When I was a kid, I loved going to VFW Conventions with my mom. As an undergrad, I attended my first professional conference when I presented at NCTE 2013 in Boston. As a young professional, I jumped at any opportunity to attend an NCTE or ISTE conference, though I found it to be a struggle to find funding and time off for professional conferences. Like many others, I haven’t attended a conference in person since before the pandemic, when I flew to Vegas in 2019 to accept an award for a journal article that I co-authored. Even then, as it was during the school year, I was only able to get a substitute for three days of that convention.
Last week brought me back to the world of conferences in a big way, and after getting full-time immersive experience, I am contentedly exhausted from a week of attending AECT 2021 and exploring the city of Chicago.
I have a terrible track record of writing these reflections after attending an important event (Exhibit A: the April 2021 TxDLA reflection that is still sitting half-finished in my drafts folder), so this time I’m taking advantage of some airport WiFi to reflect on my experiences while they’re still fresh. Or at least get started in my reflection before I board my flight home.
Side note: As I’m becoming more of an academic and a researcher and learning about various research methods, I’m wondering if these blog reflections constitute a form of auto-ethnography.
There are several avenues that I can take to this reflection: my own personal experiences, especially compared to the experiences I’ve heard from others, the sessions I attended, and the sessions I presented. I’d like to touch on each just a little.
I have to say that I had an overall fantastic experience. The biggest negative of the week was the lack of coffee in the hotel (seriously, what hotel doesn’t at least have coffee pots with terrible stale coffee grounds?). If I’d had the conference schedule in advance, I likely wouldn’t have stayed in Chicago as long as I did, but looking back, I’m glad for the extra time here. There may not have been sessions for me to attend on Tuesday when I arrived and the Saturday sessions didn’t last as long as I though they would, but that gave me time to familiarize myself with the hotel and this part of Chicago. I actually think that if I am able, I will try to always arrive a little early and state a little late.
Outside of the conference, I attended several exciting evening events, including the first post-pandemic live taping of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, a hilarious performance of Macbeth from the Drunk Shakespeare Society in a hidden library speakeasy, and a phenomenal blending of As You Like It with the Beatles at the Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.
I believe that experiencing the city outside of the convention is just as important as experiencing the sessions. As a reformed English teacher, I couldn’t resist the call of Shakespeare, especially when Chicago offered such intriguing adaptations. One of my presentations was a panel about achieving balance while maintaining multiple professional roles. One of the takeaways from that panel was the importance of setting aside time for ourselves and our families. The same applies to attending a conference. If I spent all day every day, 5:30am to 9:30pm attending sessions, never leaving the hotel, I would have left that convention burnt out. While I am exhausted, I’m invigorated, not burnt out. Those evenings experiencing Chicago gave me a whole second facet of the experience and left me with some incredible memories.
The conference itself was hybrid, a first for me and for AECT. While I heard plenty of grumbling from some attendees, I found the hybrid experience to be an incredible benefit. I would love to see AECT institutionalize the hybrid format, so I was thrilled when the closing keynote on innovation within AECT mentioned that very possibility. Attending a hybrid conference in person afforded me so many additional opportunities. Without the flexibility of virtual and hybrid sessions, I would have attended far fewer sessions overall because the hybrid modality allowed me to attend a virtual session while I ate lunch or finished my hair and makeup in my hotel room. I still would have spent that time in my room, just without being able to attend sessions at the same time. I mean, even without the masking consideration, I would never take a sandwich into a face-to-face session!
Aside from my own personal benefits, the conference was overall more accessible to more people. The final numbers showed over 500 people attended the conference virtually. Even if we think beyond the pandemic, there are plenty of reasons people are unable to travel for conventions. Whether it’s cost of travel, timing, or personal reasons, those who are unable to attend in person are still able to participate in the convention virtually. Plus, there’s the benefit of the recordings! I’m so excited to spend the next couple weeks watching the recordings of sessions I missed!
