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Podcast: How to Make the Most of an Online Conference

Podcast: How to Make the Most of an Online Conference

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen
Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a major change in the way that instructors, ranging from elementary schools to colleges and universities, taught their classes. Out of necessity, many instructors adapted their classroom material for an online format, using tools such as Zoom and Google Classroom, and have used technology for additional purposes, such as meetings with other instructors and administrators.

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Attending an online conference is a new experience for many teachers. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the benefits of attending an online conference and tips to get the most out of it. Learn how to find professional events, strategies for attending sessions, how to engage and interact with presenters and attendees, and ways to network in a virtual setting.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This is episode number 29, how to make the most of an online conference. This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the online teaching lounge.

Why Attend a Virtual Professional Conference?

You might be thinking, “What is an online conference?” An online conference is your typical professional development or industry conference that is presented virtually. Right now, during the time of the pandemic and many other things going on in the world, some of the things that normally would be live attended as conferences face-to-face are being rescheduled to online events.

I myself have attended several of these events. And so I’d like to talk today a little bit about how to make the most of your online conference attendance, how we can do it online, what we should do to prepare and how to maximize our attendance.

And one reason we go to professional conferences is to be part of our professional community. There are so many professional community conferences I have attended in the past. I’ve been to music educator conferences, online leader conferences, online educator conferences, higher education leader conferences, and all kinds of things in between, as well as those in the tech field.

Because I teach primarily online and worked online for a long time, I have been very interested in various modalities, various platforms. And sometimes, I’ll go to Adobe conferences or other things like that. So there are a wide variety of conferences that you might consider attending as an online educator in your field, in online education itself or in industries.

When you attend an online conference, this might seem like an awkward experience, compared to your face-to-face events. At a face-to-face event you’re going to meet people, you’re going to get to know someone in the hallway, maybe have a brief conversation.

You might exchange a business card and follow up for future conversations. You attend a presentation, and you see that person face-to-face. They might make a real impression on you, and you might have a side conversation after they’re done presenting.

Or maybe you’re the presenter. And you see the people that you’re presenting to live in that room or auditorium, and you make real connections there as well.

There are, of course, those networking opportunities and the big speaker, some kind of keynote. Things like that really strike us and they come with us afterwards and stay part of our memory. They also become part of our long-term learning and growth. The question is, how can we do this effectively online?

Search for Upcoming Online Conferences and Register

Well, first I’d like to suggest looking around and seeing what is available online as a virtual conference. If you were to conduct a brief Eventbrite search, you would see there are a lot of virtual conferences already listed there that are in a variety of industries.

For example, there’s a Data Science go virtual, there’s a tech summit, there’s an AI and the Future of Work conference, there are things like Courageous Conversations About Race, school anti-racist strategy. There’s the 2020 virtual One Health conference, API World 2020, TEDxMileHigh and so forth.

So there are a lot of different kinds of conferences you’ll find on Eventbrite, and you might also find a listing of virtual events or virtual conferences in your professional areas. If you attend normal, live face-to-face conferences, those same organizations might be having a virtual event this year, next year, and you can find that information on their website.

When you find out about a virtual event, some of these are free, some of these have a registration fee. Either way, you’ll want to register for the event. Once you register for the event, you’ll receive some kind of confirmation email.

Just like with a live event, you’ll want to take that confirmation email and save it, print it, or do something to note it so that you don’t lose it. Not all of these events are going to send you reminders or calendar invitations.

You might have to take the time to schedule it manually on your own calendar and also save the access information. So the first step would be to find the conference, register and then save the registration details.

Identify the Structure of the Online Conference, and Determine How You’ll Attend

Once you’ve done that, you’ll find that most online conferences have a similar variety of things that you’d find in live face-to-face conferences. For example, some of these are orchestrated on a complex platform that includes places for keynote presentations where there’s a video frame. Maybe there are captions, maybe there’s text or somewhere to interact with other participants, or even with the presenter.

