Reflecting on Fall 2016 Distance Learning Conferences

by Kristina Wilson


Last spring, I submitted a flurry of applications for Fall 2016 distance teaching and learning conferences, with the idea that maybe one of them would be accepted. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I would be juggling no fewer than 5 presentations along with Winter 2017 development!

Although the Distance Learning staff regularly present and attend events like these, it’s tough to find the time to debrief the team–and faculty–after each of them. If you’re thinking of participating in a conference next fall, here is quick rundown of the strengths of each event along with descriptions of my sessions, key conference takeaways, and great presentation practices.

UPCEA 2016 Central Region Conference

The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) 2016 Central Region Conference met in Indianapolis, Indiana to bring together the best and the brightest adult and distance learning teams in the midwest, with strong showings from Indiana University, Purdue University, and Kansas State University.

UPCEA leadership was well-represented, and included President Alice Warren, Chief Executive Officer Bob Hansen, Director of the UPCEA Center for Online Leadership Ray Schroeder, and Director of the UPCEA eDesign Collaborative Camille Funk.

My presentation, Meeting the Accessibility Needs of Adult Students with Disabilities, was based on an article I wrote for UPCEA Unbound: Reinventing Higher Education, which describes how adult students with disabilities are a largely invisible student population and what we can do to anticipate their needs. Attendees had lots of great questions about captioning workflows and current federal policy. One participant added that many adult students don’t even realize that they have a disability, and described being diagnosed with a learning disability as an adult learner.

One key takeaway is that UPCEA has a number of professional communities that faculty and staff–who are included in Northwestern’s institutional membership–may be interested to join, including the Center for Online Leadership, the eDesign Collaborative, or the Center for Research and Marketing Strategy.

This would be a great event for faculty who are curious about the structure of online programs and online course development teams across the midwest.

8th Annual Quality Matters Conference 2016

Quality Matters is a set of research-based standards for quality in online education, and it’s something we believe in strongly at the School of Professional Studies. You can read more about it at our Quality Matters Overview page. In October, this national conference was held in Portland, Oregon, and featured presenters and attendees from all over the world, eager to engage in discussions about the quality of online education. This conference was great for meeting peers interested in accessibility. It was part of the conversation in almost every session, including my own.

I gave a presentation on vetting webapps to meet Standard 8.2 (“Information is provided about the accessibility of all technologies required in the course”) and Standard 8.3 (“The course provides alternative means of access to course materials in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners”). There are so many cool educational technologies that you can use to create variety of content and increase engagement in an online class! How do you choose?

First, make sure that your choice aligns with the learning objectives. Don’t use technology for technology’s sake! Then (and this is point I tried to drive home in my presentation) consider whether all of your students will be able to use it, especially if they navigate using a keyboard or screenreader. I asked conference attendees to assess the accessibility of a few technologies by going on a scavenger hunt for accessibility statements on ed tech websites and using personas to imagine future student use.

I also encouraged them to bring hard questions to the table when working with vendors: What considerations have you made for web accessibility? Can you demonstrate this app using a keyboard or screenreader? If the vendor representative has a hard time answering these questions or is unwilling to demonstrate these features, there is a good chance that some of your students will not be able to use it.

Two other excellent presentations on accessibility demonstrated best practices for presentation. The team behind See Stars: Making Astronomy Classes Accessible to Visually Impaired Students included a physics instructor, an accessibility advocate, and a screenreader tester (and former student!) who provides accessibility consulting to faculty members. I would love to see more diverse teams of presenters. Raising the Bar: Leveraging Innovation to Extend Standard 8 and Advance Accessibility had an interesting choose-your-own adventure format, where a series of discussion topics were presented as linked slides. The audience had agency as the presenter asked what they wanted to learn about for the next hour, and this technique exemplified Universal Design for Learning principles.

This would be a great event for faculty who are just starting out with Quality Matters, or who want to check out examples of how others have implemented the standards in their online classes.

Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) International Conference 2016

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) is a national nonprofit, and their mission is to “advocate and innovate on behalf of all adult learners.” This year, they held their international conference in their hometown, Chicago. Their organization strongly supports Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) and in addition to professional and continuing education is committed to supporting basic education and veteran support programs.

I attended on a one-day pass to facilitate a roundtable discussion called “Meeting the Accessibility Needs of Adult Learners Online.” Together, we filled every seat at the table and had a lively discussion that started with acknowledging how online, adult students with disabilities can be difficult to detect and serve. Although they are more likely to have disabilities, they are less likely to register for to receive accommodations than the general student population. We talked about the potential for changes in federal legislation supporting students with disabilities, shared tactics for implementing web accessibility guidelines on a shoestring budget, contemplated faculty training for accessibility, and agreed that accessibility considerations benefit all students.

The plenary presentation on the day I attended–the day after the 2016 election results were released–was What do the Results of November’s Election Mean for Adult Learners? The panelists and audience were eager to discuss the future of the field, and suggested that forthcoming federal infrastructure projects would require extensive workforce training. Likewise, they proposed that adult education would have an important social justice role to play in developing the skills of voters who have struggled in the globalized knowledge economy.

One excellent presentation by Debra Leahy at the New England College of Business highlighted the fact that online classes help cultivate skills that businesses value, which include: thriving in a fluid workplace, learning agility, curating your own learning, managing virtual teams, and experience with continual improvement.

This would be a great event for faculty who want to learn about educating diverse adult student populations.

Northwestern Learning, Teaching, and Assessment Forum 2016

Held each year by the Searle Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning, the Learning, Teaching, and Assessment Forum is a free, local conference that showcases the teaching practices of innovative Northwestern instructors. This year’s theme was Examining the Evidence of Student Learning and featured presentations from a broad range of faculty.

Provost Dan Linzer started off the day by discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion in academics and teaching practice following the 2016 election results. A joint team of developers presented the Wildcat Geogame, designed in response to the poor results of a geography poll on campus, and Sylvia Lovato, a doctoral student at Northwestern’s Media, Technology and Society program, described the liminal space between boredom and anxiety in games (and learning).

Fadia Antabli, Assistant Professor in Arabic for the Middle East and North African Studies Program in Weinberg College, showcased the structure of the flipped model in her Arabic language classroom: pre-learning, minilecture, focus groups, peer review, reflection, and self-correction.

This would be a great event for faculty who are curious about their peers’ teaching innovations, both online and face-to-face.

Get the Most Out of That Conference

Networking is one of the most valuable experiences that you can have when attending or presenting at a conference. Here are a few networking logistics tips that I use and value.

Business Cards – As an easy conference hack, stock the back of your name badge with business cards. Then you don’t have to dig around in your wallet or purse any time you’d like to exchange one.

Sticky Notes – Keep a small stack of sticky notes in your notebook or stuck to your laptop. Anyone you meet who has forgotten or run out of business cards can provide their name and e-mail address quickly and easily.

LinkedIn Follow-Up – At the end of the day, look up the most dynamic presenters and people you traded cards with on LinkedIn, providing personalized messages that reference the name of the conference and a key detail or takeaway from your interaction. It’s a great way to debrief and reflect, and to ensure that the connections you make extend beyond the end of the proceedings.

The team also shared their thoughts in the recent SLATE 2016 Conference Reflections blog post. If you’d like to discuss any of these conferences or presentations in more detail, I welcome you to contact me!

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