#AusELT chat summary: Conference Swapshop (9/10/14)

October’s Twitter chat got off to a bit of a shaky start as several people (who shall remain nameless) managed to forget that the clocks had gone back in Sydney . . . Anyway, sausages were burnt, direct messages were flying, but disaster was averted and we ended up with a small but productive discussion of everyone’s conference experiences. There was a particular focus on the recent English Australia (#EAConf14) and ACTA (#ACTA2014) conferences (click to see details and programs), but also – inevitably – some reflections of the nature and future of teaching conferences in general. The chat was moderated by Lesley Cioccarelli (@cioccas) – surely one of the most highly experienced conference goers & presenters in our community – and turned up MANY useful links and directions to pursue. You can read the full transcript here but this post aims to capture the most useful areas in more coherent form, with links, for your delight and delectation. So – enjoy!

There were three main areas that seemed to come up again and again:

  • Learning technologies
  • Pronunciation
  • Connecting teachers

And of course, there were also some other stand-out sessions that chatters had seen or participated in. So let’s take a look at these first.

Learning technologies

Learning technologies lecturer, author and go-to guy, Mark Pegrum (@OzMark17), recently wrote a blog post about the tech-related sessions he saw and participated in (as a plenary speaker and panellist) at the 2014 English Australia Conference 2014. It’s a detailed and thought-provoking overview, and his perspective is particularly interesting as he looks at the different layers at work, from practical sessions for the individual teacher, to observing how teachers are engaging in and using technology themselves, to how the drive for technology is having an impact at a global level. As he says at the end of his blog post:

Of course, not every presentation was about technology, but technology has become an increasingly present theme, mixed in – as it should be – with broader pedagogical, cultural and sociopolitical themes.

Mark’s plenary was entitled Walking and talking around the world: A snapshot of international mobile English learning, and you can see his conference slides here. Also look out for an interview with Mark in the April 2015 issue of the English Australia Journal.

Paul Forster (@forstersensei)’s #EAConf14 session on Engaging digital language learners had ‘rave reviews’ according to various sources, among them Nicki Blake (@Penultimate_K) who found it: “User-friendly and hands-on. Easy for those getting started in edtech to understand.” When @forstersensei was asked why he thought it had been so popular and he simply said: “I think there is still a lot of interest in technology and teachers are looking for ideas and training.” You can see the companion website Paul made here – if you couldn’t see his session yourself, this extremely clear, practical website will allow you to benefit just the same.

Michael Griffiths (@trylingual) is another #AusELT stalwart who presented on tech, this time on his research regarding Online PD: Current attitudes and behaviours of ELICOS teachers. Unfortunately he had to miss this chat, but his session was live-tweeted and there were definitely some interesting findings – not to mention some very nice feedback on #AusELT’s usefulness as a professional community of practice. You can see Michael’s presentation slides here.

Another #AusELTer, Lindsay Rattray (@ClassWired), also spoke at #EAConf14, along with colleagues Lachlan McKinnon, & Thom Roker on the topic of Digital literacies for teachers and students: A toolbox of practical ideas (click their names to see their pecha kucha slides).

Pronunciation

At #ACTA14, Arizio Sweeting (@ariziosweeting) addressed The paradoxical predicament of pronunciation: What is being done about it? and Shem MacDonald spoke on Exploring EAL pronunciation through who we are, and what we say. @cioccas was able to attend these, and spoke very highly of them: “standing room only at the 2 I want to . . . I’m guessing it shows teachers want more on how to teach pron.”

As further evidence of teachers’ increasing interest in pron, Lesley highlighted the popularity of the AALL Pron symposiums in Canberra (the next one will be on Friday 5th Dec 2014 – see details here) and mentioned that at the the pre-conference workshops at the 2013 ACTA Conference had been exclusively dedicated to pronunciation.

@ariziosweeting was particularly interested in this changing attitude to pronunciation amongst language teachers: “Aus is making good steps to promote it [pron] more . . . my forthcoming article on SpeakOut calls it the Sleeping Beauty to acknowledge the perceived change.” Arizio will be at the Dec 2014 AALL Pron symposium along with fellow #AusELTer and pron researcher Mike Burri (@michaelburri). Keynote speakers will be Graeme Couper and Michael Carey. As it happens, Arizio also has a popular blog on pron (Pron Central) and he will also be co-running an EVO session with Piers Messum and Rosalyn Young on Teaching pronunciation differently in early 2015.

Connecting teachers

@cioccas and @andrea_rivett presented a workshop together on PLNs at #ACTA2014 – as they met on Twitter this is surely a testament in itself to the power of the online PLN! By all accounts their session was very popular, so well attended that chairs had to be brought in from other rooms. Feedback was also very positive, with @cioccas noting that some participants “even said they finally ‘got Twitter’”

@sophiakhan4 asked “What did the audience respond to most?” and @cioccas said: “Probably our passion! And the tweeting with Post-it notes on the wall ☺ ”. This pen-and-paper version of Twitter was a great idea and can also be used as an excellent classroom activity!

