The Possible Weaknesses of Conferences in ELT

Today loads of stuff has been in my Twitter feed about conferences. My fellow socio at Cooperativa de Serveis Lingüístics, Tom Flaherty was asking why ResearchED Scotland can be so reasonably priced when other educational conferences (and I’m reading between the lines here but I reckon he means English Language Teaching conferences) are so expensive. One of my favourite JALTers, Louise Ohashi was sending out a survey about conferences. And then as part of my prep for a research degree, I was reading posts on The Research Whisperer, when I read this one about the negative aspects of academic conferences.

I have posted about the negatives of conferences (or the, why not post your research), before. Instead of retreading old ground when there are hyperlinks in the last sentence, let’s have a real think about the ELT conference.

Working Papers?

I look at loads of ELT conference lineups both in Japan and abroad, because I like to download the slides if they’re up and/or follow the Twitter hashtags. I’m going to make a bold claim here, and I’d love to be wrong, but it seems that there is a complete absence of working papers shared at conference. This is a bad thing, I think, because it means that there is only completed research being presented which means, to all intents and purposes, the presenter has made up their mind. This means that there is no dialogue, just the illusion of dialogue. People pay money for other people to pay someone else’s money to talk at them. There has to be some better way to facilitate professional development and/or vocational learning.

Sharing is caring?

Ah, but Marc, what of the shared practices? I think it could be good, but are you getting enough information to be able to replicate the good bits and also avoid the potential pitfalls. Hopefully yes, but perhaps not because nobody wants to look like a failure in front of strangers and acquaintances a lot of presenters might be giving the most optimistic look at their stated classroom practices (which might be very different to what actually happens).

Labcoat envy

I think the heart of the matter is that ELT wants to be a science, so that it is a serious academic discipline (and I want this, too). Unfortunately, I do not see that half of ELT is fond of the science that supposedly informs it, be that SLA, psychology/cognitive neuroscience, or even applied linguistics. This is down to the schism, (or “schizophrenia” as Paul characterises it but it’s not a term I’m fond of) between professional ELT (where I would like to think I work)  and industrial ELT (or selling coursebooks to anybody, whether suited to them or not). But because it wants to be a serious discipline, it needs conferences. Unfortunately, professional ELT has no money to spare, really, so it’s left to industrial ELT to foot the bill. Industrial ELT doesn’t want to unless there’s some kind of return on investment so you have big commercial conferences to enable publishers to flog books and organisations to flog courses and study abroad options and whatnot.

To have and have not

I’ve been to small conferences. I’ve helped a little bit with the logistics of ExcitELT, too. However, most of the English teachers I know in my small corner of Tokyo have never been to a conference nor have even dreamt of it. There’s the cost, for one; the needing time off for another, seeing as most conferences happen on weekends and most English teachers outside school and university contexts work weekends. Add to this, relationships with partners, family and friends as well as just the need to wash clothes and have a clean home. Add to this the fact that a lot of teachers just do not get paid to plan lessons or do admin that we are promised is quick but actually mounts up and you have a mass of teachers with too much on already to even think about conferences on their days off.


I do think it’s high time that we looked, as a profession, at alternatives to this. What could it be? As much as I hate Silicon Valley’s hegemonic grip on culture at the moment, a hackathon – a concerted effort to create something worthwhile – would be a useful idea. Imagine actually creating useful listening materials together with a peer group, then going away and refining them. A round table, where people really share their ideas and experiences would be helpful because that information can then be synthesised and mediated through our own ideas and experiences, and honestly, with an exchange of knowledge I think people would be more amenable to sharing what hasn’t worked as well as what has. These are only two ideas late at night but I know that there could also be a larger number of workshops (with actual work being done and gathered and distributed) and discussions. I think these could be better returns on teacher investment than conferences, which considering ticket prices and travel, work out less economical than an academic book for a lot of us.

12 Replies to “The Possible Weaknesses of Conferences in ELT”

  1. Hi Marc,
    I feel like this topic has been done and done and done and still nothing changes. So good on you for staying at it. The solutions you proposed reminded me of a couple things: 1) reflective practice meetings – like the ones Anna hosts in Tokyo and 2) the iTDi Teacher’s Room. The reason why these things came to mind is because they have two things in common that I think are essential additions to your conference alternatives: a non-judgmental, supportive environment and regular attendance. As you mentioned, it’s hard to talk about your failures in a room full of strangers, but once you’ve gotten to know the people you’re meeting with and trust the environment it becomes easier and everyone benefits. (Granted, this is not what The Teacher’s Room is used for right now outside the first 10 or 15 minutes of Friday sessions, but it *can be* if that’s what members want from it.)

    1. Hi Anne,

      I have always wanted to go to Anna’s RP meetings but the schedule clashes with my work. I think the iTDi Teacher’s Room net meeting is a great idea, actually. I will try to make it one day when I don’t feel tired.

  2. As a former JALT treasurer, I saw the financial footprint of the commercial entities (mostly publishers) dwindle from roughly one third of revenues to about one tenth over the last decade. A lot of the vigor is in smaller groups (SIGs) for closer interactions. I would look to unconferences as another way to achieve what you are looking for.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment, Kevin.

      Would you be able to shed some light on why the international conference is so expensive? Is it due to venue costs? Featured speaker honoraria? Anything I haven’t actually thought of?

      I do like the JALT SIGs very much and also UnConferences. ExcitELT actually took some unconference ideas/ideology and tried to make the conference a bit more of an entity that could go the way the attendees wanted it to go.

      Anyway, thanks once again!


  3. JALT is actually pretty cheap compared to most other conferences of its size and scope. It depends heavily on volunteers to reduce costs to make it more affordable. We do use it to generate funds for other parts of JALT, and the revenue has moved from publishers to registration as noted before. We are too big to save by using university venues (and some end up being more expensive than commercial venues). A big factor is whether we can get a grant from the local government.

    1. Thanks Kevin. In the case of being too big to be able to use cheap university venues: is this really a good thing. I am not convinced one way or another, to be honest. There are pros and cons on either side.

  4. Kevin is right, most conferences held under the JALT banner are extremely competitively priced in comparison to other international conferences of equivalent size and scope. One difficulty faced by an organisation like JALT, I have always felt, is the breadth and diversity of the membership. It’s very hard to cater to tenured university professors with research budgets, conversation school teachers, JETS, language school owners and university part-timers equally, but that is what JALT tries it’s best to do.

    Again, as Kevin says, the SIG’s and chapters have frequent meetings, usually free to members, where you can investigate your ideas. Good luck!

    1. Hi Darren,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I hadn’t really considered the attempts to cater to everyone. I suppose that is the main problem. I would say people are doing what they feel is possible but I do see that there are definitely people underserved by the conferences in particular.

      With the use of Virtual Connecting this time, I guess there will be greater participation, which can only be a good thing.

      Thanks once again,


  5. Sharing is Caring – I completely agree. I think within a talk (or preferably longer workshop), ideally one would present an idea, talk about its mechanics and implementation, review benefits, and address pitfalls encountered. I try.

    1. Thanks Tyson. I do remember a few of your ARC posts with aspects that didn’t work and how you’d changed them so would presume you’d carry that over to your presentations.

  6. I love the idea of a hackathon. Not only because it’s online and, as a result, completely international; but with a bit of focus there could be some really solid outcomes, like a “resource pack” for teachers around the world to use as a potential alternative to the coursebooks. Not to mention network building and inevitable peer learning. After all — that is supposed to be what the conferences are for, right?

    Thanks for the inspiring post!

    1. Thanks for the comment Gabriel,

      Having an outcome or tangible output would be great. I have a couple of ideas in the back of my head about this kind of thing but thanks for more food for thought.

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