#BeyondConferences – a model for multi-school collaboration

I’ve had the privilege to attend four tech/learning conferences this school year: Learning2.0TechEx21CLHK, and most recently, #BeyondLaptops in Yokohama. They are reliably inspiring yet simultaneously frustrating. On one hand, it is always great to get together with likeminded people to share ideas, affirm our hard work, and get some answers. On the other hand, the Déjà vu gets old, and I feel guilty about the money my school spends to send me to another country just so I can have the same conversations I’ve been having for the last 10 years. In a way it’s a bit like a fan club that gets together to talk about their band. (Sure one might prefer Paul to John and some might think Revolver was better than The White Album, but everyone agrees that the Beatles were better than the Stones.)

That’s why so many of us were so excited about Kim Cofino‘s effort to bring people together who were ready to start making their own music. (And to stretch this metaphor to the breaking point before dropping it,) that’s how I envisioned #BeyondLaptops — as a songwriting workshop where musicians get down to the very difficult task of transferring their skills and passions into a recognizable form that the band can follow along to. It’s hard work and some wanted more. Sure, I had lofty goals that weren’t fully realized, but I think Kim was right (and the only one brave enough) to try to start somewhere.

#BeyondLaptops certainly helped to validate some of my medium-term goals, but more importantly, it reinforced my belief that conferences are not enough. They are just a quick introduction to a group of individuals — speed dating, if you like. It’s great to chat and swap a few stories, but now it’s time to choose whose phone numbers we want. Blogs and Twitter are a start, but we need something more substantial. We need a model that will help leaders meet somewhat regularly, not to simply discuss, but to create a tangible, actionable program to take back to their schools. Maybe something like this:

The idea is that traditional conferences are big and people’s goals varied. For those of us looking to do the difficult work of dramatically re-imagining an ICT program or writing curriculum, we need a much smaller group that can meet several times in the year. These people must come from schools with similar challenges and similar goals. Here’s the kinds of schools I would be looking for:

  • IB World Schools
  • Medium sized with existing 1:1 program and solid tech infrastructure across the school
  • An existing integration model that isn’t working as well as people would wish
  • Wide (if not deep) use of blogging or social media
  • Empowerment from administrators to make bold changes
  • A desire to synthesize an integration model (describing what an integrated classroom looks like) with a practical collaboration model (how coaches help teachers)
  • A desire to map major ICT initiatives to ATLs and TD Skills
  • BONUS: Bullish on iPads

I’m sure there are more, but if I could find a handful of other good people from schools like these, I’d gladly give up my tickets to traditional conferences in order to pursue closer collaboration.

Would this provide value to you #beyondconferences? Can schools find enough common ground to collaborate this closely? Is anyone already doing something like this?

Also published on Medium.

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  1. Scott McLeod says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Brady. I believe that this type of long-term collaboration across schools would be extremely beneficial to all involved. Interestingly (sadly?), at ASB Unplugged, when asked how they were doing with these types of cross-school global collaborations, international school leaders in my workshops said that they weren’t doing very well and rated themselves quite low. They recognized the irony, given how globally-minded their schools are.

    I also can say, as an ed tech-interested prof who gets asked to do a lot of one-off visits to school systems, that if there was interest, I (and others) would welcome being involved with this sort of long-term, thoughtful, strategic, goal- and outcome-oriented planning and implementation process that you describe here.

    Wishing you great success in making this happen.

  2. Jabiz Raisdana says:

    Hey Brady,

    I cannot stop thinking about this post. I love the idea of a task fore like group of schools who are looking to, “create a tangible, actionable program!”

    We need a blend of ideas people and Type A organizers, but I am pretty sure we can work this out. A blend of in-person meetings, coupled with online collaboration we could maybe create some useful resources, that will lead to substantial changes in the way we interact with tech in education.

    Let’s let it all soak in for a while, then start thinking about who will be involved and how we organize. Secret is not to let the excitement fizzle.

    We could have some things in place before summer and perhaps meet for the first time at Learning 2.0 in Beijing next October. Between Thailand, Singapore, China (HK)and Japan alone, we could gave a great group!

  3. Tim Wojcik says:

    Hi Brady,
    Yes, here we go — thanks for the push. And thanks to Jabiz for continuing the conversation. sounds like you have fleshed it out a bit more since last week, and I like your thinking. Very strong curricular connections are essential (love your notes about ATLs and TD skills), far more so than school size or the proverbial tools. Count NIS in. I brought this to Brian this morning, and we are on the same page. With that in mind, allow me to nitpick a bit:
    – On a practical level, it may make sense to use the frameworks already in place (as Jabiz suggests) for meeting in ‘person’. And perhaps we can do more, with greater regularity — if we are willing to work more offline as well.

