Saturday, May 08, 2010

Reflections on recent conferences (part one) : ISTEK

I know this is very late, but I want to add my two pennies worth to the growing number of blog posts about the extraordinary ISTEK conference that was held on 27-28 March 2010 at Yeditepe University in Istanbul.

I'm not sure I know of an ELT conference that has generated so much online discussion. ISTEK the conference (and post-conference) has been the one everyone has been talking about. I started this post shortly after attending and then hesitated in posting as a fierce blog-storm brewed. Now that the hurricane seems to have passed,I thought I'd pick up where I left off, and write my account of the event as a record for me if nothing else. Here's a list of the posts I know have been written about ISTEK (apologies in advance to those I've missed off). Two other blog posts and their many comments have now been deleted, but anyone who is curious enough can follow the digital footprints to see what the fuss was all about:

Now I'm going to concentrate on the experience of the actual conference. How it was for me. Much has already been written above, and was said just after the conference bu many about just how fabulous this conference was, with many of us who presented or attended saying it was the best conference they'd ever been to. All-in-all, I have to say that this was true for me too. I thoroughly enjoyed the event and was impressed at how smoothly everything ran. That's not to say that it was a perfect ELT conference. Here are a few of my reflections on what was and what could have been different.

  • Organisation. Second to none. Jeremy Harmer has already mentioned this in his post, but much of the success of the conference was due to the tireless efforts of the omnipresent Burcu Akyol . Without her sterling efforts and the team she assembled to help and support the event, I'm sure the ISTEK conference would have been just another conference. Whenever I've spoken at a conference in the past, I've learned not to expect to see much of the organisers. It's similar to attending a wedding. With so many guests, you shouldn't expect to see much of or spend much time with the bride and groom. At conferences, the organisers can be spotted quite easily. They are usually the people flitting past at breakneck speed on their way to or back from sorting out some potential organisational hiccup. That didn't seem to be true of Burcu. One of the first things I saw when I arrived at the venue was Burcu's presence, asking me if everything was OK, if I needed anything, etc. That seemed to be the case throughout the conference. She dedicated a lot of time to mingling with people and seemed to be very present throughout the conference.

  • Numbers. One thousand participants registered. This is a very nice number of people for a conference. Not too many, not too few. I wonder about next year, though. With the amount of attention the ISTEK conference has been getting, I'd expect to see a lot more people want to attend.

  • Plenary speakers. I have to say that one criticism of the ISTEK conference that I have is that it was plenary-heavy. There were more plenary sessions than other slots each day. There were three plenary sessions and two concurrent sessions and I'd have preferred it to have been the other way around. However, this aspect of the conference may well have resulted in the sensation that was felt by all present that I spoke to that we were all at 'the same conference', a feeling which doesn't usually happen at conferences, where you may not see some people all day long. I also have to say that the plenary sessions were all excellent in this conference, a factor which is unusual in my experience. So, I'm undecided. It worked at this conference.

  • Concurrent sessions. There were two slots a day and presenters were asked to repeat their session so that those who missed the morning slot could attend the afternoon one. As a speaker, I found this very interesting, but it was a shame that I couldn't attend any of the sessions that were on at the same time as mine. As a result, apart from the plenary speakers, I got to see only two other people speak.

  • Timetable. Something that is always a problem at conferences is how much time to leave between sessions. At ISTEK there was a fifteen minute gap, which was enough time for everyone to get from one place to another without rushing. So long as the speakers finished on time (but as is the norm, many didn't). I have been guilty of this in the past, but the more conferences I go to the more I realise that it's important that everyone presenting at a conference does not overrun. because it does cause problems for people. Some people in the audience are too embarrassed to stand up and walk out of a session and become anxious and therefore are no longer concentrating on what the speaker has to say anyway. And this could be the thing they remember about the session. I think a great talk therefore can be spoiled by taking too long. It's something that plenary speakers in particular should be careful not to do. If a plenary speaker overruns, then he or she holds up a lot of people, and bites into the time of the other speakers. At ISTEK, the time allotted to concurrent sessions was 45 minutes, but some of the sessions were shorter due to time delays. Going back to the time between sessions, I was pleasantly surprised at TESOL Spain this year that thirty minutes was allotted between sessions. On paper this seemed like a long time at first, but in reality, it allowed for the sessions to overrun and for people to network a lot more in the breaks.

  • PLN. I mentioned in a previous post on this blog that I thought this year was going to be the year of the PLN (personal learning network) and ISTEK was an indication of this. I met so many people face-to-face for the first time that I was connected to online. Twitter here was the key. I know it was a vital tool in the run-up of the conference (used extensively for the conference organisation and for getting news out about the event) . But it was also incredible just how warmly people responded to each other face-to-face because they'd been tweeting to each other. I'd met other people I've been connected to online before, but this was different; it was special. There's something about being connected to other people in this way that means when you meet them in person, you feel as if you know them very well.

  • Social Events. That a Pecha Kucha evening is quickly becoming a staple event at ELT conferences around the world is down to Lindsay Clandfield's enthusiasm and organisation. The ISTEK pecha kucha was another success, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of the presentations. If I have any criticism of it, it's that the ELT pecha kucha is becoming a competitive event. I could see this in the run-up, with those presenting (most of whom are very seasoned speakers) saying how nervous they were, and tweeting about how much time they were spending on getting it right. I think this was also played up to this during the event. I think pecha kucha events are much better when not staged as competitions between speakers trying to outdo each other. Speaking to Luke Prodromou during the event was enlightening too. “Does a pecha kucha have to be humorous?” he asked me. And he's right, it doesn't have to be, but there seems to be a pressure now on ELT pecha kucha for people to try to get laughs. Storytelling event. Scheduled for the same evening, straight after the pecha kucha, I had my doubts that this was going to work, especially given the number of girating bodies on the dancefloor singing along to “I will survive”, etc. I obviously hadn't accounted for the mastery of Andrew Wright, who had us quietly hanging on his every word as he told an absorbing tale which was the perfect end to a fabulous evening. What could have been better? A bedtime story before we got into the buses and headed off home or to our hotels.
I could write more about ISTEK, but I'm going to stop here. To sum up, I think it was a model example of an ELT conference and I'm sure it'll become an important date for many on the calendar from now on.

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