The President of Educational Credential Evaluators (ECE), Margit Schatzman, offers a two-part blog focusing on conferences in the international higher education arena, principally in the subfields of credential evaluation and international admissions and recruitment. Part I covers a bit of an historical overview of in-person events and Part II, addresses how these conferences have evolved over time, in terms of themes, content, and organization.
It is Tuesday afternoon. Early Sunday morning I will be boarding a plane from Milwaukee to attend the Association for International Education Administrators (AIEA) conference in Washington DC. The AIEA conference in February 2020, also in Washington DC, was the last conference I attended before the world shut down in Pandemic mode that March. AIEA 2022 was the first conference I attended in the US as things began to return to a more regular conference cadence. Notice that I do not say normal – because what is normal these days, anyway?
The AIEA conference has become my touchstone for measuring the “before times” and the “after times” in my professional conference life. This seems like a good place to start as I share some thoughts on conferences with colleagues in credential evaluation, international admissions and recruitment, and international education. In Part I, I shall provide an overall view of international conferences, their aims, their offerings, and the value they bring to professional growth in our field. Part II will cover the evolution of international education conferences particularly for those of us who are professional credential evaluators, international admissions officers, and recruiters.
Oh, the conferences you will go
My conference attending experience started with the NAFSA Region V meeting back in the early 1980s in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a recent university graduate with a new professional job as a credential evaluator, I could not believe my good fortune. I had an employer who thought my professional development worthwhile and who sent me to meet with colleagues from three states, and beyond, to learn, connect and grow. Since then, I have attended over 250 conferences and professional meetings in over 40 countries, as an attendee, a Board member, presenter, recorder, session chair, guest speaker, volunteer, and an exhibitor.
Conferences in our field have typically focused on professional content, mostly in the form of workshops, sessions, plenaries, keynote talks and similar formats. In addition, most conferences include a mix of social and networking opportunities, including receptions, shared meals, cultural events, games, and contests. Conferences have a governance content with opportunities for membership associations to hold business meetings, member forums, town hall gathers, board and committee meetings, and planning sessions.
Professional meetings are often a major source of income for associations. Exhibit halls provide a way for attendees to connect with vendors. And the association benefits from exhibitor and sponsorship fees. Many associations include charity and humanitarian efforts as part of their conferences, raising funds related to the mission of the professional group, such as scholarships for those who could not otherwise attend, or to support local charities.
Many affiliated groups use the critical mass of a major conference to hold their own parallel, but not officially related meetings. One of my member organizations, NACES (National Association of Credential Evaluation Services, Inc.) used to schedule its annual business meeting in conjunction with the NAFSA: Association of International Educators or AACRAO (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers) national conferences. So many NACES members were also members of those associations that attending both at the same time was a convenient scheduling choice.
What has changed over the years? Nearly all conferences I have attended over the years have been well-planned and professional. The most significant changes have been in the sophistication of conference planning and execution, and technology. Larger associations replaced much of the administrative work of planning, formerly performed by volunteers, with professional staff or planners. Still, a small army of volunteers is needed to review session proposals, plan hospitality activities, staff workshops, herd lost attendees, and conduct a myriad of other activities.
Technology has changed the planning of conferences and the delivery of content. We are all used to helpful and occasionally frustrating electronic registration systems. The days of faxing in forms and paying by check have long passed. We now scan codes to share exhibit material or business contacts…although most of us still cling to paper business cards.
Some technology has not quite caught on – at least in our community. I remember attending a conference in London that assigned everyone a small, hand-held unit that was supposed to revolutionize our conference experience by providing a means of communicating with session presenters, hooking us up with exhibitors and tracking our movements through the food line. Creepy! I guess that technology was bypassed quickly by our smart phones, which pretty much do the same for us now, with conference apps.
And the paper…the paper is (nearly) gone. I remember preparing for many a session at a national conference, wondering how many people would attend my session. Do I print up to 200 copies of handouts for my session on the Bologna Declaration, only to find that exactly thirty people were interested in the topic? Or do I print out 50 copies of a session on detecting falsified credentials only to face 107 annoyed attendees who were unable to make notes on unavailable handouts? Both scenarios have happened. Now, nobody expects handouts.
Audio visual technology has improved. We can conduct polls of attendees and hook up with websites to show on-line resources. Possibilities for presentation creations have greatly enhanced the quality and polish of most presentations. Nonetheless, clever technology still does not take the place of a knowledgeable and skilled presenter. And if the technology does not work, the skilled presenter has a plan B.
A gathering place for new and familiar colleagues
Some characteristics of conferences go through ebbs and flows. Who attends a conference is dictated more by institutional finances and politics. Sometimes employees are banned from attending a conference in a particular locality because of political considerations. State university systems have sometimes banned conference travel for financial reasons, or to cater to perceptions, whether it makes financial sense or not. Early in my career a conference in Hawaii was off limits to some of my university colleagues because it looked too lavish to their administrations…never mind that airfares were less expensive than many mainland US destinations. Also, sometimes the people in the trenches of institutions who should be attending a conference to learn new skills and information are bypassed by their supervisors, who get to travel because of seniority or status.
The most recent and jarring change to conference attendance was the shutting down of in-person conferences during the Covid-19 pandemic. For many of us, conferences have always meant in-person gatherings, with their workshops full of conference goers, bustling hallways as people moved from one crowded session room to the next, lively receptions and hushed sideline discussions. This was the place to meet old colleagues, connect with an admired mentor or launch a new professional relationship.
Before the pandemic, the advance of electronic means of communication allowed us to attend webinars and other remote types of meetings. People were already seeing the advantages of convening electronically. Drastically lower expenses, accessibility for those with mobility challenges, the ability to bring greater geographical diversity to gatherings and affordability to attract a variety of experts were all existing advantages of remote meetings. And don’t forget the minimal environmental impact of remote meetings.
The pandemic made remote conferences not just an option, but a necessity. For nearly two years remote conferences were the only realistic option for many organizations. This provided a lifeline for our professional connections and continued development. For some, this was the only way to maintain any sort of connections with our fields. Remote conferences, with their goofy happy hours, awkward mixers, breakout rooms forcing us to interact with strangers and overuse of polls, and weary pleas to unmute, kept us carrying on, no matter how dire the future appeared.
Now that in-person conferences have returned, many people seem to have no stomach for the remote version. In our haste to return to the benefits of personal, human contact of the old style, are we missing out on something? As much as many of us still get a thrill out of boarding a plane to a new destination, get a kick out of figuring out the subway system in a city on the other coast, and feel quietly smug that we can figure out in our head the exchange rate for that sandwich we are buying, is in-person really the best way to meet our professional development needs?
In-person, remote, hybrid…what will future conferences look like?
Zoom exhaustion and balancing a remote conference with a regular job that never seemed to stop for conference attendance was a real problem. However, is there a balance between all in-person or all remote. Are the hybrid models that some professional associations are still offering a workable option?
Two conferences of TAICEP (The Association for International Credential Evaluation Professionals) were offered remotely during the pandemic. They were some of the most energizing, engaging, informative and inclusive professional events I have ever attended. I met and listened to people from around the world, many of whom would never have been able to attend the conference because of the financial limitations of their institutions, their geographic diversity, or their professional status. What can we learn from that example?
Despite changes in technology, sophistication, and professionalization of organizing conferences, and the impact of Covid-19, two characteristics of most conferences in our field remain the same…commitments to content and community. Members of our professional associations value conferences for their access to new ideas and information to connect with those with similar interests and goals. Learning and growing through meaningful connections will remain an important part of our professional lives.