After my recent post detailing how I "crashed" a conference, I figured I'd put my energy to work rethinking how we can frame the conference experience.
I'll say at the start here that I don't think my ideas are the only way to go. I believe we need a more diverse ecosystem of opportunities for folks to learn from and connect with each other. We've duplicated one model across the landscape of higher ed, and while there are some organizations making good progress, I think we need more of a shift across the board to create better outcomes for everyone involved.
So here is what's on my mind when it comes to rethinking the modern higher ed conference experience:
The biggest thing that needs to change in my opinion is that many people simply cannot even get in the front door. These events are too expensive and prevent many people from going because the cost. And the value given for that money is not good. Something needs to give there, some of which can be controlled by the national organizations (sponsorships, scholarships, reduce overhead) and others can't (more professional development funding for employees). Otherwise, there can be a combination of the other ideas I have.
Another helpful guidance for national conferences would be to focus. In true student affairs fashion, there is a tendency to accommodate a lot of different presenters. While everyone deserves a platform to speak about what they want, it doesn't do anyone any favors overloading the schedule. Not enough attendees will be able to realistically go to each session and you put speakers in a frustrating position of feeling like their time is being wasted. If you don't have to build out a massive multi day schedule, you could help save on costs for these conferences. Also, there could be benefit in doing more focused, smaller, local events on a more frequent basis. Which brings me to my next point...
The final idea here is something I've thought about often. There doesn't exist a coordinated network of local meetup groups for higher ed. Many organizations have local networking groups that help with more focused, frequent professional development. I've lived in a few different states now and have not seen any state branch or regional chapter have any consistent solution here. There have been annual local conferences but that's about it. These can be low cost, held all over the area they cover, as well as far more adaptive to the needs of the community.
These are general ideas I have on this topic, and I think combining them in a thoughtful manner can have very positive outcomes for our field. We need to breakup with the idea that the only way to do professional development on at scale as a field is with annual conferences (and don't even get me started on overpriced webinars). I'm hoping we can take a step back and rethink this outdated model so that we can all reach higher levels of success.