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This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education 

Part of learning and stretching is sharing your knowledge with others. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the benefits of presenting at a professional conference. Learn tips on selecting an engaging topic, writing a conference proposal as well as what mistakes to avoid.

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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge today, I’m Bethanie Hansen. And I want to talk with you about how to write a conference proposal. As an online educator, you may be thinking, you need some professional development, and it’s a great idea to go to a conference. There are so many kinds of conferences you could attend. If there’s one locally in your area, it’s especially good to set aside the time and go attend that conference: Low cost, local area, fast access.

But something across the country or across the state, that’s a different story altogether. Now we’re talking about spending money to attend that conference. And it’s a lot easier to justify spending that money if you’re also going to be presenting at that conference. Or, if your institution is considering sponsoring you, chances are the only way they’re going to do that is if you are presenting at the conference. So how do you write a conference proposal?

Well, before we talk about that, I just want to dive into how we can tap into your genius about what you might present at a conference. First, I’ll tell you a little story about myself.

I used to go to professional development conferences as a band director in California. I would go to the State Music Educator National Conference conventions that were for the state of California. These would rotate between Sacramento and San Diego or Los Angeles, every other year. As I went to these, and I noticed others presenting on topics of interest to me, one day, I realized I had that same knowledge. A woman stood up there and shared some exercises that she used with her band and she taught us all how to use them and talked around them.

And I thought to myself, I could be the person presenting this workshop, I know that same stuff. And suddenly it dawned on me, not everybody knows what I know. And, just like me, not everybody knows what you know, either. And so, in my next step, I wrote up a proposal about what was most important to me as a band director. And, as a band director, and still, as an educator today, the very most important thing to me was recruiting and retention.

Recruiting is a whole process of giving awareness to other people, helping them to notice you notice your band program and get interested in joining it in the future. And then there’s those actions about having them join your band this year. And, all of the steps that have to do with that like getting a band instrument, convincing your parents that you should be in the band, figuring out how you’re going to get started. And all of those things that are part of joining the band, the very first year you’re thinking about it.

There’s also the recruiting at different ages. So, if your school district’s band program starts in sixth grade, maybe in seventh grade, someone has moved in from somewhere else, and they didn’t have that chance, and they still want to join band. So, there’s several different processes to recruiting. There’s even high-school level recruiting, where you might be recruiting people to twirl a flag in your marching band, or play cymbals in your percussion section, or even be a beginner on a band instrument. So, there’s a lot of levels to this and I had experience and passion for all of that.

So, I wrote that proposal. And I drafted it up for that State California conference.

And the other half is retention. Once you recruit kids into your program, or students into any class, you have to help them want to stay there. There’s this whole idea that band directors used to have all over the place where they just assumed kids would stay because band is worth doing all by itself, right? Well, that’s not the case. In fact, when kids join your band, you have to work just as hard to keep them there, as you do to get them there in the first place.

There is so much that competes for your students’ time when you’re a band director. You have to really work with them on balancing all those activities they might be in, what if they’re in sports and band at the same time or different clubs, like debate or going on field trips for academic decathlon? There’s just so much. So that topic of recruiting and retention, it’s kind of two different things that goes nicely together. And that’s what I decided I wanted to present on at a conference. So, I wrote up my proposal and I submitted it. And it was accepted. And it was my very first time presenting at a professional conference.

So, I prepared, I made my PowerPoint slides, created a packet of handouts. And I went to this conference. And this session was in a huge theater. And it was full, totally full of about 200 people. I was amazed at how many people came to that conference session that I presented. I ran out of handouts, I had to give them email copies later. But it was a huge success for me, the very first time out.

Other conferences I have presented at have had varying degrees of interest and attention. I have sometimes presented a session to five people, sometimes 35. So, even when you’re accepted to present at a conference, you can never really know exactly what you’re going to get in terms of who shows up, and what you need to deliver it with success. But what you can assume is that someone will want to hear it, even if it’s just one or two people. So, writing that proposal, I suggest thinking about number one, what you know about.

Determine Your Area of Interest to Present On

What is your area of expertise in your academic discipline? What subject matter do you really want to share something about? It could be a teaching strategy, or like my example of recruiting for band directors, it could be a problem-solving strategy. It could be some kind of community-building, like how you could use labs in your virtual science class. It could be some kind of a networking idea, how you’re going to collaborate with other teachers. And maybe you’re going to present a model of how to do that. There are so many ideas of things you are good at, that you could potentially share at a conference.

If you’re not really sure what would be appropriate for a conference, I suggest looking up the website for a conference you might consider attending and looking at last year’s topics. Many of the websites out there for conferences have a list of the topics and the titles of the presentations for the last several years. These can give you a good idea of what might be interesting to conference attendees, or what might suit the audience, generally.

One example for the online teaching space is the Online Learning Consortium. They have two conferences a year one is in the spring, and it’s called OLC Innovate. And when is in the fall, it’s called OLC Accelerate. And as of right now, at the time of this recording, they have a virtual and a live option. So, even if you could not travel to attend that conference, you could still present, even if it’s virtually.

Tips to Writing a Successful Proposal

So, as you think about the topic, there are some tips to help you get this written well and have a greater chance that your proposal will be accepted. The first one is of course to have a suitable topic, the best way to have a suitable topic for a conference, once you’ve decided on your area of interest, whether it’s a subject matter or a strategy, the best way is to think about the tracks and the topics that conference is requesting.

