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5 Ways to Maximize PD and Networking at Conferences

Get the most out of conferences so you can make changes for your teaching, students, and school.

Kelly Mendoza | May 31, 2016

Conferences are a wonderful opportunity for professional development and networking. But maximizing what you can get from a conference takes a little legwork. Use these five tips for your next conference.

1. Plan Your Schedule

Are you the type of person who doesn't decide which sessions you'll attend until you get the printed program on the morning of the conference? Planning ahead helps you ensure your conference learning experience is as fruitful and relevant as possible.

Many conferences nowadays have their schedules online or, better yet, available as a mobile app. And many conference schedules include planning tools that allow you to search the schedule by keyword, speaker, or topic and add sessions to your personalized schedule. You can also see who else is attending sessions and view links to the presentation content. Considering some conferences are in large convention centers or hotels, planning ahead will also help you map out your day. For instance, if the superstar speaker you want to see in the next session is at the other end of the convention center, leave your current session early so you can grab a seat.

2. Use Twitter

Nearly all education conferences have a Twitter hashtag. If you're a Twitter newbie, the hashtag allows you to see the feed of tweets only from people associated with the conference. Cool, right? Using the conference hashtag is a great back-channel communication tool. You can read other people's reactions, thoughts, photos, additional information -- the list goes on. You can follow new people, build your network, and really feel interconnected with the goings-on at the conference.

I sometimes tweet photos of presenters during their sessions with great takeaway ideas or quotes, and I find that most of them "favorite" these tweets. I've also attended sessions of people I follow on Twitter (but have never met in person), so it's a great icebreaker when you meet in person to say, "Hi, I loved your session. I follow you on Twitter!" My favorite time to use Twitter at conferences is during a keynote speech. Since everyone is in the same room, you can read people's reactions, share thoughts and inspiring quotes, and make a lot of new Twitter friends.

Just remember, model great digital citizenship: Don't get involved in negative or derogatory comments, and think before you tweet!

3. Take Meaningful Notes, Synthesize, and Share

This is what you should look like sitting at a conference session: tablet or laptop fully charged and on your lap, tapping furiously, looking up, contemplating, taking a photo with your phone or tablet. Repeat.

Gone are the days when you take notes by hand at conferences. Why? Handwritten notes are difficult to synthesize, share, and search. While you're attending each session, type up notes that are meaningful to you. Many presenters have links to their presentation slides, so rather than just summarizing their talking points, jot down notes about how their ideas are meaningful to you.

You can use a plain Word doc, but better yet, use note-taking and organization tools such as Google Docs, Evernote, OneNote, or Simplenote, which allow you to sync notes across devices and share with colleagues. You can also use content-curation tools such as Pinterest, Symbaloo, or to keep track of resources you want to return to later. If you have any downtime between sessions, synthesize your notes and organize them beyond a jumble of ideas (that's how mine first appear, anyway). Then, consider sharing your summary of the conference sessions you attended, notes, and even photos with colleagues at your school or in your district. This is a way you can share what you learned with those who could not attend.

4. Meet Up with Friends Old and New

Don't have lunch plans? Why not see if the person you just met wants to grab lunch?

Having drinks with coworkers? Why not invite colleagues from your old school?

I've had meals, traveled the exhibit floor, and had amazing conversations with people I just met sitting next to me. It's the happy hours, dinners, and coffees where you can relax and have some fun, but you can also use that time to network with friends old and new.

5. Follow Up

It's a week later, and the conference seems like a month ago. What was that great pedagogical framework that inspired you? Who was it you exchanged cards with that you wanted to learn more from?

A day or two after the conference, take that stack of business cards and email addresses you furiously wrote down, and follow up with people you met. Set aside time to explore the new resources and ideas that inspired you, and plan your next steps. Too often, we get inspired at conferences only to have that excitement fade away as life gets busy. To get the most out of conferences, be sure to build on that momentum to make changes within your teaching, with your students, and at your school.

How do you make sure you get the most out of conferences? Share your thoughts below!

Photo "University Innovation Fellows at SXSWedu 2016" by EpicenterUSA used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.