Nicole Zumpano
A woman attends a virtual conference from her dining room

I miss attending conferences in person. Face-to-face learning, the opportunity to travel and get a change of scenery, meeting old friends and new, the energy and excitement that you see in everyone sharing the same space all make attending conferences an invigorating experience. But times are different, and virtual conferences are the only safe option right now. 

I think it’s safe to assume that virtual conferences won’t go away after the pandemic ends. With this new style of professional development, there is sure to be a learning curve. Here are my top 10 tips to help you make the most of your next virtual conference.

1. Clear your calendar.

Act as if you were out of town attending an in-person conference. Close your email, turn off notifications and move your phone out of reach. If possible, put a vacation responder notification on email and an out-of-office message on your shared calendar. Most folks don’t think to do this for a virtual event but do it instinctively when they are attending in-person. Remember, your email will be there when you return!

2. Attend live sessions if you can.

We all (me included) bookmark and save content telling ourselves we’ll revisit it later, and we almost never do, in part because the next day there’s even more shiny new websites, resources and emails to distract us! If you don’t attend live you might never view the presentation recordings and miss the opportunity to ask questions or potentially gain a new idea to use with your students.

3. Be mindful of your background.

If your video is on — even briefly — make sure your background is free of distracting (or embarrassing) scenes. Turn your video on before you go live to make sure that what’s behind you is appropriate and professional. Is your camera facing the kitchen where someone might get a snack? A bedroom door where someone might be changing? Along those same lines, don’t walk around with your device, either!

4. Connect with others via chat.

If you were face-to-face, you would say hello to those sitting around you and might strike up casual conversations. You can do the same in the chat during a session: Ask a question, share a resource, give the presenter a shout-out when you agree with something. Remember, a large part of what we learn comes from casual conversations with those in our PLNs.

5. Unless you are paying close attention, turn off your video.

As a presenter, it’s distracting to see people eat, interact with spouses or get up to do something else. Just as you would mind your manners if someone were speaking right in front of you, try to extend the same courtesy virtually.

6. Follow the conference hashtag and tweet, retweet, engage!

This is not only a great way to gather additional resources but also to enhance your professional learning network. There is an amazing energy that comes from interacting with other participants this way. Positive energy will help you stay engaged and interested in the event, even if you are attending from your kitchen table.

7. Take notes and save links during sessions.

As much as I love technology, I also sometimes write out notes on a good old-fashioned piece of paper. Often I’ll hear an idea during a presentation and it’ll lead me to my own ideas. If I don’t write them down, I’ll forget the thought as quickly as it came into my head. Do you have colleagues attending the same virtual event? I know several people who will also swap notes with each other after the event. Doing this helps me stay even more engaged in the moment knowing that others may ask about the notes I took.

8. Have a fidget toy handy!

I have a tendency to multitask (not successfully) when watching an online presentation, but I find if I have a fidget toy in my hands I can focus just a bit longer and not use my hands to type or navigate away to my second screen.

9. Offer feedback.

Presenters work hard to prepare and still get nervous to present. If they ask for audience participation and you are able to participate, do so. After all, if you were face to face in a session and the presenter asked everyone to stand would you be the only one to sit?

10. Give presenters grace.

These are bizarre times for all of us, and many people are learning to adapt to situations as they go. Not all folks are comfortable presenting online. If a presenter tries something new and it doesn’t work, it’s OK. Cut them some slack. Remember, we are all in this together for the same reasons — to increase our capacity, improve our practice and learn new ways to enhance the success of our students.

Until the world is safe enough for all of us to learn together face-to-face, try to get the most out of your virtual conference experience! Connect with me on Twitter and share any cool things you learn!

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Nicole Zumpano is the Chicagoland Regional Educational Technology Coordinator for the Learning Technology Center of Illinois. She is an adjunct instructor at three universities as well as a former teacher and instructional technology coach. Nicole is active in her ISTE PLNs and on Twitter. Connect with her @nmzumpano.