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The Value of Education Conferences: A Welcomed Information Overload

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation
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A month after the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), I've finally found the time to go through my notes and unpack the many handouts and freebies I picked up. It brought back so many memories.

As a first-timer to the conference long ago, I remember there were four of us in a hotel room with peanut butter and crackers and sodas. You could say we were economically challenged. We did not have much money, but the friendship and the learning were so important. The hotel room was not so important as the linking with the friends and learning how to navigate the conference and get the most from it. We did learn to get invited to functions and meals and to work the conference.

As a newbie, I was impressed first with the vendors, and then with the exhibits. So many things that I had seen only in catalogues or online, I saw in person. I was wearing silly hats and blinking pins. I had T-shirts. I even won some prizes, and there were lots things I could take back to my class. I was so excited! I was dizzy with winning prizes and getting samples, and making deals to be able to demonstrate new ways of using technology.

My friends and I also attended workshops and shared what we learned. In the first conference, I met David Thornburg and learned about his campfire stories. The exposure to ideas from those in the conference is really important, so we attended all keynotes. I still try to attend them.

Now, as a seasoned conference attendee, I offer you some reasons you should attend local, regional, and national conferences if you can scrape together the money to go.

Shaping the Future?

At conferences, you meet and greet people you may have "talked to" online. Sometimes, people will come up to you and identify themselves as members of a listserv you're on, or even as admirers of your work! Sometimes, you'll meet people who have shaped or influenced your use of technology. As you attend more conferences, you'll make alliances with people who share similar interests, or you'll find the opportunity to explore new and evolving interests. These people can be very important to your future work. You will find out about initiatives that are not always shared either online or in print.

Eventually, you may get the idea to present your own work, which means you are becoming a thought leader. Writing the abstract can be a pain, but it's worth it. You become a part of the group and help decide the direction of the conference.

To shape what is going on at future conferences, you can join an affinity group that interests you. You'll develop new friendships that can last and make important links for you. One of my groups was one on digital equity. James Smith, Sylvester Robinson, and Joyce Pittman (from the original group) and I have kept in contact and have supported the people creating the information around digital equity and minority-involvement efforts.

Joyce actually created, as a preconference initiative, the kind of conference she wanted to see. We have separate pathways in real life, but the conferences and the technology helped us form the dream of a Digital Equity Special Interest Group of the International Society for Technology in Education. Read more about this in my next post.

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Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

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Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bonnie - I felt like I could write those same thoughts. That's a great post, which reminds me of my first professional conference years ago - TelEd. I remember I must have had four different entities helping pay for me to go - myself, my principal, our central office, and my mom! Ha. It was an unbelievable experience, and it really made me realize that sometimes "you gotta go to grow" and get out of your four walls to see the outside world. Thanks for the tips! (and I'll see you again at NECC)


Cynthia Lanius's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Bonnie,
Yes, what great memories your post brought back. I remember an NCTM conference in Orlando, over 20 years ago, where I heard Heinz Otto-Peitgen talking about fractals (first time I ever heard the word), and it was brilliant and inspiring. I attended a SACNAS conference where I saw young Latinos from all over the country working on STEM PhDs and I knew they were just like MANY of my students, and that raised my horizons for them. I remember my first SC Confernece, I think it was '95, and I thought, if kids could come to this, there'd be no problem getting kids interested in computing. The Hopper and Tapia conferences feel like big family reunions. It would be nice if we could get some big foundation to support every new teacher to attend a confernece of their choice. You know, I bet you that it would reduce attrition!

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Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Cynthia and others,
I was cutting school, feeling very guilty. Let me explain. I had asked for leave to attend the conference and they told me that I could and then, and then, a month before the conference they decided that I could not attend. So I decided to be ill since I had already bought my ticket to Seattle.

I was feeling really guilty and then I heard this man, Wendell Mohling, who was the President of the NSTA complaining that his school system did not want him to attend the conference either. So he was "ill?" It made for a fascinating conversation and instant friendship. Wendell is no longer with us, but
we were both so outraged that we had permission withdrawn. Let's hope times and circumstances have changed for others and that permission isn't one of the things teachers have to worry about.

I attend several conferences on a regular basis and it is like family. That's the part I forgot to add in my post. Thank you.

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