Very few crises in our education system have required such a rapid response as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overnight, everyone is looking for solutions to myriad problems. Virtual conferences are increasingly popular methods for denizens of the education industry to connect, share ideas and best practices.
The organization I work for, Cognitive ToyBox, is part of a cohort of government-funded developers that are offering free early childhood products and services. Dr. Edward Metz, our program manager at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences SBIR program, suggested a virtual conference to discuss successes — and failures — encountered by early childhood educators, schools and companies as they have responded to the coronavirus.
With an ambitious can-do attitude, we volunteered to organize the event. A date was set for three short weeks later, and all of a sudden we were very busy!
The event was a tremendous success. In total, we had nearly 3,000 conference registrants and 71% attendance across all 50 states. The approximately 200 people who answered the post-conference survey gave it an overall rating of 4.4 out of 5.
Here are some tips for leaders of startup education companies on how they can organize virtual events quickly.
Tip #1: Get the Content Right
If, like us, you expect to attract a wide audience of teachers, administrators, and vendors, you will need to provide “something for everyone” while staying focused on an overarching theme.
In our case, the common focus was early childhood education. As expected, our audience was largely practitioners, with 55 percent early childhood educators and 20 percent school and program administrators. To ensure all attendees came away with relevant information, we worked with colleagues at the Department of Education and the Administration for Children and Families to recruit speakers that included school superintendents, industry association executives, solutions providers, practitioners, and government representatives.
For example, our event kicked off with a panel of pre-K-12 superintendents from demographically diverse regions moderated by Mort Sherman, Associate Executive Director of AASA (The School Superintendents Association). Then 11 government-funded developers gave 10-minute lightning talks about their free solutions, including practitioner-focused case studies and testimonials. Given the burdens of COVID-19 on early childhood programs, our goal was to provide immediately actionable takeaways. Several of the lightning talks included practitioners who described their own challenges and experience of using resources, including Cognitive ToyBox and PBS KIDS. Each lightning talk ended with a lively 5-minute Q&A.
In the post-conference survey, practitioners shared their appreciation of the tangible takeaways. One said: “We are bombarded with resources every day and it is hard to determine the value. This has helped me narrow that scope. I look forward to connecting with some that presented today and implementing them with my team and students.”
Another attendee said: “The quality of the products/resources is just simply outstanding. It was a genius idea to show us projects that were research-based and government funded! I didn’t feel like I was being sold products; rather, that we were being offered entry into a world of high-quality learning experiences.”
Closing remarks were delivered by Dr. Deborah Bergeron, the Director of the Office of Head Start at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children & Families, ACF/Office of Head Start and Dr. Scott Mesh, CEO at Los Niños Services.
Tip #2: Forge Partnerships
We could never have pulled off this event on our own. Ask people in your network for help attracting the most relevant speakers. Check in frequently with your partners to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
In our case, Los Niños Services graciously provided the souped-up Zoom webinar account and technology support. Dr. Metz helped us coordinate the lightning-talk companies.
And Kristin Kane, a senior adviser at the ACF Office of Early Childhood Development, connected us with AASA and Dr. Bergeron.
Tip #3: Think About Tapping into Certificates
Licensing requirements and/or pay increases for teachers are often at least partly based on them earning continuing education credits. Awarding continuing education credit and/or other certification is a significant draw.
Over 50 percent of the attendees in the post-conference survey for the COVID-19 Response Conference cited a reason for attending as CEUs, credits for New York State Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLEs), and/or a Certificate of Attendance.
Tip #4: Test Your Technology, and Have a Backup Plan
Have a backup plan for everything you can think of that could possibly go wrong!
Test the technology ahead of the event with each presenter. The more you can divide technical support among various organizers, the better. During the conference, a colleague monitored the chat window. She messaged the most popular questions for each Q&A segment to me, so I could concentrate solely on moderating the Lightning Talks section. Yet another colleague from Los Niños Services handled Zoom tech support.
Multitasking is myth. The more you try to do it, the less smoothly your conference will run.
If you are interested in the content covered in our first conference, links to the resource handout and the recording are on the conference website. We are already planning our next virtual event! We would like to hear about and learn from your successes (and failures).
Image courtesy of free collection on rawpixel.com.
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