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Why I don't need a Conference to Learn (Though I'd Still Like to Go)

In: Tips

It’s official. I just got my third conference speaker proposal rejection this year. I’m not disheartened. All conferences are selective and, though I looked through the previous year’s speakers (where I could find them), I’ve never been to an elearning conference and so I suppose I don’t know the audience well enough to have chosen something sexy enough. Though I would still be excited to go (hint..hint if anyone is thinking of passing out free conference passes), I’m confident that I don’t need a conference to learn new things. Why? Because I make stuff.

What Conferences are For

Listen, party people, I get the allure of conferences. As I’ve said, I want to go myself and I’ve applied (and failed) to speak at several.  I know that attending a conference could introduce me to some of the incredible other makers I’ve connected with online (I’m looking at you, Mel!). Speaking or demoing would help me to practice my public speaking, help me share my ideas and gather feedback and critique; it could even help lead me to new job prospects. Conferences are great at helping you to build or solidify a community of people in your corner of the world or in your neck of the elearning industry. You can ask questions, view demos to get ideas, and hang out with other folks who are in the same field. It’s definitely a win-win.

What Conferences are Not For

But I fully understand that going to the conference is not in any way going to make me better at my job. It strikes me that conferences, while super valuable, sometimes act as something we can check off for ourselves to pretend that we got some professional development and will get better as a result of. By all means, go to the conference, you lucky so-and-sos, but don’t kid yourselves: nothing you learn there will help you get better at your job if you don’t, you know, actually do it and do it consistently. While some of the tips, for project management or SME communications, say, may be something that you practice on the job, many of the technical skill sessions that are so popular (graphic design trends, how to make your own graphics in PowerPoint, how to use x authoring tool, even rapid prototyping) those are not one and done types of things. They aren’t even 10 and done. That’s the kind of thing you practice over and over, again and again, until it becomes second nature (kind of like I’m doing with JavaScript algorithms right now, damn them). You can kid yourself into thinking that going to the conference will inspire you and you’ll be able to create all kinds of awesome things after that, but don’t be disappointed if three months, six months, a year from then, you’re courses haven’t changed a bit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, creativity and inspiration are a function of practice (creativity_inspiration function(practice){}).

The Other Thing About Conferences

I watched an amazing TED talk last week (embedded below) which illustrates something that maybe our conferences (maybe most conferences?) sometimes don’t give you, and that’s dissenting opinions.

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Sure, a lot of what we do is not reinventing the wheel. We rely on what those with more experience have struggled through and distilled for us in the plentiful books in our industry. There is absolutely nothing wrong in that. It makes sense for us to learn from successful people with more experiences. But are we ever critical? Do we ever stop to check or challenge what we’re being told we should start doing? Gamification stands out to me as being one of the biggest things I have questions about. It’s the biggest buzzword of the year (gamification, now; not game-based learning) and everyone is touting how successful it is. But after reading Daniel Pink’s drive, and some great articles on the dark side of gamification, I can’t help but wonder, what happens when the novelty of gamified training wears off? What happens when Anna’s motivation to be a great sales person dies because Bart is always on top of the leaderboard? And, perhaps most pertinent to this post, where are the conference sessions on why not to use gamification, gamification failures? Or even where and why not to use games? Another example might be flat design, which has gained a lot of popularity in our field as we try to teach ourselves graphic design skills. Where are the sessions on where and why not to use flat design?

How do You Approach Conferences?

I’d love to hear about how you approach the benefits of conferences and anything you’d like to see more of. Let me know if the comments.