do conferences still count as professional development?

Late last night, Joe Ginese dropped a bit of a bomb.  He tweeted out a new blog post entitled All About Development.  You should read it if you haven’t yet.  Joe centres his thoughts around one main idea: “We do conferences wrong and have been for years.”

If you’ve attended a large national conference, or even a smaller regional conference, I am sure that you can relate to some of the concerns that Joe raises.  I know I can.  I’ve attended disappointing sessions (session content did not live up to its description), felt disconnected with vendors (mainly because many of them don’t ship to, or service, Canada), and recycled ideas (although, I don’t think this is a bad thing – more about that below).  I agree with Joe, that the connections and conversations with others are often more valuable than the sessions.  However, I don’t think that they need to be mutually exclusive.  Let me unpack this a little more.

When I attend a conference session, I try to find something to connect to, even if the content is light years away from the program description.  Attending national conferences in the US, I usually have to “translate” the information to Canadian (FERPA = FIPPA, 401K  = RRSP, college = university & community college = college, etc.)  so I tend to always be thinking about the content.  Luckily for me, this can often provide a starting point to converse with the presenter(s) after the session.   Even if the terminology translates beautifully, there always seems to be something I can connect with, and talk about with the presenter(s) afterwards.  This had led to some fantastic conversations and connections that have transcended the confines of the conference schedule.

If I feel that a certain idea or program would really benefit the staff and students on my own campus, I make a point to talk to the presenter(s) in more detail.  It’s usually impossible for someone to reveal everything about their program/initiative during a conference session, so finding a time to follow-up (either during or after the conference) is a great idea.   Most, if not all, presenters are more than willing to chat further with you about their topic, otherwise, why would they have presented it in the first place?  So, instead of just taking the information and running out of the room, connect with the presenter(s).  Make it more meaningful.

To me, conferences are so much more than just program sessions.  You have the opportunity to connect with colleagues at task force or committee meetings, attend tweetups and receptions, engage in “extra-curricular” activities like case study competitions and early morning fitness events.  If you go to a conference and only attend program sessions, then you will be missing out.  Like anything, you get out of a conference what you put into it.

As for funding, Mallory Bower tweeted a thought-provoking question/statement earlier today as part of this whole discussion: “Wondering how many would still attend conferences if their employers didn’t pay the bill…”
I think this is a fantastic question and one that we must consider.  Professional development funds are finite (non-existent even on many campuses), so they need to be handled with care.  If you did have to pay your own way, would you still attend?  Would you get more out of it because the money is coming out of your own pocket? Would you be more willing to attend early morning sessions or volunteer for a committee?  Or would you feel less guilty if you skipped a session to do something else?  Your answers to these questions should be a good indication of whether or not you should attend a conference (or partake in any PD opportunity for that matter).

So, do conferences still count as professional development, and are they good value for money?  That depends on you.  Before you partake in any developmental opportunity, you need to decide what you want to get out of it.  I really like what Becca did for the Women’s Leadership Institute.  Read about it here.

Development without purpose can be wasteful and expensive.  Having a professional development plan is key, so you can map out what opportunities you want to take advantage of.  Funny enough, I’ll be presenting at the ACUHO-I Annual Conference and Exhibition related to this topic (“PD for Free: Making the Most of Limited Professional Development Budgets”).  Why yes, that is shameless self promotion 🙂

Thanks Joe, for starting such a great conversation! I’m curious to hear what others think about this.  Share your comments below, or join the google+ hangout.