been impossible to attend 15 months ago. There are many many more people whose voices I don’t know who have amazing perspectives, and I should be listening to them too. And best of all, the commitment is minimal. If I’m five minutes into something and it’s not what I expected or thought I was signing up for, I can just close the window and move on. But I’ve just had no interest in these online events.
I think my biggest problem with online conferences is the idea of being in two places at the same time. I don’t do well with that. If I leave my office and drive two hours to a convention center, I’m at that event. But if I launch a Zoom meeting at my desk and put earbuds in, I’m still in my office. The person standing in my doorway asking a question doesn’t know that I’m not there. The ringing phone and the filling inbox keep pulling me back to the physical world. Eventually, it gets so difficult to concentrate on the big, important (but not urgent) ideas being discussed online that I disengage. Even if I make it through the whole session, I’m not getting much from it. My physical presence always wins over the virtual presence.
Last summer, when we said that the best place for kids was in school, I pushed back. I really wanted to embrace hybrid learning as a way to make learning better than it was before. I saw opportunities to exploit the flexibility of online time and space to better meet individual students’ needs. By removing the need to supervise students every minute of every day, we opened up lots of possibilities for teachers to provide equitable (not equal) instruction. But we didn’t really do that. Our hybrid plans mostly centered around re-creating school in a digital environment, and that included all of the face to face shortcomings.
But bigger than that, home and school are two different places. And if I’m struggling with being in two places at the same time, I’m pretty sure a lot of our students struggle with that too. Making learning spaces at home has helped. I’ve seen a lot of transformed dining room tables and basements and even closet offices set up for doing online school, and that’s important. But many of our students don’t have the luxury of a quiet, dedicated space. And with parents working from home, and pets that don’t understand that it’s not Saturday, and the endless distractions in the student’s physical world, it’s no wonder that it’s been difficult to focus.
I think everyone is looking forward to a time when school can mostly happen at school again. In the meantime, those who are still online or hybrid are going to have to keep trying to be in two places at the same time.