Free, Online Conferences: An Equitable Model for Professional Development


The teaching and learning landscape has changed more in the past 10 years than ever before, making professional development critical for educators. Professional organizations like EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) have been coordinating online conferences for members for many years. However, in higher education, workshops are the most common format used to facilitate professional learning. Those who coordinate workshops often share frustration over low attendance. After all, coordinating a workshop involves a lot of work — securing the room, identifying a speaker/facilitator, and promoting the event. And those who are unable to be on-campus are excluded from the opportunity to learn and grow.

One alternative to the face-to-face workshop is holding a webinar instead (in Zoom, for example). If you have tried coordinating webinars and encounter the same low attendance, you aren’t alone. Sometimes the option to just watch the archive later is tempting and other times, it’s hard to push aside pressing issues to join the session.

But what might happen if webinars were re-imagined a bit by clustering them into a day-long event, organized around a theme, and anyone could attend for free — online from their own device or on-campus? This blog post details how the California Community Colleges are coordinating free, online conferences to provide a more equitable professional development model for faculty and staff that untethers professional learning from a college campus.

The Setting

My team provides professional development in support of high quality online teaching and learning for the 114 (soon to be 115) California Community Colleges. This past year, my team has been experimenting with different ways to provide professional development in support of online teaching using webinar technology (Zoom). We know that our stakeholders include roughly 60,000 faculty, 70% of whom work part-time and many teach at multiple colleges. We also support an additional estimated 30,000 classified staff and administrators. We’re interested in improving attendance and, more importantly, access to professional development for faculty and staff across the state and building community across campuses.

We hear from our stakeholders that it is important for them to receive verification of attendance for professional development, as most of our colleges include a stipulation in the contract (referred to as “flex credit”) which is, essentially, money for professional development. We also know that those on campus who are tasked with supporting faculty who teach online have complex and varied roles, leaving little time for the heavy-lifting involved with coordinating live events. With these two challenges in mind, we used Digital Learning Day last February to try out a new model — the free, online conference. Read more about what we learned from Digital Learning Day here.

Re-Imagining Conferences

What is a conference after all? It is a convening of subject matter experts who share ideas and interaction among attendees. Don’t get me wrong — conferences are important and the model we propose here is not intended to replace the value of meeting face-to-face. The reality is, however, only a small percentage of faculty and staff have the resources to travel and are, therefore, usually excluded from the face-to-face conference model. And, I don’t know about you, but I have been to some conferences that have made me look at the price tag of my experience (air, hotel, registration, ground transportation) and think, really?

So, last February my team coordinated CCC Digital Learning Day, which was an extension of the national Digital Learning Day, a grassroots, mostly K12, event that is comprised of organic mini-events around the country (such a cool model). We opened a call for proposals, put together our program, and used Zoom’s webinar interface to deliver the sessions. You can view the session archives here.

In addition to the online program, we extended a warm invitation to CA Community Colleges to organize “group viewing rooms” on campus. This was done by linking a simple, editable Google Doc pre-formatted with a table for viewing room volunteers to complete. We were pretty excited to have 3? colleges step up. At the end of the day, we had 531 people attend the event, which we were thrilled with. You can read more about the event and what learned here.

Building on what we learned from #CCCDLDay, we were eager to re-imagine a fall event, Can•Innovate. Can•Innovate is focused effective practices for the use of Canvas, the LMS that was recently adopted by all California Community Colleges as part of the CCC Online Education Initiative (OEI). Can•Innovate has it origins in the Los Rios Community College District, which held annual “Innovate” conferences that became Can•Innovate in 2017 to support the statewide adoption of Canvas. This year, with support and collaboration from American River College, CVC-OEI/@ONE planned the event as a free, online conference, held on October 26, 2018.

Working with a group of faculty and staff from across the state, we leveraged what we learned from CCC Digital Learning Day and went bigger. With the use of 3 Zoom webinar accounts (compared to one for CCCDLDay), we organized a program that started at 8:15am and ended at 4:45pm. The general sessions (which began at 10, 11, 12, 2, 3) were comprised of 3 concurrent sessions, giving attendees more choices.

We also designed choice into the attendance options. Attendees could participate for free:

  1. from one’s own device,
  2. from an on-campus viewing room,
  3. or from one of the 5 regional hubs.

Another guiding principle of the event design was to ensure participants — regardless of how they attended — would be able to receive credit and that my team would have a record of attendance (an important part of our reporting we do for the Chancellor’s Office). The verification for those who attended online was provided automatically via Zoom, which is a built-in step when you set up a webinar with required registration. The verification goes out via email 24 hours after the event and only goes to individual who registered and attended. To ensure attendance for on-campus participants, we set up collaborative sign-in forms and asked those on-site to track the attendance in the room at each session.