So, if the virtual aspects are so great, why not just continue hosting virtual conferences? With the hybrid modality, I felt more a part of the convention than I would have if it were entirely virtual. It is almost impossible to authentically network with other professionals in a fully virtual environment. While it is still possible to email a presenter about their session, I’ve never been a fan of doing that, and it feels much more authentic to talk with a presenter after the session. Plus, as I mentioned, I took full advantage of being in the city of Chicago, and experiencing the arts in a different city is a benefit that simply cannot be replicated online.
The key to the success of the hybrid sessions was the flock of Meeting Owls that we had available in every hybrid session. Aside from being adorable (I mean, look at those little owl eyes!), each Owl was the essential piece that connected the face-to-face to the virtual. I attended several hybrid presentations, both face-to-face and virtually from my hotel room, so I was able to experience both sides. The 360-camera on the Owls was a huge improvement over a stationary laptop camera and it allowed virtual attendees to see whoever was speaking in the room along with the face-to-face attendees. The microphone and speaker capabilities of the Owls were phenomenal and truly connected the two environments by allowing both sets of attendees to hear and interact with each other. I do not think that the hybrid convention would have worked so well without AECT’s investment into a flock of Owls. This is a technology that I had never heard of prior to the convention but one I would certainly recommend to organizations who can afford the investment.
I mentioned networking as a benefit of being face-to-face, so I want to touch on this briefly. I am, at heart, an introvert. I can absolutely be outgoing and social, but then I need plenty of quiet time afterwards. I also am not good at putting myself out there to meet new people, so I tend to rely on the friends-of-friends method of networking.
When I attended AECT in 2019, I felt like a fish out of water. I knew that there were Graduate Student Assembly events happening, but I had finished my master’s and hadn’t decided if I would pursue a doctorate, so I didn’t quite feel like I fit into that group, even though they truly are my peers. I tagged along with my former professor turned mentor, colleague, and friend to some sessions and met some really great people, but I felt barely capable of following the conversations about research and dissertations.
This time, I felt a lot more comfortable in my own shoes. I got involved in the Graduate Student Assembly prior to the convention and took on the role of Social Media Officer, so those same events that felt separate from me before were now like visiting friends. With several (too many!) presentations of my own, I felt like a part of the convention rather than just an onlooker. Since I’ve been working more and more in the world of academia, I’m really starting to figure out who I am, so I felt more capable of holding my own in conversations, and many people I spoke with gave me some great ideas about my dissertation and research interests.
Oh man, I don’t even know what to say here. Back when acceptance emails went out, I was absolutely gobsmacked to realize that every proposal was accepted. And then a little while later, I added a GSA Research Showcase poster to the list, bringing my total presentations to seven. It has even become a running joke with my coworkers.
The experience of presenting was fantastic. Like I mentioned before, just being a presenter made me feel more a part of the convention, but more than that, the act of presenting on my topics has strengthened my own understanding of them and my ability to explain my interests. I’ve always believed that the best way to truly learn and internalize something is to teach it, and I know that my own understanding of the TPACK framework was strengthened each time I discussed it in a presentation. Answering the questions in the panel on balancing multiple roles made me think through my own practices and articulate what worked and didn’t work for me.
And finally, the real reason to go to a conference: attending sessions and learning new things! Before I get into some of my takeaways, I want to talk a little about my mindset going into these convention sessions. I heard some complaints from others about the lack of presentation skills from some presenters, and I was really taken aback by this. For me, this convention is different from other types of professional development. When I design and present seminars, one of my underlying goals is to engage the audience and keep them invested in the topic so that they learn whatever it is they need to learn from the session. I’ve honed my presentation skills and will continue to hone my presentation skills to achieve that goal.
However, a convention that is largely based on presenting research and expertise does not necessarily need to do backflips to engage my attention. Especially in a 20-minute concurrent session, I would not want the presenter to waste time trying to engage with me. They have something to share, whether it’s the results from a study or their own personal expertise, and I’m there to listen and learn. Certainly, in the longer Innovate! sessions, there are opportunities to engage with the audience, but I don’t consider myself to be an audience that needs to be entertained in order to learn from these experts.