In the case of the OLC Accelerate conference, there are certain tracks and they are all aimed at different audiences. I’ll just give you an example of what these tracks might be, so you have an idea of the type of variety that conferences can have.

The track descriptions for OCLC Accelerate are:

  • access, equity, and open education
  • blended learning strategy and practice
  • engaged in effective teaching and learning
  • instructional design
  • leadership and institutional strategy
  • research, evaluation and learning analytics
  • student support and success
  • technology and future trends

And often there will be some big ideas that have lots of sessions connected to them. And if you can propose something to a less-popular area, where what I mean to say is where there are likely to be fewer proposals, but there is still interest in the audience that even increases your chances of getting accepted more.

So, one example would be that a lot of people at that particular conference, propose things in the category of engaged and effective teaching and learning. After all, most things we’re going to think about in online education are about the teaching and learning, right? Now, if you have something specific about the way you set up the classroom, or a method of the instructional design itself, it makes a lot more sense to tailor it to that instructional design topic, where there are fewer proposals. So, yours will be stand out and it gives you a greater likelihood of being accepted.

Now, in terms of your audience, you want to think about the types of audiences that typically attend those conferences. So, in this situation, where I mentioned one in particular, which is OLC Accelerate, the audiences range from K-12, educators, higher ed educators, to the tech people who designed the classroom itself, you might have instructional designers, tech support, all kinds of people who are really good at focusing on the way the classroom is set up.

There’s a whole audience that is interested in alternative or accessibility strategies. So, if you have a really good handle on universal design for learning, or accommodation strategies for diverse learners, then you could tailor your proposal to that angle. If you are in leadership, or you think your idea is great for an institutional-level strategy, or the leadership team over an organization, then you might tailor your presentation to that. And, if you really want to stretch, you could have a topic that you tailor one way for the leadership group, and a totally different way for the instructional design group and that would give you two different proposals.

Determine the Type of Presentation to Create

Now, as you’re fleshing out your topic, you also want to think about what kind of presentation it’s going to be. And those kinds of presentations vary, there are the virtual poster sessions where you create some slides, they play automatically, and a person watches it like a mini-web presentation. There’s also the education session, which is like your typical lecture style presentation. There are short workshops that are hands on where you expect people to bring a device and play along with you. There are gamified sessions. And there are larger workshops, which would be 90 minutes to 2 hours in length. So, if your topic takes more than just that 45-minute window, maybe it has a Part A and Part B or something that builds on that initial stuff, then you’re going to propose it as a larger workshop.

Proposal Writing Tips

As you write up your proposal, some interesting things that stand out are to have a creative title that conveys exactly what it’s about; to have an abstract that tells participants what they would walk away with if they attended this session. And then in the deeper part of your proposal, where you really flesh out what it’s about, what you will do, and how you will engage the audience that comes to be part of this presentation, two helpful tips seem to work all the time.

One is to use references. Support your approach with some scholarly research and some sources that do support your idea. This adds credibility to what you’re submitting.

And second, detail exactly what participants will leave with at the end of the session. Is it an idea? Is it curiosity? Is it a handout? Is it a template? Whatever it is, your participants will be able to leave with, make it very clear, explain it. And, if appropriate during the proposal process, even include a copy.

Most proposals are intended to be entirely anonymous, and you would need to leave your name off of them. You should not mention your school or your institution. And you want to look over these to make sure they are grammatically correct and well written. I know that seems to go without saying, but I’ve been a reviewer for conference proposals myself for many years now. And, every once in a while, I’ll see one where the person just forgot to use spellcheck and forgot to use the right punctuation, like maybe they dictated it and didn’t check it afterwards. So, be sure to check those things because at the very least, you want it to look and sound professional when you submit it.

And then submit it before the deadline, turn everything in that you need to do and then you wait and you’ll hear back at whatever time they tell you you’ll hear back. I always put that date on my calendar so I can check and find out whether something has been accepted. And the more you practice it this, the more likely you are to get presentations accepted to present at conferences.

Then your next steps would be to plan the presentation around your audience so they definitely get out of it what do you say they’re going to get out of it. One of the biggest mistakes is to prepare a proposal, get accepted, show up, and then present on something different than what you said you were going to present. I’ve sat through presentations like that myself, and perhaps you have also, where we’re sitting there thinking we’re going to learn something, and we never get that out of that session. And it seems to be a huge disappointment. Like, why did we sit through that if we were not going to get what we came for? So, addressing the topics that you say you’re going to address is a really important part of this when you come full circle and actually give the presentation.

The bottom line of all of this is that you have a lot of expertise, you know a lot, and you have areas that you can share with other people who are just learning. It’s time to get up and present those things and share them with your professional community. I want to encourage you to do that. And if you’re listening to this around the time of the recording where this podcast is produced, there are proposals right now being accepted for the OLC Innovate conference coming up in the Spring of 2023. And I would encourage you to submit a proposal to that, and stretch, figure out what you can share with the online community.

And if you’re listening to this later, after the initial publication, you can just check the OLC’s website to see when the next conference is coming and when the next set of proposals will be accepted. I want to encourage you to grow and stretch and share because that’s what helps us to stay motivated and keep learning ourselves. I wish you all the best in writing up your proposal and submitting it this coming month or even this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.