1. Follow topics not friends: If you are attending with a colleague from the same department or even school as you, divide and conquer. While learning is social and attending sessions with your BFF can make for a good experience, it might not be the most meaningful or efficient one from a learning perspective. If you have a common goal, think of attending as an opportunity to gather resources, after which you can compile later.
2. Follow the Event Hashtag: Often the best things you walk away with are the little tricks, tips, videos, quotes, ect which spark further exploration and insights. These can also be found on the digital platform of many conferences, Twitter. It’s amazing what 140 characters can provide. While you may only be able to attend 7 of the possible 100+ sessions offered any given conference, you can still learn from many of them. Take the time during down time or after the event to peruse the conference hashtag for hidden gems shared by attendees from other sessions. These can easily be compiled by liking or retweeting them on twitter, or by creating a Storify feed. This is also the first place most conferences post updates, so if you want to avoid showing up to an empty room, follow the hashtag.
3. Have a plan of attack: There is nothing worse than arriving to a conference and deciding on the spot where to go, arriving at your session to a full house, having to find another, only to find that one is full as well. Preview the schedule prior to arrival, arrive early, and have a second or even third option for each timeslot. I promise it is time well spent and will help alleviate anxiety on the day of the event, as well as help you focus on learning.
4. Vote with your feet: This is a common approach to Unconferences but needs to be adopted by all Edu Conference. If at anytime you are not actively learning during a session, get up and leave; vote with your feet. During Unconferences this is not offensive as all participant and presenters understand we all have different areas of interest, needs, and are all there to learn. Move to where the learning is happening, FOR YOU.
5. Build the fire: Often we attend conferences to light a fire, pack our schedules while there trying to fit in as much as possible, then return back to our lives as educators where we rarely have the time to feed that fire. Great inspiration, insights, and learning that took place have to wait for the next break to be developed. By this time, the landscape may have changed and you have forgotten application opportunities. Take a break during the conference to develop what you have learned. This is not skipping class or wasting your school's money; it is making the most of the moment. Don’t let great insights slip away. It’s better to come away with 1-2 great ideas or concepts that can change tomorrow, than an overload of information that has to wait. Launch early at the event.
6. Seek your Discomfort zone: Try attending a session or two that are out of your area of expertise. A couple of years ago I attended an IT strand at the massive EduTech Conference, and during sessions I felt as though they were speaking a different language. Throughout the event I was googling, asking simple questions, and felt lost the whole way through, but I learned. I threw myself in the deep end and may not have learned to swim in the IT world, but I at least I learned to tread.
7. Make a friend: We are social creatures, but often as educators we don’t get to make connections with others outside of our departments or divisions. Networking is common in business, and often critical to continued success and employment, but in education we retreat to our classrooms of isolation. Make a friend and open the door to collaboration. In 2016 it is possible to connect, as our friend Jeff Utecht promotes “across space and time”, so make a friend and start connecting.
8. Attend in Analog: There is nothing less engaging an audience behind laptop screens. Often, in the same day, I will run sessions that are techy with most people behind screens, then transition to facilitating a Design Thinking workshop where no laptops are present and attendees are up moving and thinking on their feet. Which sessions do you think people learn more from? Most conferences provide presenter’s resources on their website, or presenters share afterwards, so you don’t have to scramble to record or find everything being discussed. Attend with a simple notepad and pen and truly be present during the sessions. Even techy sessions are going to go at breakneck speed and you are going to feel that you are drinking from a firehose, so listen attentively, and jot down insights to follow up on later on your laptop.
9. Hack Monday: In each session, approach with the mindset of “Hacking Monday”. Ask yourself how can I apply this to something that can make meaningful gains in learning on Monday. Launch early, start small, and iterate throughout. Too often we wait to make a change until the conditions are perfect, or until we have more time, and that time never comes.