There might be education sessions. Education sessions are the type of session where you might have 30 to 60 minutes, or maybe even longer, where a subject is presented in your area or some topic where it’s more lecture style. And there’s a presentation and then an opportunity for Q&A afterwards.

There might be hands-on workshops where you might have something you’re doing while you’re engaging in the conference and watching the presentation, and it’s interactive. There might even be networking and social events or other additions like yoga and morning exercise, virtual coffee breaks, virtual coffee hours, cocktail parties, social networking opportunities, and other areas for vendors or exhibits, just like you might have with a live conference having an exhibit hall or an exhibition space.

The activities in a virtual conference might actually take place in real time synchronously. And if that’s the case, you would want to put those dates and times for all the sessions you’re going to attend on your calendar and block out the day that you’re going to attend the conference.

Alternatively, a conference might have on-demand sessions. These would be asynchronous. And that means that you can watch them at any time so you can look them up during your free time, after work, or block out the day and attend them all at once.

Or you might find that a conference has some combination of those two options, real-time and on-demand sessions. Either way, you’re going to find a rich opportunity to learn and grow, be part of your professional community, network with others, and get a broader vision of what’s happening in your field and where you’d like to go with it in the future.

Once you’ve registered and you’ve looked over the information about your professional conference, you will find that some tips could serve you well when you attend this virtual conference. The first tip is to focus on your perception or attitude about the conference itself.

Adjust Your Perception of What You Can Get Out of the Conference

We have this sort of subconscious belief that an online or virtual conference just isn’t as good as the face-to-face experience. That doesn’t necessarily have to be true. In fact, in some ways, that conference might be even more effective as you sit without the distractions of the environment and simply tune in to the content itself.

So an online session can be done very well. And of course, just like in a live conference setting, you might also have the session done poorly. It depends on the presenter, the topic, and how things have been organized. However, if you really approach this with your best attitude of getting something out of it, it’s going to just heighten that experience for you and make it a more positive one.

Schedule Time on Your Calendar to Attend Live Sessions

Secondly, calendaring and making this calendar a priority just as if you were attending live is critical to really engaging in that conference. In my own experience recently, I registered for one conference. I received the confirmation email. I got the login information. I did log in and watch one session at that conference. It was a free conference. I wasn’t really highly motivated to engage any further and I missed all the rest of the sessions, and I tried to do work when I should have been at the conference and I really just missed out.

So limiting distractions starts by putting those sessions on your calendar and blocking out your calendar, so that your time doesn’t become scheduled to do other things. Then when you cut your distractions out, you might even close your email, you might turn off the notifications on your cell phone and just really act like you’re just attending a conference, really focusing on the conference experience itself. When you do that for yourself, you’re going to get a lot more out of the experience.

If there’s an option to buy partial or full access to the conference, I highly recommend buying the full access, even though it is virtual, because you’re going to get a lot of background material, additional information and all that good stuff that’s going to make it a better experience for you.

If you need help turning off your distractions when you’re connected to the conference itself, you might consider putting up a Do Not Disturb. If you have something like Skype Business that tells whether you’re online or if you’re in Slack, you can use Focus Assist on your computer. This will stop the notifications that pop up on your screen. You can use an out-of-office responder for your email. You can also turn on Do Not Disturb on a cell phone.

Interact and Engage During the Online Conference to Cement Your Learning

And then when you’re in the conference itself, there should be at least some way to interact. If it’s like some of the online conferences I’ve investigated recently, there might be a platform where chat can happen. You can also post to Twitter and different places about different things you’re learning at the conference.

The more you interact, the more you’re going to really get something out of that experience. So use the interactive features that might be present in the conference platform. There might be the opportunity to raise your hand and ask a question, or a session might include a poll or some other kind of engagement opportunity with the session.

The more you actually participate in those things, the more you’re going to get out of it, and you’re going to be thinking about whatever is being presented. Especially if this is a topic of interest to you, engaging is worthwhile and it cements your learning.

It goes with that idea that neurons that fire together, wire together. As you’re thinking about the concepts that are being presented or shared, if you’re engaging and interacting at the same time, it’s going to help you form better connections in the brain and remember the experience.

