Saturday, May 29, 2010

Synergy and Serendipity

"Synergy and serendipity often play a big part in medical and scientific advances." -Julie Bishop

Throughout the year, education professionals have a seemingly endless number of national (and international) conferences from which to choose. Attendance at the majority of these gatherings involves a significant amount of money for transportation, meals, accommodations, and registration fees - often covered out-of-pocket by attendees.

As I work on organizing my own trip to Washington, DC for the ALA convention, I've been considering what I expect to gain from this experience, and what I've learned from other conferences.

Sessions and Workshops

Aside from keynote speakers, I tend to skip most of these offerings, unless they're being given by a member of my PLN. It's difficult for me to focus on content with the distractions offered by crowded rooms and the steady buzz of surreptitious conversations. Better that I access archived presentations from the quiet of my home.

Why attend at all, then?

Uncommons Areas

For me the highlight of a conference experience is the Networking Uncommons or Bloggers' Cafe. Here I can meet up with online friends, make new connections, get ideas, informally mentor newcomers. Usually there are some impromptu slideshows shared by volunteers. Conversations are extended, new concepts are explored, partnerships in learning are forged. The energy and excitement are palpable.

Uncommon Conferences

EduCon, held each January in Philadelphia, most closely matches my conference ideal. In this much smaller gathering, the line between presenters and audience is blurred, and discussions that begin in a classroom continue in the library, during meals, and, eventually, online. The entire conference is an Uncommon of sorts, and valued as such.

ISTE has a popular Bloggers' Cafe, and my headquarters at ALA DC will be the Unconference.

But there are other options that are even less traditional in structure.

BarCamps, user-generated participatory events, have been around since 2005. Recently, a variation of the BarCamp, Edcamp, was held in Philadelphia, with similar loosely-structured themed gatherings planned in other cities. The K-12 Online Conference is free, open to everyone, and archived. Participants can access its resources any time and from any place.

Will National Conferences Survive?

With school and library funding slashed in so many areas, it would seem there should be a parallel reduction in the size and cost of the traditional convention model...yet that does not appear to be happening.

It has always amazed me that these events are able to pick and choose their workshop presenters, that people actually compete to pay money for the privilege of sharing their professional expertise. Without this "free labor," the conference business would grind to a halt, but no one seems to question the practice.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: NONE of these conferences, from the hippest BarCamp to the tradition-bound ALA National convention, would attract attendees without the synergy of collaborating participants and the serendipity of the creative process they fuel.

It's the hope of being a part of something meaningful that draws us to these assemblies. Without the connections, the conversations, the collaborations, a convention is just a very expensive party.

"Not only must we be good, but we must also be good for something." -Henry David Thoreau

"London -Synergy Project- Light Splash 2" by Still Thinking


samccoy said...

Synchronicity is what Karl Jung called it. It's a very powerful concept of mind, psyche, and learning. Thanks.

diane said...

Thank YOU for the added information.

Alice in Infoland said...

FWIW, I think that your reasons for skipping sessions and workshops at ALA to spend most of your time in/at the Unconference will severely limit the value of attending the conference in person:
-- If you only chose to attend programs by members of your PLN, you are pre-filtering any new ideas you might gain from new/unknown speakers, since you've probably already heard what your PLN has to say. One of the real serendipities of going to conference is meeting new people and having new discussions as you learn about different viewpoints not previously encountered. Yes, the rooms are crowded and the conversations can get clamorous, but that's why everyone (else) is there -- to learn.
-- Not every presentation is or will be archived, and not every Slideshare is really comprehensible without the speaker's actual narrative, including the spontaneous comments that are often never recorded but make the best points. Example: at AASL many attendees skipped the closing presentation by Marco Torres, thinking that they could just view it later on the AASL website. But Torres never gave permission for an archived videotape, so if you didn't see it as it happened, you missed a very exciting experience.

I've been going to national and local conferences of all sizes for over 40 years, as an attendee, presenter, and even organizer. At every conference I learn something new... usually through an encounter with someone I did NOT know before. That's really why I justify the costs of going. I know that I need to leave the echo-chamber of an online community and archived presentations to achieve real synergy and serendipity in my professional learning.

diane said...


Your point is well taken - but I hoard my time now, and I can't afford to "squander" it on workshops that may or may not be valuable to me personally.

I read a wide variety of blogs and check out links I see mentioned on Twitter & Plurk.

But when I have the chance to connect in real life and real time with members of my PLN, I grab it with both hands.

diane said...

And if I happen to make some new friends along the way, all the better!