When you go to a conference — even for a single day — you’re investing hours of your life into the experience.
And if that’s the case, it’s always best when you get a good return on the time investment.
The ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference (iste.org/conference) takes place every summer. It’s a multi-day event where more than 15,000 educators descend to learn, connect and grow.
In a word, the ISTE conference is an experience. It can be overwhelming, and it can feel like you’re missing out. Any conference can feel like that.
Here’s a way to rethink conferences so you don’t get swept away:
Conferences really are like a big box of LEGOs in this way:
- You have tons of different bricks that can be used for a variety of reasons.
- Not every brick is a perfect fit for every job.
- You don’t have to use every brick in the box to get the job done.
- Some people will use different bricks than you, and that’s OK.
Really, you make your own conference experience — whether it’s a huge conference like ISTE or a smaller one.
You choose the bricks. You make what you want.
After having attended dozens and dozens and dozens of conferences — and two ISTE conferences — here are some of the building blocks I see to crafting a great experience. (Scroll past the infographic for quick summaries of each.) Pick and choose the LEGOs in this “set” as you wish.
If there’s a “brick” that isn’t on this list, please add it in the comments below!
1. Pick a session outside your comfort zone.
At any conference, ISTE or otherwise, you’ll find sessions that are packed because they’re expected topics — stuff that has “Google Classroom,” “Google apps,” “Kahoot!”, etc. in the title. People know what they’re getting, and many times, they don’t get a ton out of those sessions. Be brave. Stretch your comfort zone and try something you don’t know anything about. Or something that makes you uncomfortable. You may open a door to a whole new instructional strategy or method you wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
2. Don’t be afraid to leave sessions.
Your time is valuable at a conference — especially at the ISTE conference, where many educators attend at great personal or school district expense. If a session isn’t all you hoped it would be and there’s another you’d like to go to, get up and leave. It’s OK. The presenter’s feelings won’t be hurt (or he/she will get over it). You have to do what’s best for you.
3. Troll for goodies in the vendor hall.
I have an unhealthy addiction to free pens. For my wife, it’s sticky notes. I get all stocked up by walking up and down the aisles of vendor halls. If there are products you LOVE (or at least like), grab some freebies there. (And it’s OK to grab freebies at the ones you don’t know. I got a really cool notebook from an energy management company in Ohio that I love!)
Pro tip: Get a bag from a vendor while you’re there to stash your goodies in. Then you can leave that bag in your hotel room so your backpack isn’t loaded down!
4. Go deep with 1-3 vendors (if you want).
Let’s be honest. Vendors are in the vendor hall because they want to make money. They want to sell stuff. But they’re also there to help, and many of them want to help as much as (or more than) they want to sell. If you use a product and the vendor’s there, you have one-on-one access to some of the smartest people when it comes to that product. (But beware … some are rookie salespeople who don’t really know much about the product. Just keep that in mind.) Use that access for your benefit and really learn from them.
5. Find mini sessions in the vendor hall.
At bigger conferences, the vendor booths aren’t just for selling products and distributing mini Snickers. Many vendors offer very useful presentation sessions for educators — sometimes as good or better than the official ISTE sessions. For example, I have presented several times in the ViewSonic booth, doing 5-10 minute sessions on whatever I think educators really want to know. Other vendors like Google and TechSmith have similar presentations. There’s no pressure to buy, and I’ve had people tell me that these little sessions were better than other presentations they went to that day.
At ISTE 2017, here are the sessions I’ll be doing for ViewSonic (booth 1232):
- Streamline Your Teaching Life with Google Forms (10:15am Monday, 4:15pm Tuesday)
- Create Stunning Infographics with Google Drawings (11:15am Monday, 3:15pm Tuesday)
- Connecting Classrooms to the World (12:15pm Monday, 4:15pm Monday)
- Easy, On-demand Virtual Fiend Trips with Google Maps (1:15pm Monday)
I’ll also do two 30-minute sessions for TechSmith (booth 2128) with amazing Australian educator Eleni Kyritsis. The sessions will be about creative uses of Google Slides in the classroom. They’ll be in a fun, smackdown-style format where Eleni and I bounce ideas back and forth. Times are 11am Tuesday and Wednesday.
6. Tweet and share.
At many conferences — and definitely at the ISTE conference — there’s a TON of dialogue going on via social media. Twitter is the go-to social media platform for many conferences. Checking the conference hashtag (#ISTE17) lets you sit in virtually on sessions you couldn’t go to. Be sure to tweet the key points and new ideas from sessions so others can benefit as well. Those tweets will be seen the world over … there are lots of eyeballs on conference hashtags!
