Last weekend I attended the English Teachers’ Association Annual Conference in NSW, which was held at the University of NSW on Friday 27th and Saturday 28th of November. The conference theme was ‘Hit Refresh!’, so it was apt that this was the first conference we have run that had an officially constructed online aspect, using both Ning and Twitter to engage presenters and participants in discussion and networking before, after, and behind the scenes of the conference.
This (longish) post is a report I wrote on the success of these online tools at the conference.
Many educators by now have heard of ‘blogs’, ‘wikis’, and learning management systems such as Moodle, and hopefully we are fast approaching a time where the these strange names and terms are accepted as useful (rather than childish) jargon. In the meantime, jokes about the ‘Ning-nang-nong’ and Twitter users being ‘twits’ will abound. But while these tools might sound goofy, they are anything but.
Ning.com is an online tool that is fast gaining popularity with educators. It combines many other features for writing and connecting online – such as being able to have a personal profile page, make ‘friends’ with other members of the Ning, write blog entries, add to discussion forums, and join sub-groups – and for that reason the term Ning was coined to describe the NetworkING that occurs on the site. For our conference we created a Ning a few months ahead of the conference (http://etaconf09.ning.com/), set up all of our conference workshops, presentation, keynotes and plenaries as ‘events’, invited presenters (first, then later, people who had registered for the conference)…and waited.
The response was slow but sure. Before the conference had even started we had 70 people who had joined as members of the Ning. ETA committee members and presenters who were keen to explore the Ning started adding discussions and material right away. New presenters felt welcomed and included in the lead up to conference, and could ask questions and establish contacts with others before arriving on the big day. On the Thursday before the conference, the number of members had grown to 130. Many more joined up during and following the conference, and the count currently stands at 230 members. Some presenters used the Ning directly in their workshops, getting participants to add their own questions, ideas and resources. Many people were glad to have an easy way of contacting and keeping in contact with other members, and as many people did upload information about themselves, including a photo to their profile, there was a definite sense of familiarity and closeness at the ‘real life’ conference between Ning users.
As well as establishing a conference Ning, the micro-blogging service Twitter.com was used to ‘tweet’ short, 140 character updates from the conference, in particular from the Saturday morning panel on National Curriculum. This allowed attendees to create a ‘backchannel’ at the conference, communicating with others from around the globe, as well as other members at the conference, about events as they happened. Before the conference I blogged a description of a backchannel, which was used at the conference to explain the concept.
As this was our first attempt at using a backchannel, we decided not to display the tweets live on a big screen behind the speakers – though this is something that is occurring frequently now at many conferences that use a backchannel. For our own, and the speakers’ peace of mind, Darcy Moore and I fielded questions and comments that came in via Twitter at the same time as chairing the panel and the real-life questions from bodies inside the auditorium, and integrated these into the plenary. The response was very positive, and people (speakers included) only seemed disappointed that we didn’t display the tweets on the big screen!
So, next year we are bound to do this again, with the screen on live display. Using technology this way can be risky of course, as there is far less control being exercised when members can publish their unfettered thoughts for all to see. But the benefits of this far outweigh the risk, and the message from members was ‘bring it on!’
Increasingly, educators are connecting online in very powerful ways. This includes English teachers. As online tools become easier to use to connect, communicate and collaborate with colleagues they are being seen as more of a joy (and a time saver) than a chore. I heartily encourage other professional associations to consider adopting online elements for future conferences and events, and would be happy to share ideas and advice with anyone who is going in that direction.
Anyone else care to share their experiences or tips?