Appalachian State’s “Free-Learning Conference”: A Great Event Packed into One Day

I like to look for professional development opportunities off the usual path of the most popular education conferences (e.g., BbWorld, Online Learning Consortium), since stepping outside the box can offer great learning potential. This year, I discovered an excellent one-day event in the mountains of North Carolina that was well worth the drive.

The AppState Summer Free-Learning Conference, offered annually since 2012, explores “recommended practices for teaching, learning, and eLearning in higher education.” If you use technology in teaching or support of teaching, then this conference can benefit you. I found a link to the Free-Learning Conference site early this summer while searching for information on MOOCs, and in researching the conference, I determined that it could benefit me in a professional development capacity. The venue also seemed perfect for me and a colleague to present a session, so I submitted a proposal and was accepted.

Our session received good evaluations after the conference, so I know that my colleague and I contributed positively, and I was impressed with the other sessions that I attended. Below is a quick summary of the sessions I found most constructive:

Opening comments and keynote “Drive: What Motivates Us,” by Jay Fenwick

Appalachian State Professor Jay Fenwick’s keynote focused on the book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink, a well-known author of books on management, business, and work. I have read this book and others by Pink and find them all fascinating. Specifically, Drive emphasizes that our key motivators are not money and other material-like rewards but, rather, three key elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Having read the book already, I understood well what Fenwick proposed and gained a better understanding of how it applies as much in education as in other areas.

Helping Students Design Effective Presentations, by Michael A. Vaughn

Michael Vaughn, an instructional technologist at Elon University, presented an elegant, interesting, and motivating talk (along with presentation slides that would knock your socks off) on how to make presentations better. Though the title was a bit misleading, in that the presentation was applicable for anyone, not just students, Vaughn practiced what he preaches in how his own presentation was designed and offered. If you’re interested in reading some of Vaughn’s thoughts on improving presentations, just link to his blog post on the Elon website.

Making a Makerspace, by Michael A. Vaughn

Vaughn, whom I noted above, presented a second session on developing a makerspace at Elon University. I had never heard of makerspaces (aka hackerspaces or hacklabs), which are “community centers with tools” that enable users to meet and collaborate, driving creativity and innovation. Vaughn opened the session with several work areas where attendees could work with a 3D printer (that an Elon student had created himself!), make lighted name badges, construct “things” with Legos, and do other hands-on work. He then discussed how Elon had implemented a makerspace. This makes me wonder if my own institution has such an area for students to meet, collaborate, and build and even if a virtual makerspace might be a possibility using our e-Campus platform.

Closing session “Urban Legend or Practical Pedagogy: Are You an e-Learning Ninja?” by Susan Van Patten and Candice Benjes-Small

To end the day, Dr. Susan Van Patten and Dr. Candice Benjes-Small of Radford University divided the attendees into groups and led a competition to determine which group could identify statements that were true based on evidence from research and that were simply “urban legend.” This was a fun activity that required some critical thought on attendees’ parts, and we often debated within our groups the validity of these statements. (I am proud to say that of the ten or so statements presented, I was wrong on only one.)

After the day of varied sessions at Appalachian State’s Free-Learning Conference 2015, I am able to say that I fully enjoyed the day, met some good people, and learned as well. It was well worth the price (free!), and I’d recommend it for anyone interested in technology-facilitated education. With luck, I’ll be there again next year!

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