3 Questions to Help Get the Most Out of #ISTE2014 (or any conference)

In a few weeks, I’m heading to my third ISTE conference, and I’m committed to getting as much as possible out of my few days at the event. But what does it mean to get as much as possible out of the conference? I’ll start by sharing what it does not mean for me, and then I’ll finish by sharing three questions that can set us up for a high-impact and rewarding conference.

For me, I am certain that getting the most out of the event has little to do with the keynotes or the sessions that I might attend.

I’ve learned a few new and interesting things from presentations in my last two ISTE conferences, but nothing that I could’t also learn from my existing personal learning network. While ISTE has hundreds of sessions and often brings in well-known keynote speakers, I follow an even larger group of brilliant and gifted people on Twitter, Linked, through blogs, in online communities, and through my professional reading and self-directed learning. I’ve yet to discover anything at ISTE that I have not learned from my own primary research, through countless books, research articles, blog posts, webinars, online videos, Twitter chats, or my addiction to visiting learning organizations and interviewing people in the field. It is rare that some new discovery is revealed at ISTE that I could not or did not learn about in some other way. For example, Jane McGonigal was an excellent keynote speaker at the 2013 event. However, I didn’t learn anything new. This is not a critique of her in any way. It is just that I had read Reality is Broken; watched every online video I could find from her earlier presentations; read all the suggested readings on her site; located, ordered and read a copy of her 2006 dissertation on “ubiquitous play and performance at the turn of the century”; and spent time reviewing and trying to learn from some of the games that she’s designed. So, while it was a good live presentation, I didn’t need to hear it to learn from Jane.

I am also certain that getting the most out of the event is not about the massive expo hall.

There will likely be hundreds of vendors ready to promote and share about countless services and products. I can learn about educational technology products and services whenever I want. There are countless collections of online reviews, opportunities to have online or face-to-face demos, and chances to chat back and forth with company representatives. I don’t need a massive face-to-face room to learn about what is happening.

So, what does it mean to get the most out of the ISTE14 conference? While the answer will be different for each person, I argue that such an answer can be discovered by taking the time to ask and explore the following three simple questions.

1. What are my personal and professional goals, and how might this event help me pursue or achieve one or more of those goals?

Without an answer to this question and a strong hunch that ISTE will help meet one of those goals, I’m not sure it is worth the investment. However, there is great opportunity if we have clear personal goals in mind, know that ISTE14 can help, and come with those question in mind. Let them shape your plans and help you prioritize how you spend your time at the conference.

2. How can I use this event to build my personal learning network?

I do not think that the most powerful thing ISTE13 has to offer is knowledgeable and/or inspirational presenters/workshop leaders. Instead, it is simply getting 13,000+ people who have a shared interested in educational technology to gather in the same place for a set time. Networking online is powerful, but getting to connect face-to-face with others can jump-start long and lasting connections and opportunities for collaboration. For me, this is the single more important and valuable part of a conference.

Honestly, I’ve not been as successful with this at ISTE as I have with more modest sized conferences. At other conferences, I often leave with 5-10+ new connections and possibe collaborations. Last year at ISTE, I didn’t manage to build one such connection. I just haven’t figured out how to initiate contact, but I hope to change that this year.

3. What can I get from going to ISTE2014 that will be difficult (or maybe even impossible) for me to get in another way?

This is another powerful question to consider. There is much that we can get through books, social media, online networks, and local connections. There are other things that may not be achieved as easily through those venues. In my opinion, those are the things worth pursuing at ISTE14.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the largest educational technology conference in the world, bringing over 13,000 participants in 2013. Some people also call it the greatest conference, but defining something as “great” requires criteria. What I am suggesting is that each of us get to set the criteria for ourselves. What will your criteria be for this year’s event? Or, if you are not going to ISTE, this same line of thinking works well for whatever other conference you might happen to attend.