Listen, Network, and Implement Fresh Ideas: The Power of Conferences

Submitted by Tricia Seifert


Conferences are touted as a wonderful professional development opportunity. You go; you listen; you network with colleagues; you return with fresh ideas for your work. That’s the ideal scenario. I’m not typically a cynic but I have found my commitment to PD through the conference venue has waned in recent years. So with November being my month of conferences – I presented at three different events in the span of 20 days: a keynote address as part of the Ontario Academic Advising Professionals conference, with the Supporting Student Success research team at the University of Toronto’s Teaching & Learning Symposium, and at the Association for the Study of Higher Education’s (ASHE) conference —I resolved to focus on experiencing these conferences for their professional development opportunities. This is what I learned.

  • Listen like it’s the first time. I was sitting at ASHE in a dynamic session in which Sara Goldrick-Rab shared information about the challenges students face in accessing financial aid and maintaining their aid eligibility. She said something so interesting that if I wasn’t fully present and listening intently, I would have missed it completely. I’m paraphrasing but it was something like this: little research has examined the experiences of financial aid officers and yet they administer one of the largest programs funding postsecondary education. Then she likened this enormous research oversight to studying curriculum in schools without studying the teachers.

I was struck by how much we have heard from financial aid officers and other student affairs and services staff who are on the front line and support student success in meaningful ways every day. We’ve heard about staff pulling together enough money to help students get groceries, granting an emergency loan, or walking students through budgeting strategies so that they develop financial literacy. These staff are often the unsung heroes of our campuses.


  •  Networking with colleagues is powerful. I had a powerful networking moment this fall when I met someone whose work I have admired for a long time. I was so excited that I emailed her to see if we could meet for coffee at an upcoming conference. Not only did we meet but it was one of the most thought-provoking conversations I had at the conference. She has since sent me copies of course outlines to enrich my own learning and scholarship and we are planning on talking about an upcoming collaboration.

It’s equally exciting to be the “matchmaker.” At the OAAP conference, I was facilitating the morning conversation and in the spur of the moment, it seemed to make sense to ask the participants what issues or student demographics were of interest to them. In the span of minutes, I compiled a list of 20 topics that could be used to form “communities of practice.” I heard later those “communities” met that night for some social time and the intention is to create community listservs so OAAP members can continue to share with each other and network after the conference.

  •  Sow the seeds of fresh ideas. It’s one thing to hear something at a conference and to think about how you might incorporate that into your everyday practice. It’s a totally different thing to actually do it. Richard Wiggers, in the opening keynote at the U of T’s Teaching and Learning Symposium, shared that students are not always enamored by technology despite the media’s hype of the “net generation” and “digital natives.” In the Supporting Student Success research study, we also have found that technology is not a panacea; it is most successful when it supports student learning outcomes and eases workload and content delivery. (See Christine Arnold’s earlier blog post on Higher Goals for Learning.

I’m getting ready to jump into the world of using technology to create an online learning environment. I’m teaching a new service-learning course as part of OISE’s Higher Education graduate program using a blended learning approach (both online and face to face). Students will complete 30 hours in their service-learning placement site and will post a series of critical reflection essays online.  They will then dialogue with their classmates about their posts using the discussion function in Blackboard. This is a totally new learning environment for me and I want to construct it in a way that is clear about expectations for contributing and commenting to the learning community; eases anxiety around using the software; and supports student learning. I knew if I was to be successful in sowing these fresh ideas my use of technology would require great thought and intentionality. Like any new gardener, I sought counsel from a master gardener, the UofT’s director of online learning. After a one-hour consultation, I walked away with resources and ideas on how to structure the online learning environment.

Conferences can be a time to rejuvenate and re-connect with friends and colleagues. They can also be a time for professional renewal and development. I came away from my 20 days of conferencing inspired and motivated to innovate in the work I am doing.

I invite you to “leave a comment” and share a powerful insight you gained from a conference. In this era of financial constraint, learning from one another online might be the most cost effective PD opportunities available.

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