    • Brady says:

      Thanks for the positive thoughts so far. This is a model I’ve been thinking about for a while, but the first time I ran it by someone was with Tim at #beyondlaptops. Tim and Jabiz both mention the idea of attaching this model to existing conferences. I had actually written a paragraph suggesting that, but deleted it because I worry that they are actually somewhat incompatible:

      A conference is about branching out and engaging with new people and new ideas. Strategic planning and curriculum writing is a much more focused process that can only be successful with thoughtful deliberation between a select few. Maybe people can bounce back and forth between both modes, but I fear the enthusiasm and social aspects of the conference could be distracting. Equally important to me is seeing the working environments of the people I am collaborating with and getting a feeling for the culture of the partner schools by engaging with the principals, curriculum coordinators, and teachers at that school. (This may also help those stakeholders to feel a stronger connection to the process – something I believe is sorely needed.)

      In the strategic planning model, we find that leaders often sequester themselves away from the the busyness of campus. I think this is in the recognition that, as Will said, we need to lock ourselves in a room and get some work done.

      If one or two of the partner schools happened to be in the same city as a conference, then maybe we could get the best of both by simply extending our stay in those cities for a few days. Certainly we’d love to have carte blanche for PD travel, but most of us have to work within a rather limiting PD framework, so that reality may influence the model. (All the more reason to get principals on board with the idea so it can be framed as “official school business” rather than PD.)

  4. Susan Sedro says:

    Brady, thanks for this post. The ideas keep bouncing around in my head. The model looks really powerful in that it is ongoing and strategic. I’m going to share this post with our Asst. Superintendent of Learning and our Ed Tech Director. We aren’t IB so we wouldn’t be in your cohort, but your model can help us form one with other schools.

  5. Jason Cone says:

    Hey Brady,

    Thanks for sharing this and getting this conversation started here. I like the idea and the model and as Susan mentioned we have also been looking for an effective, sustainable model to support school collaboration. I would also like to throw into the mix/discussion “school visits” and how your model or something similar might also address this and provide some structure to school visits.

    School visits, IMO, are a very powerful and effective/efficient means of PD and collaboration. School visits are mutually beneficial for the host and the guest but in different ways. Visitors get an in depth view of programs that are mature and successful, hosts engage in thoughtful reflection as they share the process that led to their success. They also allow for mini job alike experience depending on the team you bring. And as someone who has benefited a great deal from the multitude of schools I’ve visited and hosted, I like the idea of “giving back” in the spirit of learning and collaboration.

    This year, along with the conferences we attended, we visited 4 regional schools (SE Asia) that met some of the criteria on your list. In some ways, these visits allowed for the kind of intensive, focused discussion and collaboration that you’ve mentioned that is often difficult in the traditional conference model. After each visit all participants express the great value and we discussed how we could “capture” the knowledge and involve more people and provide some structure.

    The model I was thinking of is similar to your structure Brady where schools and dates are targeted and set at the beginning of the year. This makes it much easier to plan for everyone. But the focus of the visit would be on specific areas of the program that the host school has successfully implemented. Some examples: 21st Century Media Centers, Contemporary Learning Spaces, R and D, Program Evaluation, Design Thinking for Educators, Mobile Devices (ok iPads), and even 1 to 1, etc…

    For example in the fall session the host school would identify one area to “show case” as well as addressing the broader area of strategic planning. This would make the model more inclusive and support up and coming programs. It would also provide more focus to a school visit for both guest and hosts. Collaborative work could then be differentiated (like Kim did) based on where you were in your “program”. Classroom/Learning walkthroughs could be a part of this to engage host teachers and encourage them to share and reflect.

    I think to sell this idea, as you mentioned as official school business, the more people it would engage, involve, impact and benefit the greater value it would have. It also helps “spread the load”. So if a school “hosts” they know they also will have several opportunities to visit. Another advantage of this #beyondconference model is that it would free up space for faculty/admin from our schools to attend the conferences you mention who really are the ones who should be there, not all the techies.

    Could this also fit with your model? Without over complicating it or watering it down?

  6. Adrienne Michetti says:

    I’m totally up for it if we can agree in advance that there is no single model, no one-size-fits-all, and nothing that can be done in one school exactly the same as in another. In short, if this is a meeting of the minds, to share, collaborate, and bounce ideas off and start creating action plans, GREAT. Let’s hold each other accountable to those action plans, too.

