Online Conference Options are More Affordable and Easier than Traveling, and they Keep Getting Better
We all know about conferences, don't we? You fly or drive out of town and stay in a large hotel for a couple of days, eating complimentary continental breakfasts and ambling from room to identical room in search of a few fresh angles on your profession and its challenges.
Conferences can be a standard part of the job for a fair percentage of educators and administrators, but some people tend to find themselves in the unfortunate position of missing a conference, workshop or other sort of professional development event for lack of available funding or enough time away from work to allow for travel.
Those days, though, may be over. The same kinds of educational technologies that contribute to enhanced learning in virtual classrooms all over the world are being used to make educational conferences more accessible to the educators and administrators that they benefit the most.
How virtual conferences work
While there isn't a rigid standard of practice for virtual conference events, there are some elements that many virtual conferences have in common with their location-based counterparts:
- Keynote speakers
- Lecture-style multimedia presentations scheduled over two or three days
- Workshops, information sessions and product demonstrations in an exposition area
- A “lounge” area where casual interactions and impromptu discussions take place
Virtual conferences differ in that their presentations, workshops and demonstrations are typically conducted on live video, with the presenter or instructor sometimes taking questions via text chat from the listening audience. The registration fee doesn't typically include a continental breakfast, but it doesn't take a gourmet chef to put brown sugar in oatmeal and pour orange juice into a tiny glass.
Advantages of the virtual conference
Might as well get this out of the way first: They're affordable. More so than brick-and-mortar conferences by a long shot, if you factor in lodging and transportation. For instance, one August 2013 conference on distance education came with a conference fee of $465 for early registrants. The three-day event offered rooms in the hotel connected to the conference center for $136 per night, and average domestic airfare to the nearest airport was $472.91, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Put all that together, and any individual registrant is looking at an outlay of more than a thousand dollars ($1,209.91 plus tax, to be precise) for the privilege of professional development. As it happened, this conference offered a virtual attendance option that featured livestreamed access to most of the lectures and three months of access to archived presentations. The virtual option cost $195 for an individual and $350 for a group of three. Some of these conferences, in particular those that have left behind the brick-and-mortar location all together, can even been attended free of charge.
It's also the case that virtual conferences are drawing enthusiastically positive reviews from attendees. Reviewers tend to spread around tips for getting the most out of the virtual conference environment — tips such as studying up on your home hardware before attending and participating actively in online group chat sessions — so prospective virtual conference patrons can learn how to really do it right with just a little research.
But are they right for you?
Of course, as closely as virtual conferences might mirror the travel-and-lodging variety, the method of interaction might take a little getting used to. Slow typists might find it challenging to keep up with real-time text chat, and those without appropriate computer hardware might run into trouble on the viewing end.
That said, there are scores of edtech conferences worldwide throughout the year, and many of them offer virtual conference attendance. Testing the waters with one of the fee-free virtual conferences out there could help you determine how well you and your computer can perform in chat and presentations. Some virtual conferences even offer continuing education credits, allowing you to fulfill professional requirements and gain some career skill development in the process.
There's also the opinion that networking activities are less effective in the virtual environment. You may hear dissenters tell you that it's practically impossible to form a solid connection with someone unless you can see their face, hear their voice and shake their hand. While this may be true for some people, online professional connections can easily be made with just a little practice, and there are even virtual business cards that can be exchanged online just like the real thing.
The number of online conferences is on the rise, and there's a pretty good chance that a perfect one for your career will crop up sooner or later. If you haven't tried it, check your professional development resources for an opportunity to attend a conference from your living room. With all the potential upside of virtual conferences, it must be worth the time and effort to at least give them a try.
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