It’s so easy to critique a presentation without ever considering the content, so I went into this convention with the purposeful mindset to not concern myself with how the information was presented, but rather with what information was presented and what I could take away from each session.
And to that end, I did have several great takeaways from the convention, even before I dive into watching the recordings of the sessions I missed.
One of my professors at SHSU led a fantastic session about providing feedback to students. She spoke a lot about ensuring that feedback reaches students at a point in the semester where they have an opportunity to actually internalize and implement the feedback. She also discussed offering feedback in different forms: video, audio, text, images. One thing she shared that really struck me was the idea that feedback doesn’t need to be offered in the same format to every student. One student may only need some sentences in text, while another needs a screen recording so the instructor can point to specific parts of the submission or show a relevant resource. I had never thought about giving feedback in different formats on the same assignment like this, and I think I’ll try to implement this idea next semester or maybe in one of the final assignments this semester. (Also another side note, while I did just finish saying that this wasn’t about assessing anyone’s presentation skills, dang she’s got some great presentation skills!)
I attended a great panel of academic journal editors talking about the publishing process. This was actually the only session that I actively took notes, partially because I watched this one from my hotel room and I had my notebook handy, but mostly because there were just so many great pieces of advice shared.
- One thing that was shared at the beginning of the session was that editors want to publish really great articles and they don’t really care who wrote them. As someone starting out in academia, I found this to be reassuring. It’s easy to think that I can’t publish without having a terminal degree as the first author, so it was great to hear them genuinely share that they care more about the content of an article than the name on it.
- There was a great question about imbalanced feedback from peer reviewers, and one of the editors shared that they have actually removed peer reviewer feedback that was mean and unhelpful before sending it to the authors. I thought it was good to know that the editors of these academic journals are holding true to the purpose of the peer review process, which is to improve a manuscript, not to put down topics or methods that the reviewer doesn’t like.
- Also on the topic of peer review, they shared that authors can reject some feedback, as long as they explain why they are choosing not to implement that feedback. If the author can explain themselves well, they don’t have to make the changes dictated by the peer reviewers.
- There were several other notes I jotted down, but the last I’ll share here was the importance of reading the scope and guidelines of the journal before submitting. Making sure that the article is a good fit for the journal prior to submission can save everyone a lot of time in the long run. The editors also shared that they don’t mind receiving emails to ask if a topic would be a good fit. It’s always better to ask if unsure.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…
Considering the Shakespearean theme to my evening Chicago experiences, I thought this quote would be fitting to introduce the panel about the name of the field. I attended this session with a friend because we recently completely an assignment where we wrote a position paper to define and name the field. I really enjoyed hearing different people discuss the bifurcation of the field between educational technology and instructional design, as well as the various other titles and meanings that exist. “Learning engineer” came up several times throughout the convention. As I expected, there was not a solid answer in the end, but I found it to be great food for thought.
I noticed that the world of K12 was excluded from the conversation, likely not purposefully, but this is a setting where I feel our field is the most bifurcated. In the districts where I’ve worked, we’ve always had one person whose job was the content curriculum and another person whose job was the integration of technology. Both serve as coaches for teachers who must take the curriculum and the technology together to create effective learning. Why don’t these two positions work more closely together? One of the points that was made was how professionals in the field are doing essentially the same work regardless of the title; however, these two K12 positions are vastly different and don’t generally connect to each other. Hmm, maybe this will be a new research area for me.
I’m still processing the whole event, and of course, I’m jumping straight into the POD Network Conference the week following AECT (this one is fully virtual though!). I think this conference experience is going to stay with me for a long time and have a lasting effect on my identity as a researcher and academic. Over the next couple months, I plan to finish constructing my dossier and continue working on my active studies, while continuously looking to extend and better myself. I can’t wait for AECT22!