    It sounds like there is a group here in Singapore who will be doing just that — and you are more than welcome to join us. I am excited about this regional development and looking forward to it. However, I’m particularly interested in what you’ve laid out here because it’s more specific to IB programmes, and that’s a framework in my current reality (and one I support). I love your bullet-pointed list. Great starting place.

    What I don’t want is to gather with a group of like-minded educators and start thinking we all need to start doing the same things in our school, or if because NIST/WAB/SAS did it, that must mean it’s the best way to do it. Y’know what I mean? I feel like the ed-tech conference world suffers from that far too much already and I’m frankly really tired of it. I want context-specific action. Enough talk already.

  7. Shamblesguru says:

    Always brilliant to see evaluation and questioning of accepted practices … in whatever field of teaching and learning .. how else would we move forward.

    Most of the conferences mentioned have set up websites [usually Nings] to try and encourage the events to become part of a programme … and so there is already a structure in place to allow this type of macro collaboration to take place. e.g. for #21CLHK there is http://ning.21clhk.org/

    From what I’ve experienced these conference Ning’s some alive with activity only days before the conference takes place and then die very quickly until resurrection the following year.

    I’ve always wondered why these community tools don’t have more traction? … suggestions appreciated.

    Other communities [self-help groups] also already exist in the region that could be built on to help achieve the ideas above … and in fact are already living that dream to some extent.

    ISTEC in Thailand : http://intschtech.ning.com/ http://lists.topica.com/lists/ISTEC

    Also the Tech Directors Ning designed for across all S.E.Asia http://techdirector.ning.com

    Is iSAN still alive in Japan? … and didn’t one start in China?

    .. and, of course, there are all the BIG Social Networks http://www.shambles.net/socialnetworks/

    So, what’s the point of this mini-rant :-) … I guess it’s to emphasis that it’s not necessary to reinvent a wheel that might already be running … it just needs some oil.

    Maybe the syndrome “We are too busy doing our jobs we don’t have time to collaborate” is partly the problem … what do you think?

    Hope you enjoy the Labour Day holiday …

  8. John Turner says:

    Good thinking and proposal.
    Having also been to several of the conferences that have been mentioned my thoughts are that to be successful there needs to be
    • clear, authentic purpose which acknowledges the range of pathways and messiness of the processes
    – As demonstrated by the iPad rates of change this is an ongoing, be it recursive process we are involved in
    – too often the purpose is too narrow and or unclear when considering the learning value of digital technologies
    • curriculum validity
    – should IB be actively involved if IB is part of the intended structure?
    • range of stakeholders
    – like you I suffer from deja vu-ness but have always valued taking the community along and valuing diversity of opinion.
    • stimulus thinking if it is aligned to authentic reflections and action.
    Appreciate the thoughts and responses engendered. Well done.

  9. James MacDonald says:

    Hi Brady,

    Great post! I know I am more than a little bit slow to be adding a comment, but I was just waiting for the Xmas break to kick in!

    I really like your suggestion for moving to more of the ‘beyond’ approach for professional learning. I work with Kim here in Yokohama, and there are few other factors we took into account when thinking through the beyondlaptops. First we knew that 1-to-1 was possibly one of the most complex undertakings for a school. There are so many stakeholders (everyone!) and the different stakeholders come at from their own positions and priorities. (And it would have taken forever to send people out to other schools and learn from there examples.) Plus we knew that no one out there had actually figured it all out and our approach would have to be tailored to our specific context. As such, I think two conditions for this approach working really well is the complexity of the problem and an understanding that the solution will have to be a locally developed one. (In fact, in such cases I don’t know if have another other model for professional learning besides job experience.)

    The second bit is that we need to attract the right people to a beyond session who are grappling with issues from a similar level. People must also gel well together so it has to remain social and fun.

    I really like your ideas about conference titles of:
    A desire to synthesize an integration model (describing what an integrated classroom looks like) with a practical collaboration model (how coaches help teachers)
    A desire to map major ICT initiatives to ATLs and TD Skills

    These would be rich conversations. One thing I am onto now is ‘what is creativity’ and how do we make it happen in school in a more systematic way. People like Ken Robinson say we need more of it but there is not enough conversations about how this can be fostered in all subjects and learning environments.

    And one more thing – I think we need to think of PD for teachers as an ecosystem thing. Different options for all and I reckon the beyond model could/should well become a cornerstone in schools where you have excellent teachers already. The traditional model of workshops doesn’t work that well – and we all know it – but we continue…as you say, we just need to be brave enough to challenge this thinking and do something different. Exciting days!

    Anyway great post and keep preaching it. Hope to see you in Yokohama after the Xmas break!