Tips for Attending Virtual Conferences in 2021
By Kasey Short
Like most everything else since March 2020, national and state education conferences were held virtually this year. The opportunity to attend large in-person events in 2021 is still uncertain and conferences scheduled for early 2021 are already committed to a virtual format.
Last fall I attended and presented at two national virtual conferences, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) Conference and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference. They both did an exceptional job making their conferences accessible and engaging in this new format.
Attending and presenting at a national conference is one of the top things I look forward to each year, and while attending them virtually was not the same, I learned a lot and discovered that there are positives to the virtual format.
Tips for Attending
Read all the tips the conference organizers send in advance.
Both NCTE and AMLE sent emails in advance of the conference providing specific tips for navigating their site and suggestions for planning to attend their conference sessions. These emails helped me get organized prior to the start of the conference.
Sign into the conference site in advance.
This allows you to check your log in and password, reach out for technical help if needed, and become familiar with the set up of the conference site before the conference begins.
Take time to look at all the conference sessions and plan your schedule in advance.
Conferences will likely offer both live and on demand sessions. Explore the live sessions and make a calendar of the ones that are most important to attend live. Most live sessions are also recorded and available to registered attendees after the conference.
If there are conflicts with some of the live sessions you are interested in, think about if you would be benefit from live Q&A and/or would like to engage in small group discussion opportunities and prioritize those for live attendance. I found that the live sessions that offered break out rooms and smaller group discussion opportunities were the ones that I most valued attending live.
Make a separate list of all the on-demand sessions that you would like to view as time allows. Most conferences allow you to view these weeks and even months after the conference ends. I included everything I was at all interested in watching on my list and then watched them as time allowed during the conference weekend and for weeks after.
Give yourself time for breaks.
Both AMLE and NCTE provided more live and on-demand sessions than I could ever attend in one conference weekend. It is tempting to cram in as many sessions during the scheduled conference days as possible, but taking breaks away from the computer helps you reset and refocus.
In a live conference there are natural pauses when walking from one session to the next, breaking for meals, and stopping to have conversations with others. The virtual conference does not provide these natural breaks and you will need to create your own.
I enjoyed taking time away from my computer screen to go on a walk and check in with my family. I also felt less rushed than I normally do during a conference because I did not have to squeeze all the learning into the official conference days. Check how long the content will be available and make plans to access it a little at a time after the live portions of the conference are over.
Make virtual connections throughout the conference.
While nothing can take the place of meeting people face to face and having spontaneous conversation with people in your field, there are many opportunities to connect virtually. If you hear a speaker, connect with a vendor, or connect with another participant, follow them on social media to stay connected.
I find Twitter to be a very valuable platform to make professional connections and stay up to date with recent articles and research. Twitter is also a great place to hear about sessions in real time and get recommendations for sessions. Find the hashtags for the conference and follow them to stay up to date on conference information and goings-on during the “live” conference period. I got a lot of recommendations for sessions and access to additional resources and ideas through Twitter.
If presenters give their email address or websites, save those for future reference. Take advantage of sessions that include break out discussions and use that time to share ideas, ask questions and make connections.
Take notes during sessions.
There will be so many amazing ideas that it is impossible to remember all of them. I am still a paper and pencil note taker, but any format would work. I have three different sections of notes to help me stay organized.
• General Notes – Most of my notes go in this section. I label them by the title of the session and just write down anything that stands out to me while I listen to the session.
• Implement Immediately – When I hear an idea, strategy, etc. that I would like to implement soon, I add it to a list on a separate piece of paper. I do not include the details on this list, but just keep a running list of things worth revisiting somewhat immediately and trying out in my class.
• Resources – When I come across a book, website, or other resources I am interested in finding more about, I add it to a running list. As an English teacher, most of this list is made up of books I hope to read or get for my classroom library.
If you are considering attending a virtual conference or have an opportunity to present virtually, do it! It also might be an opportunity to attend a national level conference that would have been more difficult to attend if it were in person. The virtual prices for registration are normally lower, there are no extra travel costs involved, and there is more flexibility for the time you would need to be away from home and work responsibilities.
This might be the year to work in an extra conference you normally wouldn’t have time or resources to attend!
Upcoming 2021 Conference Options
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics will have a Virtual Annual Conference in 2021 set for April 21 to May 1, offering two weeks of events for a single registration fee.
The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) has canceled its national convention set for Chicago and will instead present NSTA Engage: Spring21 from April 12 through May 8 with middle level programming set for April 19-24.
The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) will cap off a spring of webinars and a virtual workshop with a socially distanced conference in Orlando, FL. The 2021 Institute for Middle Level Leadership in mid-July will limit attendance to 200.
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is offering a year of virtual professional learning. Members who were unable to attend the 2020 virtual conference can pay for access through April 30, 2021. NCSS plans a 2021 national conference in Minneapolis in November and will follow local restrictions on crowd size.
The National Council of Teachers of English plans to hold its virtual national conference Nov. 18-21. Visit the 2021 NCTE Events page to learn more about this and other national and regional events planned for virtual space.
Kasey Short (@shortisweet3) loves to share ideas from her classroom and writes frequently for MiddleWeb. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an eighth grade ELA teacher and English Department chair at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School.