The double-edged sword of online PD

I even miss the gift bags and lanyards.

Ah, professional development. I love it so very much. Ever since I attended my first conference when I was in college, I knew that the experience of being surrounded by other people who loved to nerd out about pedagogy was going to keep me going. I don’t regret a single conference I’ve attended (even the ones that cost rather a lot to attend). I love going to the sessions, I love introducing myself to the presenters, I love taking notes until my hand cramps, I love live-tweeting and turnkey-ing information to others, I love reflecting on it afterwards, I love striking up conversation with the person sitting next to me and then seeing them again at another conference and getting lunch together and finding a friend for life.

There’s just SO MUCH WONDERFUL, y’all.

For the last year, there have been no in-person conferences. I was lucky enough to present at the Central States Conference of Foreign Languages last March. You remember last March? When the world shut down? Yeah, I was in Minneapolis because I didn’t really understand what was going on. The conference was canceled halfway through, but the sessions I was lucky enough to catch were amazing.

That was my last in-person PD opportunity. Everything since has been virtual. Eye strain from hours on Zoom, technical difficulties resulting in half of a presentation, and feeling a strange isolation and nostalgia.

I’ve been thinking recently about what I would prefer once we “go back to normal”, whatever that means. Don’t get me wrong, I’m itching for the next in-person conference that I can safely attend, but there are significant benefits to virtual PD.

  1. It increases accessibility. I’ve attended more free PD this year than ever before. Webinars are cheap and easy to replicate for a larger audience. I’ve listened to speakers from all over the world from my dining room, and it didn’t cost me anything.
  2. It increases ACCESSIBILITY. As an able-bodied woman, I don’t often consider the difficulties of attending a conference for someone with a disability or lifestyle difference. My friend who is vegan comes home from conferences starving because she’s survived off of fruit salad and black coffee. Someone in a wheelchair faces additional complications taking public transit to a hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Someone with a chronic illness may not have the spoons to attend a three-day conference. (Check out spoon theory here if you’re wondering what I’m talking about.) Many of these conferences are large, full of world-class presenters, and not normally available online. So many more people can attend this year because of the virtual platform.
  3. Recorded sessions are friendly for everyone. Dog needs a walk? Kid won’t take a nap? Car broke down and you won’t make it home? Your session will probably be recorded for you to watch at your leisure.
  4. Recorded sessions can have subtitles added for Deaf or Hard of Hearing viewers; they can also be watched multiple times for maximum retention. (If you’ve ever attended a lecture with an auditory processing disorder, you know how helpful this can be.) Neurodiverse folks can adjust volume and input to best suit their needs.
  5. The listener determines their experience. No more rows of chairs in a too-hot/cold hotel conference room with flourescent lights and a bathroom line a mile long. Fuzzy slippers, a couch, a pet, a cup of tea, frequent breaks–the world is your oyster when you attend a conference virtually.
  6. Conferences can be expensive. Transportation, hotels, meals, conference registration–it all adds up fast. If a conference wasn’t free this year, it was probably significantly cheaper to attend.

I hope that conferences consider adding a virtual component to their offerings–even if some sessions are livestreamed, or some events are webinars, it could make a huge difference to the folks who have been *relieved* that they didn’t have to choose between PD and their well-being this year.

Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait for my next in-person conference. There are experiences that can’t be replicated online. But I hope that professional organizations consider that this year wasn’t a complete wash or compromise, and begin to experiment with offerings that will allow the wisdom of their presenters to reach a wider audience.

What have your experiences been with virtual PD? Comment below or let me know on social media!

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