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Thanks also to Lesley and Andrea also for spreading the word on #AusELT ☺

Other stand-out sessions

  • BzfzMqRCUAAWsmMNicki Blake (@Penultimate_K) took part in the GrEAt Debate at #EAConf14 along with Adrian Underhill and Chris Evason, opposing Pamela Humphreys, Mauricio Pucci and Phiona Stanley. Nicki described it as “a tongue-in-cheek look at the proposition that ‘quality is better than quantity’ . . . it was like your classic debate mixed up with some good old-fashioned lampooning.” When asked, “How do you prepare for that?”, she said: “‘You trawl the opposition’s websites looking for ‘dirt’ ;)”
  • Speaking of Phiona Stanley, @cioccas strongly recommended her session on Native speakers, intelligibility, and culture crossing: How native English speakers learn language grading on Cambridge CELTA at ACTA2014. Phiona also presented at #EAConf14 on Beyond ‘food and festivals’: How to teach critical interculturality in language teaching, which was also the keynote at the UECA PDfest 2014 in Sydney, so several chatters had seen it and all agreed it was excellent. Phiona also had a very interesting article in a recent issue of the English Australia Journal on Lessons from China: Understanding what Chinese students want.
  • Adrian Underhill’s pre-/post-conf English Australia workshops on Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD also had a big impact on many attendees – so much so that we will be dedicating a few blog posts to it in the coming weeks. In the meantime you can check out his slides here.

In the latter half of the chat, we got into some more general ponderings on the state of conferences today and what we might be looking for in the future. Below you’ll find some of the issues we touched on and what was said.

Research or practical ‘take aways’?

@forstersensei said: “For me #EAConf14 was lacking that practical focus that teachers want. Research is great, but teachers (in particular) want something to ‘take away’”. @Penultimate_K agreed: “There has to be some “take home” value – that’s why your companion wix was so much appreciated” @cioccas agreed: “Same for #ACTA2014. Need a balance. CAMTesol is the best I’ve been to in that regard, but CLESOL too” (in fact several chaters seconded CLESOL as a conference that strikes a good balance between professional, academic and other strands). Chatters generally agreed that balance was the key – we need both research-based and practical sessions, but may conferences seem to weigh overly heavily on the academic side.

@sophiakhan4 thought this was interesting and suggested it may even be “an effect of reaching a ‘conf presenter’ level – forgetting about the nitty gritty.” She also asked if the seeming lack of practical sessions for teachers might be because “some confs are beyond the reach of ‘ordinary’ teachers? . . . so in that case doesn’t it make sense that the content caters to [those that attend]?”

@Penultimate_K thought this might be true, adding “ordinary teachers aren’t likely to be delegates – mostly management and researchers . . . Melb/Vic teachers [were attending #EAConf14] on group tix but mostly management/sales from interstate.” However, this surprised @cioccas, who said there were “lots of ordinary teachers at ACTA, ands most wanted more practical sessions”

Many chatters mentioned UECA PDFest and similar “teacher-centred” events as being important in bridging this gap.

Why are Aus/NZ confereces so expensive?

One of the key reasons “ordinary” teachers may not be attending conferences is because they can’t afford to go, as suggested by several chatters. @forstersensei commented on “the increasing cost” of attending conferences and @sophiakhan pointed out that IATEFL for instance is much more realistic financially. @cioccas had actually done the research: “I did a survey of the costs for ELT confs and EA & ACTA topped the list.”

@Penultimate_K added that therefore “if a company is going to budget for a conference, they are more likely to send s/one senior” @sophiakhan4: “Right. But they could send a HEAP of teachers to PDFest for the same $. Worth thinking about.”

@sophiakhan4 also suggested that “some of the $ of Oz confs is due to shipping in big name speakers – a needless expense?” @cioccas thought that “maybe just one big name would suffice each year” and chatters agreed, but both @sophiakhan4 and @ariziosweeting were in favour of seeing more “grassroots” presenters.

Are organisers/attendees making good use of social media yet? 

@Penultimate_K noted that at #EAConf14 social media was used “but mostly in the marketing stream not in the teaching stream”. @sophiakhan4 who had been following on Twitter said it was “a dramatic improvement from 2012! But tweeters were generally (not always) the usual suspects.” At #ACTA2014 @cioccas observed that “organisers used it for announcements but most people didn’t notice ☹ ”

@Penultimate_K commented that “use of ‪#socmed‬‬ channels to provide parallel info streams would go a long way to increase access” although @cioccas wondered “if Australian ELTs are up there with the ‪#socmed‬‬ yet though?” and @sophiakhan thought that that “tipping point” hadn’t arrived yet.

@Penultimate_K acknowledged this: “still being told to turn off mobiles & given hard stares when live-tweeting . . . Waiting for Aus conferences to embrace casting/video, extensive hashtag use, etc . . . conferences need to acknowledge that social sharing is a thing now. Not just acknowledge but cater for . . . “ @sophiakhan4 agreed, predicting that “ it will all be taken for granted 10 years on”, but also suggesting that right NOW, “if only 1-10% of the audience ALSO appreciates [social sharing] – [efforts to promote it] will fall fairly flat.”

@Penultimate_K agreed, and suggested that perhaps a social media approach “may be better for events like pD fests/UECA” because “people more likely to share practical ideas over ‪#SOCMED‬‬ than theory.” @sophiakhan4 wasn’t convinced of this, arguing that whether a session was practical or theory-based, “maybe both are too hard to get into a twitter soundbite” @Penultimate_K countered this by suggesting that ideas “could be shared in PLNs using other channels” to which @sophiakhan4 said “Yes but who writes a blog post? Who takes their own time to write a Facebook post about a PD session? Few people.” @Penultimate_K said “Few, yes. But we are here, sharing away. Now need modern-minded conf organisers to tap into this.”

Are conferences a dying paradigm?

Let’s give @cioccas the last word: “I hope not. I love the dynamics, the informal networking, serendipitous discoveries.”

This post by @sophiakhan4

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

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