7. Google Doc (that’s a verb) your notes.
Taking notes at a session? Consider taking them in a Google Doc (or a Word doc online or in an online notetaking app like Evernote). Then share a link to those notes on Twitter. (I’d do an “anyone with the link can view” link, but you could share a link where they can comment or edit to make it interactive!) This way, others at the conference — and anywhere in the world — can learn what you’re learning. You’ll be able to refer back to your own notes later, and others will truly benefit from your work as well. Don’t just keep it to yourself!
8. Don’t lunch alone (exception: introverts).
Lunch is a great time to catch up with others. You can share what you’ve been learning, but you can also develop great relationships over a Subway sandwich and chips. (Although I’m sure you can do better than Subway for lunch at a conference …) I’ve had great success planning lunches with others as well as finding someone on the fly. Pretty much everyone breaks for lunch at some point, and no one likes to eat alone. (Note: If you’re an introvert and all of the people and noise and crowded spaces are overwhelming, there’s no shame in finding a quiet place to be alone and recharge.)
9. Check out the poster sessions.
Not all of the sessions at ISTE are those where you crowd into a room and listen to a presenter! Lots of amazing educators doing great things in their classroom offer poster sessions. In these, they display a poster of their work and they stand next to it, waiting for YOU to hear about their project or ask questions. This is a great way to meet some new people face to face and get some great ideas.
10. #SketchISTE what you learn.
I’m a HUGE fan of sketchnoting (visual notetaking). The verbal/visual connection that happens is very brain friendly, and they’re lots of fun to create. Wanda Terral, a friend and fellow ISTE-goer, is promoting #SketchISTE, encouraging people to sketch what they’re learning and doing and share it on social media. You can post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google Plus with the #SketchISTE hashtag.
— Wanda Terral (@wterral) June 21, 2017
11. Choose your equipment wisely.
Don’t feel like you have to schlep your laptop, Chromebook, iPad and smartphone all over the conference. They’ll be heavy and you won’t find that you’ll use them all. (Or you won’t use them all enough to justify lugging them all over the conference.) For me, I’ll probably either use my iPad (so I can sketch visual notes digitally to share) or my laptop (so I can type notes to share … see #7 above). I’d advise to stick to one device and pick it based on what you want to do.
Pro tip: If you have a portable battery charger, bring it and keep it charged up! I use and love my Anker PowerCore (affiliate link) with 20100mAh of power. It claims that it will charge an iPhone 7 seven times without needing to be recharged itself.
12. Choose your wardrobe wisely.
A few suggestions about what to wear:
- Don’t get too formal. At most conferences — especially at ISTE — dress is very casual. Shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes are totally acceptable. (But, of course, it’s totally up to you!)
- Comfortable shoes are a must. Bring whatever’s going to support your feet best. Take care of your feet, especially in a multi-day event like ISTE.
- Dress in layers or bring layers. Some presentation rooms will get blasted with air conditioning and will freeze you. In hot destinations (like San Antonio for ISTE 2017), it’s gonna be scorching hot outside. Be prepared to shed or add layers.
Pro tip: Consider bringing a backpack. I’ve always had one at ISTE and other conferences. They’re easy to transport. You distribute weight between both shoulders. Plus, they’ve got plenty of storage space.
13. Talk to presenters.
Presenters aren’t these inaccessible figureheads that don’t want to mingle with commoners. They’re educators just like you. They present because they want to help people. If you have questions or just want to introduce yourself, most of them welcome it! Feel free to go to the front of the room after your session to say hi. (Before the session, they may be busy getting ready to present, so that may not be the best time.)
14. Talk to people next to you.
Be brave and strike up a conversation with someone sitting next to you in a session, at the keynote or at lunch. Conferences are full of educators who want to improve and who are already doing amazing things in their schools. You may be surprised at how easy it is to start talking and trading ideas. (And if someone isn’t in the mood, that’s OK … smile, say “have a nice day” and move on!)
15. Be careful.
Whenever you get around lots of people, there are inherent dangers. I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe at an ISTE conference (or at any conference I can think of), but no matter where you go, there will be people who want to take advantage of others. Travel in groups when you can. Keep an eye on your valuables. Be aware of the behavior of others and try to avoid situations that put you at risk. ISTE continually revises its code of conduct and expected behavior in response to any reports from its participants. Those policies might not be there if there weren’t incidents in the past. Just be aware.
[reminder]What other building blocks do you suggest for crafting a meaningful conference experience?[/reminder]
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