Conference Attendance: Professional Development?

A few weeks ago, a few colleagues tweeted some thoughts and wrote blog posts (Joe Ginese and Joe Sabado) on whether conference attendance classifies as professional development.  It was evident from the comments on the blog and the tweets circulating on those days that this topic touched on a hot spot for people across the country.  I attempted to participate on Twitter that day, but my schedule was too packed that week to engage; it was not for a lack of want, however.  Now that I have some more time on this rainy Saturday, I want to put a few thoughts out there.

So, does conference attendance serve (or count) as professional development?  The answer to that question is more complex than just one’s initial thoughts.  Conference attendance can serve many different roles and needs.  It is not meant as an experience that serves everyone in every way.  For some, the professional development that occurs at a conference is through the giving of a presentation.  Sharing knowledge and experiences in front of colleagues is an important skill to have.  Being able to do this well takes practice and preparation.  I emphasize “well” because I feel confident in saying that we have all attended sessions that were presented poorly; either the speaker was not engaging, the material was confusing, the speaker did not know the material, or the presentation was just generally sloppy and error-ridden.  But, to do it well, one must research, practice, and repeat.  It is important to ensure, using the old phrase, to dot your Is and cross your Ts.  We may be in attendance to learn something innovative or new, but we must remember to respect the presenter for, in this type of scenario, it is the giving of a presentation that serves as the development.

Some attend conferences to connect with others on a more personal level.  This may take the form of having coffee with a colleague, having lunch with a new connection, or talking with an old mentor/mentee.  Each of these scenarios can be professional development, so long as the only thing discussed isn’t something along the lines of the score of last night’s game.  Building one’s professional network leads to greater professional development opportunities down the road.

Certainly, a large portion of conference attendees expect to gain something professionally from conference attendance.  Some are looking for a new idea or a way to tweak something in a new way.  Others may be learning about something completely different in an attempt to broaden their knowledge base.  When I think about my own presentation this year at NASPA that I did with Michelle Shea on social media, as well as the other sessions I went to on social media, the rooms were filled with a variety of experience levels.  Some were looking to understand social media while others were looking to take away something tangible to implement.  Each is relevant.

I know when I attend a session, I am looking to learn something.  This can be a different way of viewing an issue, a new idea to adjust to my campus, or a new initiative to implement.  Innovation occurs when you bring new ideas to your campus and implement them.  It does not matter if they have been occurring on another campus; that does not make them less valuable.  Each campus is so different that any program “recycled” from elsewhere needs to be tweaked in some minor or major ways in order to make it effective elsewhere.  That process requires integrating this new idea with the complex composition of one’s campus, from student demographics, budgets, politics, etc.

Now that I am winding this post down, I guess it would not be right if I did not share my soapbox issue with conferences.  For me, I choose to go to a session because I want to learn something from the presenter.  I am there because my interest has been peaked enough that I believe they may have something useful to share with me.  What frustrates me during sessions is the increasing nature of audience discussions with each other – the “get in small groups” or “turn to your neighbor” activities.  The more this occurs, the less learning occurs from the person I was there to hear speak.  I attended one session this year in which the presenter spoke for 20 minutes and left the remaining 40 for question and answer.  I was extremely disappointed as the session had potential.  In my opinion, if a presenter wants to heavily engage the audience to have them speak with each other, then the session should have been a roundtable.  Unfortunately, I have seen this increasing over the last several years.

Overall, I believe that conference attendance provides tremendous opportunities to either gain professional development, provide professional development, or lay a foundation for future professional development.  We need to remember that each person is there for a different reason, and those reasons are not likely to match our reasons for attending in the exact same way.  Gaps in one’s professional development needs can and should be filled through methods most appropriate to the learning desired.  Mentoring relationships, course work, books and article reading, webinars, and blog/Twitter following and engagement can each help to fill development needs.  Can we do better?  Of course we can.  But, conference attendance satisfies and fulfills a need.

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