Take Notes During Sessions for Later Reflection

Another thing I would recommend for a virtual conference is to take notes and review them and reflect afterwards. Not sure how you are at conferences normally, but my conference attention span is somewhat limited.

When I attend a few sessions that are of interest to me, I find that I need to slow down, take some breaks and review my notes and summarize what I got out of that. If I don’t do that, I end up with information overload. Too much information, too many details, and it starts to all blur together and become lost.

At the end of each day at a virtual conference, just like you might at a live conference, take a break, review your notes, think about what you gained that day, what insights you might have and how you might use that information. Any kind of thought and reflection you put into what your experience has been is going to really take it that much further for you in attending this virtual conference.

Network during the Virtual Conference to Grow Your Community

Another idea is to network at the virtual conference. Now a lot of people like to go to these conferences to meet people, to make new professional connections, and also get to know people that are in the field that they’re studying.

You can network in whatever kind of social media chatter might be going on at the conference. For example, if there are certain conference hashtags happening on Twitter and you want to post and engage, you can see what others are posting and also get more takeaways that you might’ve missed.

There’s often, as I mentioned, the chat feature in many webinars or presentations, and if you’re engaged in that chat, you’re going to be able to get to know what others are thinking, share your thoughts, and even react in real time with additional questions, comments, and things of that nature.

If you find that you really connect with other participants, you might even decide to invite them on LinkedIn to your community to pursue additional professional connections after the conference. I’ve met a few people in various online education chat areas where we’re at a webinar together and we’re all talking about the same thing, or maybe I’m at a coaching conference and we’re meeting each other and we want to follow up on some ideas we shared.

That has really surprised me, personally, and I hope it would be a pleasant addition to your virtual conference experience. Engage in the networking opportunities and grow your network.

Schedule Time to Watch Virtual Conference Sessions You Missed in a Timely Manner

Another thing that you can do at a virtual conference is you can also watch the replays of different sessions that you missed. Most of these events actually record their sessions and they’ll share that recorded material, but it’s best to schedule time on your calendar when you plan to watch those recordings so that you don’t just set it aside and never get back to it. And then get back to it in a pretty decent timeframe.

If you attended that conference this week and you wait five months to watch the replay, it’s often out of sight, out of mind, and we’ve forgotten completely about it. So if you put it on your calendar next week or the week after and follow up on any sessions you still wanted to watch, this is going to help you keep all that learning together and understand your takeaways better, and also apply it in whatever area that you’d like.

Attend After-Conference Social Events or Activities for More Connections

Lastly, some of these virtual conferences have interesting additional things like concert nights or virtual trivia, a game night, or virtual happy hour. It might be in Zoom, Google Meet or some kind of breakout room.

It’s an interesting opportunity to engage in those additional things you might be part of at a real conference, and so I highly recommend finding out what those additional things are to help you feel like you’re really at an event and engage with other people and feel the impact on your professional growth and your social abilities as well.

Dress Professionally to Improve Your Experience

Many people recommend that while you’re attending a virtual conference, that you dress as if you were attending that conference live. When you put on your professional attire, it can add to your focus and give you a better sense that you are doing something significant. And it will also help when you’re on Zoom if you should end up in a chat with other people and be on video so that you feel confident and look professional, too.

Overall, the online virtual conference option is a new trend this year, and I’m personally very happy to see it because there are a few events we can attend during the pandemic. So opportunities to go to teaching conferences, professional conferences in my field of music education, and also coaching conferences, these have all been really great opportunities for me, personally. And I hope you’ll check out the options that are available to you in your field as well.

Again, these are great chances to be part of your professional community, to disconnect from the daily routine that you have, to network with others, and have a bigger vision of what’s going on in your field, as well as learning and growing. It’s what keeps the passion alive and helps us to stay interested in our day-to-day work. All the best to you in your online teaching this week and your exploration of virtual conferences.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

About the Speaker

Bethanie HansenDr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities at American Public University. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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