The thing with interactive conference sessions
I’ve gone to a good number of conferences, both online and offline over the past decade or so. You likely have too. Many of us often blog about our experiences soon after the conference is over. I’ve read about many of your experiences quite recently even. As someone who organises offline conferences, I’m often curious as to the types of sessions that people like and don’t, and why. It’s not something I’ve seen blogged much about. So at the risk of being shunned by my entire PLN (sidenote: I’ve watched more episodes of Breaking Amish than I care to admit), I’ll tell you mine.
At most language teaching conferences (where teachers are the main audience, as opposed to administrators or academics), there’s an expectation on the presenter to be less “present-y”, in other words, not boring. This expectation leads to a wide variety of attempts to be ‘not boring’ through participant involvement. Some work. Some don’t. I have to admit though, that unless I’m going to support a friend or it’s the only EAP-related session I have to choose from, I almost always avoid any session with descriptors like “interactive”, “peer-led”, “group…work” or any indication that I’ll be expected to get up and move around. But why? Aren’t I, as a teacher, supposed to love interaction?
Participant-driven sessions don’t always work out as they are pitched to. This is when you get to the session on the topic you’re interested in, you are faced with the leaders telling you to group around different tables based on a common interest of a subtopic. Instead of them leading the session, it’s about you and your peers driving discussion on the subtopic for an allotted amount of time. Sometimes there’s a leader at the table; sometimes it’s simply attendees. If you find the topic isn’t so great, you’re expected to get up and move to a different table (cultural baggage can often preempt this from actualising). After a prescribed amount of time, everyone gets up and tries a new table or the session ends. Sounds great, but in my experience, it breaks down.
You never know who is going to join the table you go to. They could be true peers with a similar level of knowledge or people quite inexperienced who join for interest’s sake, just to get information. The depth and quality of discussion is greatly affected. If everyone does share similar experience, the first bit tends to be spent comparing your teaching situations (e.g. logistics of the program, types of courses, student body, etc). This is necessary discussion, but doing this over and over gets tedious. Beyond this chit-chat, there can be too many cooks at the group, keeping discussion rather surface-level. Four seems to be the max for quality. Otherwise, meatier discussion can be had over beer in a pub with a colleague. In both situations, the discussion can feel largely like a interview with people you hardly know.I rarely come away with anything new or any particular take-away to share.
Interaction for interaction’s sake isn’t necessary. When I sit down in a session and the presenter exclaims that everyone is going to work together on activities after hearing about the topic, I cringe just a little as I’m taken back to school projects gone horribly wrong due to an imbalance of prior knowledge or effort invested. Maybe I mistakenly go to sessions where I think attendees will be well versed in the topic, but they aren’t. Maybe I want to hear more about what the presenter thinks, rather than the attendees, considering they’ve been brave enough to lead a session on this topic. Maybe it’s because I’m on committees at school and TESL organisations, or work in a team environment in the course I teach already, where I fill my collaboration quota. Probably a combination of these three.
The participation and experiential learning I do like at a session is individual. I find value in the Q&A with the presenter as questions the audience has while listening to the presentation can be best answered by the leader, not the participants. I love the experiential learning I can do at my own pace and at my own skill level with the tech tools I chose to bring to the session, not slowing down for those that didn’t. This is one reason I love webinars and online conferences: their type of interaction allows you to chat with other participants if the discussion is engaging, participate if you find it useful or multitask without being rude.
Listening to a talk isn’t always passive or ignoring the brilliance of the audience. One downside often heard of presentation-style talks is that the attendees just sit passively listening to the presenter speak. That’s not my case. I like plenaries because I listen to someone I want to hear speak for an hour without much interruption. I like the opportunity to both be a little entertained, but also engaged in the topic that they are the expert about. I like the fact that while I listen to them, questions about some things they say swirl in my head; ideas pop up about how the information they give is relevant to me; I can look something up online that I don’t know or has inspired me, or take notes. All these things I can do in a plenary (or a presentation-style session) without the constant interruption of group work.
So what’s my point? It’s not that interaction is bad. It’s not that all sessions like those above I’ve been to at every conference irritated me. There can be a very valuable and purposeful reason to interaction and great takeaways. However, giving some thought on why you do it, how it’s best executed and whether it’s worth it given your topic is necessary to consider. I’d rather everyone not feel interaction is key because it’s the current thing to be -not boring-.
Otherwise, as I said at the beginning of what hopefully does not border on sounding like a rant (don’t worry–I’m typing this without the least bit of rising blood pressure), the conference organiser in me would like to know what types of sessions you really do prefer to go to.
Please take a moment to rank your favourite (1) to least favourite (6) type of session.