Foolish Utopianism in Teacher Development?


I was going to go to a conference relatively recently but at the last minute I decided not to because I hadn’t actually looked at the price. I thought that because it wasn’t the JALT (Inter?)national conference (nor was it a JALT event at all) that it might be relatively cheap, also seeing as it was at a university campus.
I nearly vomited in my mouth at the price when I saw it. Seeing it there, I hope the keynote presenters were paid for their time, especially seeing as it was unlikely that major publishers would have been paying for them.

1. Possibilities vs. Practicalities

I know that space with nice chairs and decent coffee doesn’t come for free but I also know that some of the teachers who give a damn about their CPD or lack of it can’t afford to pay the equivalent of US$200 to see someone give a talk or workshop that may (or may not) be useful for them in their context.
I’ve never really been that interested in any of the ‘name’ ELT people bar Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings because what seems to be the case at IATEFL is that facile reinforcement of (perhaps erroneous) beliefs is what draws the attention on the internet, with the exception of Silvana Richardson’s NNEST plenary and Russ Mayne’s Myths in ELT presentation. Geoff Jordan complains about the IATEFL palaver, with big names. To justify a large cost I suppose they need names, but why not cut the costs?
I’ve never been able to get to big conferences due to work but the ones I have made it to have been highly participatory and kind of grassroots. I have also loved many of the webinars I’ve attended and some stuff that might fly might be a hybrid of the two.

2. The Interzone of Cyberspace and Meatspace

Imagine 20-odd people gathered in a space with a mike, a projector, a webcam and several others watching online,  feeding questions for the speaker into a public Google document or Twitter hashtag. Imagine 20-odd others in another space in another country watching on a projector, while one of them has the familiar stomach-cramps related to their upcoming presentation-come-workshop.
Google already allows live streaming on YouTube and there are other providers, too. Electronic Village Online has already done web conferences. What about face-to-face with an electronic function? The live-tweeting phenomenon points in this direction, as people seem to want it.
You get to have the communal experience, with networking breaks, yet also have people presenting that you’d never see because they would never normally be able to make it due to time/money/family.

3. Outreach

What good is a conference when it is an echo chamber? Why preach to the choir? In Japan, we need chain eikaiwa teachers and dispatch agency ALTs to come and listen but, more importantly, make their voices heard. Do you know why there is little action research or exploratory practice done in eikaiwa? It isn’t the companies, because people could be taking notes on their regular students, and often do in the roll books. It’s because the teachers know that nobody outside is reaching out to them. Nobody gives a monkey’s. Yet these people do ditch the book, do try out-there things with their students from time to time. I know it would help more of them (as it helped me) to learn more about SLA without it seeming high handed. It would help them if they saw principles put into practice in a workshop. If they could hear people like themselves elsewhere, and also unlike them, with new ideas and alternative perspectives, it would help massively. If it were made accessible, through technology, at cultural centres or coworking spaces, this could easily happen.

4. What could this be like?

It could be like Lesson Jamming.
It could be like Edcamps.
It could be like Electronic Village Online, the ToBELTA web conference, iTDI’s summer webinar season.
It could be like JALT Saitama’s Nakasendo, or Michinohe MEES linked to different locations, available on mobile phones and laptops and projectors and TVs.
If you are interested, message me on Twitter.

9 Replies to “Foolish Utopianism in Teacher Development?”

  1. Quite right, Marc. I’m less and less interested in seeing the ‘big names’ at conferences I go to (with a few exceptions).
    I was reminded of a blog post by Mark Andrews about when they beamed IATEFL 2011 in Brighton over to Budapest where they had a kind of satellite event. It would be interesting to see more of the f2f/online hybrid events that you mention.
    Mark’s blog is here Bright-online beamed back to Budapest

    1. Thanks very much for this, Mike. It was really interesting. I’m wondering just how well web infrastructure would manage a multi-site (or unlimited, home with a phone and a beer) audience.
      I know you’ve done stuff for IATEFL and I wonder if there is a cycle of names reliant on IATEFL reliant on names reliant on IATEFL…

      1. Well, if you go back and look at plenary speakers, then there have certainly been repeat speakers. Probably not quite so regularly as all that, especially lately. I think it goes deeper, as was mentioned by one of the audience in Nicola Prentis and Russ Mayne’s talk on where are the women in ELT. This person highlighted the role publishers have in perpetuating the cycle of plenary speakers. X gets published and has a new book, so you get him to do the plenary. Which means they (the publisher) will sell more books, which keeps that person X as a ‘name’ in people’s minds when they choose plenary speakers.
        I have done things for IATEFL, but never choosing speakers (other than at SIG level). At our last event before IATEFL in Birmingham we had Marek Kiczkowiak, Suzanne Antonaros and Liliana Sanchez as our speakers.
        As for the issue of infrastructure, you’ll always end up with the haves and have nots. In web wifi friendly Seoul (for example) you’ll be fine; in more rural areas it’s less likely people will be able to follow live streams or be beamed in without some investment.

        1. Thanks again, Mike. This is something that I do worry about, actually. It would be a good idea to perhaps have a document (or set of them) post-conference for people who can’t get on to YouTube due to Internet speed/access issues.
          Really, thanks a lot for this.

  2. Are you aware of the IH online conferences they organise? They are free and have a wide range of teachers from around the world. The fact that it’s done online opens up the possibility for more people to attend and although there are certainly some IH “names” I’ve seen some great talks from run of the mill teachers…and none of this endless book pluging

      1. No problem. I do think a big merit of conferences can be meeting other teachers and just chatting with them. Doing things only online can make this more difficult to make those connections but your idea of local campuses could have the best of both.

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