No Money for Professional Development? Go Local

min read

Key Takeaways

  • With funding cut for travel to take advantage of professional development opportunities, one solution is to look close to home.
  • Sharing lessons learned and asking questions of colleagues within your immediate geographic area prompts development of a “local” support group.
  • An active group can plan and hold local conferences with minimal investment of time and money and fill the professional development gap.

In 2004, budget constraints meant no funding for me to attend instructional technology conferences that fiscal year. My place of employment at the time was very supportive of professional development opportunities, but the money just wasn’t there. I strongly believe that the participation, collaboration, and knowledge gained at these conferences are invaluable, especially for those working with and promoting engagement in innovative education. So this conundrum got me thinking, “How can I continue to develop my own understanding and knowledge in the field, so I can apply it to my work with faculty, students, and the administration? And how can I do this with no money?”

Think Local

The cities and counties in and around the Capital District of New York (Albany), include many two-year, four-year, and graduate higher education institutions, both private and public. Most of these institutions are less then 30 to 40 minutes from each other. Each employs many individuals (faculty, staff, and administrators) who work with or are interested in instructional technology and pedagogy. From informal conversations through e-mail, phone calls, and face-to-face (f2f) meetings, it became clear that each of us was already using successful strategies for applying technology. In addition, most of us:

  • Had tried techniques that were not so successful.
  • Have knowledge to share and lessons learned.
  • Are seeking answers to questions which are normally addressed at conferences or through timely research.

One of the most remarkable aspects about the Capital District of New York’s higher education community is that none of us were talking and sharing with each other. We really did not know what neighboring colleges or institutions were doing (or not doing) with technology. I found this lack of communication surprising, considering we are geographically close and each moving forward with similar higher educational objectives. To fill this gap, I formed the Capital District Educational Technology Group (CDETG). At the time (2004), a Listserv was the answer (in particular a Yahoo Listserv) to begin this initiative. This free tool allowed me to easily establish, promote, and administer a group. I then began to market this Listserv to various members of the community and asked them to invite others to join as well. The premise was:

  • We are a community filled with higher educational institutions and resources.
  • Let’s begin a group to help us each establish a voice and communication network.
  • We should start by discussing: Who are we? What are other schools doing, what are our needs, what can we share, what do we need to learn? What is working and what’s not? What’s hot?

Membership in the CDETG is not restricted, and it is free. The group today represents 25 colleges and institutions in and around the Capital District, with a total of 150 members. The group has also expanded beyond the Listserv and now has a website and a Facebook group. Dialogue ranges from questions posed to the group members, show and tell, conference notifications, local happenings, data collection, recommendations, and job openings. In addition, we meet f2f two times a year to showcase and discuss particular topics or innovations. Members volunteer their institutions to host these events, during which attendees share what they know and what they are working on either as a presentation or in a panel discussion. Host institutions thus far include:

  • Albany Law School
  • Sage College of Albany
  • Siena
  • St. Rose
  • Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
  • Hudson Valley Community College
  • Empire State College

Delhi State University of New York and the University at Albany have both offered to host and may serve a future conference. Nonmembers may also participate if invited by a member. We usually get about 45–50 attendees at each conference. Topics have included:

  • Delivery and design of technology
  • Podcasting
  • Active learning
  • The future of distance learning
  • Assessment
  • Digital audio and video (with a student panel)
  • Faculty professional development and engagement

Five Steps to Creating a Local Conference and Support Group

Starting a local conference and support group in your region is easy. The five steps described here will help you begin. To position yourself as the founder of a group, however, you will need to be both motivated and well organized.

Step 1: Get to Know Your Community

Take time to investigate the higher education institutions, educational centers, and educational programs in your area. Do you share a common goal with one, some, or many of them (for example, instructional technology, curriculum development, assessment, or training)? Define a common interest and develop a name for your group. Then identify who are the best people (or departments, administrators, staff) to contact and invite to join the group. Members should be determined by their levels of interest and excitement about contributing and sharing.

Step 2: Build a Network

Create a script to use in approaching each person when inviting them to participate. Highlight that this group is free, it is local, and they are being asked to join to share their knowledge and experience. Also, request each participant to invite another local person to join. Explain that the group will begin by facilitating communication through a Listserv. The group may grow, but for now, this is a good place to start — with interested, motivated people who begin the conversations that will yield a vibrant local community focused on technology in higher education.

Step 3: Keep Management and Technology Simple

Find a free and easy-to-use technology to create the group’s memberships and keep everyone communicating. A Listserv might be a good place to start; or perhaps try a social network like Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter. