Competing conference contexts

Last week I was at the excellent-as-always DevLearn, and this week I attended the Virtual School Symposium (VSS; for the first time).  Both are about online learning, but the former is in the corporate world, and the latter is in the K12 world.  There are a lot of differences!

There are similarities, for example both are great conferences.  Both are experiencing growth, offer good lineups of presentations, have appropriate exhibitions, good food, and socializing. Both also have a passionate attendee base, as you would expect from the growth. Both conferences are also tech literate: there was free wifi, and both had a lively tweet stream.  And, ultimately, both are concerned about achieving meaningful goals under pragmatic constraints, and there are lots of different experiments going on.

On the other hand, there were some differences.  It’s clear that the cyberschool area is an area of great growth, as most of the folks from the schools were quite leery of talking to me once they found out I was a consultant! (To be fair, I wasn’t speaking, so they had no way to really know if I could add value or just was trolling for victims. 🙂  I suspect that they’re being attacked from all sides with propositions in a ‘gold rush’ context, and of course couldn’t know that I was just there to listen and learn at the behest of a partner. DevLearn is a more business-focused and mature marketplace, and people are much more able to tolerate a discussion about barriers, opportunities, etc.  Educators are more resistant to ‘business’, with their drivers being passion for helping kids, and often working under more government benediction and resources.

The online school area is, however, more sophisticated in their technology awareness.  There were few people who aren’t reasonably on top of tech for learning, at least conceptually, and more aware of online pedagogy. There were more exhibits around simulations and virtual worlds, for example.  This isn’t hard to understand, as being online is their core business, as opposed to DevLearn attendees who can include those who have been thrust into the learning role.

Topics at the VSS ranged a bit higher in scope, with issues about government policies, quality standards, and operational methods and assessment.  They’re also more focused on critical thinking skills (it’s a market differentiator for them).  At DevLearn, it a bit more down into the weeds, like topics on specific technologies (e.g. mobile) and approaches (e.g. social).   I was somewhat surprised to not see as much on things like new pedagogies at VSS, but wish we were talking more about standards at DevLearn.

There were some other differences: DevLearn had a pre-conference online game, while VSS had a dinner at the local history museum.  I’d rather have both ;).

Overall, two great experiences (even if it is exhausting to hit two conferences in a row).  The growth in the online school market right now is surpassing the growth in use of technology in organizations, but there are lots of economic reasons to at least partially explain it.  And the growth in the ways people are using technology to achieve real and new learning outcomes is exhilarating!

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