Are conferences places where we repeat ourselves?
Leafing though these booklets I noticed something that hasn't been as evident to me in the past: It's the same people that are in the presentation spotlights this year as have been in the past two, five, or more years! Now, the truth is that I had noticed in previous years, but this year some conferences have moved to a new location (which isn't local), and it was a bit odd to have certain locals highlighted as presenters when the new venue is a 16 hour drive (or 3 hour flight). Thinking back at other conferences too - both ones that appeal to academia, and the private industry of learning design - I've noticed that year after year the list of "A-list" presenters and session leaders tends to be the same.
This made me wonder about my own recent distaste (or perhaps burnout is a better word) with EdTech (and related) conferences. When I started attending these types of conferences (with any regularity, and always only local) about 8 or so years ago they were amazing... well, at least amazing to me. New ideas, new products (yes, I love gizmos), ability to talk to people who were implementing and getting data from things I had considered doing myself. Generally I really liked the freshness and the new ideas vibe. Then I noticed that while presentations were incrementally new, the people never really changed a whole lot. Don't get me wrong, there are people that I'd like to see again and see what they are working on now, but the "point release"-ness of presentations and topics has made me not care as much about what people present at conferences any more. I tend to get more intellectual stimulation off virtually connecting sessions than attending conferences in person. Yes, virtually connecting does piggyback off conferences frequently, but I find it much more potent. Perhaps because I know I can sign up for one session, attend, discuss, think, and get back to other parts of life rather than feel like the ROI of time-spent/learning isn't working out in my favor.
As I was pondering this, Joshua Kim and Kristen Eshleman posted on EdSurge with their Five reasons [they] will avoid EdTech conferences. It's interesting that they (too!) also bring up things like vConnecting. Out of the things that Kristen and Joshua mention the two immediate things that jump off at me and are echoed in my sentiments about EdTech conferences are the ROI and getting over the hype. Even if I still like talking to vendors (take note that I don't like your emails most times!), there have been fewer and fewer new products in the marker. Even presenters are (in some aspects) hawking their wares. In their case it might not be a product, but it might be mindshare for themselves and/or their institutions. This leads me to ROI, both for the intangibles (my time and energy), and the tangibles (money to get there, and for conference registrations). I don't think the product is worth the investment any longer.
That said, I think Kristen and Joshua make a point that doesn't immediately pop-up from my own 'me-centric' view - where are the faculty and students? Perhaps faculty can have their attendance paid for by institutions, but students are effectively priced out. Those are the people who I'd most like to interact with after we all get to speak to vendors, or listen to presentations from peers at other institutions, because then we can have meaningful discussions about what we can do at our institution, and what sort of interesting pedagogical things we can do with other institutions. Most of the people that attend these conferences are techies (like me), and while I can see applicability for the classes that I teach, I am also part of a larger department with colleagues who don't get to see what I see.
In the end, I am wondering: what's next? If we aren't doing conferences (because we are bored, uninterested, and/or priced out), how do we work on our professional development in meanginful ways this summer?