Reflections on The Online Learning Institute

Attending a conference is a powerful professional development experience. The opportunity to connect face-to-face with your peers, share ideas with like-minded colleagues, and learn about the latest research in your field can be both exciting and intimidating. There can be more to a conference than just attending sessions presented by experts in the field: you can present a session of your own.  Field experience in the classroom or your own small-scale research projects are all valuable assets for a conference presentation; don’t forget, you are an expert too! You don’t need to give the keynote address at a conference to make an important contribution to your colleagues and your professional community.

I’ll share a personal story to illustrate this point and recap Hekademia’s most recent conference presentation in the process.

As part of the annual meeting of the International Society for Technology in Education, a colleague and I attended and presented at the Online Learning Institute (OLI), a day-long conference focused on professional development for virtual school practitioners. The objective of this mini-conference is to share strategies and lessons for implementing successful online and blended learning programs. The title of our session was Where All Roads Lead to Mastery: Assessing for Competency. To read the presentation agenda or browse some of the collaborative comments that were generated, visit this Google Doc page.

The Online Learning Institute used a roundtable format to organize the day’s events. Rather than presenting in a large room with hundreds of people and little interactivity, this unique environment meant that you presented your ideas at a roundtable with 10-12 attendees. This intimate setting ensured lively discussion from participants who were genuinely interested in your topic. In fact, the purpose of the conference was to generate knowledge and interaction. While it was important for presenters to share their expertise, equal emphasis was placed on collaboration.

My colleague and I were excited to share our insights and experiences with developing online competency education courses. The all-too-common fear that no one would attend our session was quickly allayed when 10 interested conference goers eagerly sat down at our table. Our session attracted a diverse group of people including researchers, teachers, education technologists, and directors of e-learning or curriculum from across the United States and Canada. We shared our expertise on assessing students in a competency education course. The second half of the session was spent discussing some of the controversial topics related to competency education: Do grades really motivate students? Can virtual environments and online learning support competency education? How do students get accepted to post-secondary institutions without grades on their transcript? We were both inspired by the insightful comments and contributions made by each attendee. The tables had been turned; even as the experts, we had new ideas and critical questions to reflect on.

As I’m sure you can gather, the day was full of discussion, collaboration, and learning while we attended sessions hosted by our peers, but we also had the unique opportunity to practice facilitation and presentation skills while leading our own roundtable.

I’ll close this post with a few tips for facilitating a successful roundtable presentation. I hope you’re feeling inspired to respond to a call for proposals sitting in your email inbox for a conference you’ve attended in the past!

Tips for Facilitating a Successful Roundtable:

Set the Agenda: Tell your attendees what topics you will cover and in what order. Even more importantly, let your attendees know when there will be opportunities for discussion and questions. At the OLI, we publicly posted our agenda using Google Docs weeks in advance. This was a great way to generate interest in our session and a resource that attendees were able to access on their mobile devices right from the table.

Create a Welcoming Environment: It is important to introduce yourself and, if time permits, allow a few minutes for your attendees to introduce themselves. These introductions are helpful for facilitating participant discussion. Your participants will be more likely to engage in discussion if they know and feel comfortable with one another.

Be Inclusive: Ensure that even the shiest attendee has the opportunity to share their ideas in your roundtable discussion.  It is not necessary to specifically call-on anyone in particular, but it is important that your discussion is not dominated by one voice. All participants should have an equal opportunity to contribute their opinions and perspectives to the discussion.

Bring Resources: Providing your attendees with resources to support their learning after the presentation is over is always appreciated. At the OLI, we circulated a competency education info graphic to participants so they could visualize some of the more complex concepts we discussed. Rather than feeling they had to take notes, participants were able to engage in active listening and discussion.

Stay tuned for a future blog post on conferences that will discuss different session formats you might encounter when attending or presenting at a conference, and how to choose the conference that best suits your work.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on The Online Learning Institute”

  1. Allison I really enjoyed reading your reflective account of this conference experience! I am going to suggest to the incoming grad students for this year that they read this. I agree that roundtable presentations can be enormously beneficial, in both generating feedback and facilitating rich networking and exchange of ideas. I particularly like your tips for facilitating a successful roundtable.

    Thank you :)

  2. Thanks for the feedback Lorraine, I’m glad you and your students will find this useful! I agree that roundtables have enormous benefit, the trick for me is getting the format right. Sometimes there is a focus on facilitating discussion other times it’s balancing and reflecting on a series of academic papers. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves at the same roundtable sometime soon.

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