In a world where learning has had to change and evolve to meet new demands, new technologies, and new roles – it only makes sense that learning conferences would have to do the same. This can manifest through distinct programming, intentional design, innovative topics, or… all of the above.
You know how sometimes you are super excited about a session, but you’re also super excited about a conversation you’re having and then you accidentally miss the session… yeah. Same. Fortunately, DLAC has designed a solution.
DLAC has strands of sessions, meaning people will often show up on the programming multiple times and in multiple formats. That way, instead of getting down on yourself for taking a longer lunch break with a crew you just met from Colorado (while ordering your tacos), you discover the presenters have another session with a core theme related to the previously missed session.
This conference has been designed for differentiation. When you think about typical conferences it can follow a formula of a) Establish an organization, b) Run the organization for a few years, c) Members of the organization demand a conference, d) The organization creates the conference for members and e) Start to invite other organizations to the conference. However, when we look at the origin story of the Digital Learning Annual Conference (DLAC), it’s a different story.
The story of DLAC. Back in the pre-COVID world of 2017, the Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC), a group of people and organizations focused on online and hybrid learning, noticed there wasn’t a space for them to call their own. Many of the members were administrators or teachers in the digital learning community and engaged with students online years before the rest of the world rushed to do so. Fast forward to April 2019 when the DLC kicked off the first conference with over 500 attendees in Austin, Texas. Gathering everyone in February of 2020, and with the global shutdown looming, attendance almost doubled.
Much of the increase was due to attendees from the previous year bringing their entire teams to the conference because there was such a need for community and learning in the digital landscape. When many learning opportunities needed to be closed, reduced, or just available online, DLAC was able to keep its events open by providing creative options. In 2021, DLAC provided the first truly hybrid conference with 500 attendees in person (which was limited by the hotel) and supported 700 attendees online. In 2022, DLAC offered a change of scenery by hosting the conference in Atlanta, Georgia where 1600 virtual and in-person participants gathered to learn and share. In response, DLAC carved its own path as a conference. Since that time, DLAC has grown to about 2000 participants in person and online in 2023. As the digital learning landscape continues to grow, DLAC continues to evolve to meet the needs of all learners.
DLAC 2023. This year, the event’s Call for Proposals was organized around Blended Learning, Digital Learning, Hybrid Learning, and Online Learning. The themes utilized for selection:
- Continuity of Learning
- Design/Refine Your School/Program
- Digital Content
- Diversity, Equity, Inclusion
- Professional Development
- Teaching Strategies
In addition to the pre-conference online options to start building momentum, there were also invitations for state affiliations to meet and build a network. We were able to talk with Allison Powell, a co-founder of DLAC, about the design of the conference, which is intentionally designed to support varying needs and interests as well as to accommodate different styles of participant learning. A topic may be linked across different formats, while some sessions are also meant to link or flow together over the course of three days. From short conversations to larger block workshops – there is a menu of selections. Each session structure is described below
- Contributed talks are 20-minute segments [15 minutes of presentation, 5 minutes discussion], grouped into three talks, and make up a session. Some of these sessions are coordinated together and link to a shared focus, while others may not have any connection. The short setup has more discussion and sharing time while inviting participants to follow up for more detail with the presenter.
- Table talks are short discussions with very light facilitation. The arrangement of tables can vary by the moderator. The topics are selected to evoke timely and engaged conversations with participants.
- Book Studies are similar to table talks in structure (around 35 minutes) around a book that is focused on digital learning that the presenter selects.
- PechaKucha talks are 20 slides that auto-advance every 20 seconds. These are similar to other short presentations in terms of informational sharing around a concept, except shorter. The structure has an automated functionality that keeps the presentation tight in terms of time and information shared.
- Posters sessions occur in the exhibit hall and are held later in the day. These are led by exhibitor presenters as well as DLAC attendees sharing research and ideas. Attendees are invited to attend and participate in conversations while enjoying appetizers and drinks.
- Workshops and panel discussions are around 75 minutes for sharing a focused topic in more depth. The workshop format is designed with a hands-on opportunity to design and leave with a product. The panels are structured as facilitated discussions and may also turn into lively debates.
- Community-Based Sets of Sessions are structured to be aligned learning opportunities that can be across a series of venues and formats. Attendees are invited to form a community by finding these opportunities that can then extend long after the conference.
The community sessions and experiences were around these six threads:
- Hybrid Schools in Action: A Community-Based Set of Sessions
- Supporting Elementary Students in Becoming Engaged and Independent Online Learners
- Wellness in Education: A Community-Based Approach
- Partnerships to Support Rural Districts and Communities: Roadmaps for Success
- The Curriculum Conundrum: Creating/Selecting Quality Content.
- Historical Traumas, Present Pedagogies, and the Road Toward Future Healing
A personal account of experiencing the community threads. On the second day, we attended “What Does Decolonization look like? How Does it Feel?” led by two practitioners from the Wellness for Educators organization, Shomari Jones and Rebecca Itow. The session laid the groundwork for conversations surrounding what decolonization means, what current practices exist in school systems, and how trauma impacts our physical bodies.
The session was not the only one led by this crew. Later in the day, the same presenters held a Table Talk around the five anchors discussed in My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, by Reesma Menakem. This session was followed by an invitation to a food truck park to continue the conversation with others (which made for a great Valentine’s Day gathering). Kathryn Kennedy joined the team on the final morning of the conference as they guided participants through yoga and continued conversions from the previous days.
Building in a thematic strand with familiar facilitators allows communities to form, encourages a safe place for connection, builds varying entry points for learners, and eliminates the one-and-done approach to gaining knowledge at a conference. It’s differentiation at its finest.
Join the Digital Learning Collective. There’s no need to wait a year to connect with colleagues in the digital learning community. The DLC has a wealth of resources and has various memberships to meet the needs of individuals, teams of teachers, districts, and states. Within the DLC membership, there are 3 established communities.
- Design & Refine: This is mainly for administrators and some teaching practices)
- Policy Protectors: A focus on all things policy
- Research Community: This focus is on connecting research and practice
In addition to memberships, DLC offers guidance for schools and states related to online learning policies and time to connect with others during virtual happy hours.