Since this was a Canvas event, the advisory committee wanted to be sure to use Canvas in the event itself. So a public Canvas course was created with easy-to-access page for each session. The page included the speaker photos, bios, link to register, and presenter materials (slides and other resources). If you visit the pages now, you’ll find the video archives in place of the register button.

How did it go?

Our conference evaluation is still open, but so far we have received terrific feedback about the quality of the program and the user experience, overall. Our session with the highest attendance (340 people) was the keynote presentation by Natalie Miller, recent graduate of College of the Canyons, who spoke about a Student’s Perspective on Education Empowerment. How cool is that? View the archive of Natalie’s presentation here.

The numbers were definitely exciting! Online registration for the 19 online sessions maxed at 5,870. At the end of the day, we had a total of 3,285 online attendances (duplicated headcount) which translated to 982 people in the online viewing audience. Factoring in the attendance that was tracked in the 31 on-campus viewing rooms and 5 regional hubs, the total number of attendees came to 1,099.

Here is a breakdown of attendance by role:

  • Full-time faculty: 42%
  • Part-time faculty: 34%
  • Classified: 12%
  • Administrator: 7%
  • Student (yay!): 1%
  • Other: 4%

What did we learn?

We have a list of Zoom questions and I’ll be debriefing these with our moderators next week and reaching out to Zoom to get some questions answered. When it comes to using Zoom for a large event like this, here are some practices that we found helpful:

  • Practice sessions. To prepare for each online session, the moderator should schedule a brief 20-30 minute practice session with the speaker(s). The practice sessions provided an opportunity to identify and resolve multiple issues, including the confusion about which link to click on to join (Zoom provides a unique Panelist link for webinars). Some practices turned into feedback discussions, led by the presenters asking for input on how to improve their presentation, which was great to see.
  • Guides. Create and share a guide for the practice session and guide for moderating the webinar for the real session. These guides are helpful for new moderators. We’re still refining ours, but would be happy to share!
  • Use consistent equipment. To eliminate technical problems, the practice session should be scheduled at a time that both the moderator and presenter(s) are on the same computer/network connection that they will be on during the scheduled event.
  • Back-up support. We had 19 sessions that were moderated by 8 people, including four wonderful volunteers. We didn’t have the resources to have a technical support person be in each webinar with the moderator, but this would be the ideal situation. If that’s not possible, organize a “who to call for help” list so moderators have someone to contact in case of an emergency.

Things we are working on:

  • Streamlined registration. We’d like to find a way to improve the user experience, while still maintaining the ability to get automatic confirmation for attendance (down to the granular session level). With our current process, if a person wants to attend 8 sessions, they must register 8 times. We’d like to see a more streamlined user experience that allows a person to select multiple sessions in one sweep. We are researching solutions that integrate with Zoom’s registration process. If you have suggestions, please let me know.
  • Tracking attendance on-campus. As noted earlier, @ONE tracks the attendance numbers for our events and submits them regularly as part of our system grant reporting to the Chancellor’s Office. We developed a sign-in form for our group viewing rooms participants to complete at the start of each session. The number of attendees that completed the form was low (76 people across 32 viewing rooms). It is difficult to know if this number is accurate or if the form wasn’t used.
  • A consisted user experience across sessions. Multiple Zoom accounts and 8 different moderators make it tricky to ensure the user experience is the same throughout the day. Some webinar settings can be configured in the Zoom account, but others are managed within the session itself. This creates many variables. We’re still getting our arms around how to create a streamlined user experience.

What are your thoughts about this model? Are you doing something similar or would you like to try? Let me know!

2 Comments to “Free, Online Conferences: An Equitable Model for Professional Development”

  1. Michael Berman

    Michelle, this is fantastic. I’m curious about strategies that you’ve employed or are considering that go beyond the one-way content delivery model of webinars to try to encourage a more interactive experience. What’s been your experience so far?

    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. You ask a timely question. This is certainly something we’re playing with. In many ways, webinar are more interactive than conference sessions. The chat backchannel can be very dynamic in a webinar and more inclusive than a Twitter backchannel at a conference. We are interested in playing with the Meeting feature of Zoom that includes Breakout Rooms. They are amazing — a super easy way to divide a large group into smaller Zoom sessions for a period of time and then have everyone rejoin the main room. Lots of potential. The challenge is managing expectations. So often folks come into Zoom with their webcam disabled, planning to just listen. In fact, that’s what the “webinar” Zoom interface is like by default (and we are using that interface for all we do). So, we need to be very careful and mindful about how to ensure folks who enter a session that will use breakout rooms knowing that they are full participants. I think I’d write a clear description and include a note that the room will be “locked” 5 minutes into the session. Locking a room ensures nobody else can join. When you activate breakout rooms, it’s always hard when you have folks join late because then you need to figure out where to place them. I think it could work really well with careful branding of these sessions. We’ll have to see! 🙂

      What are your thoughts?


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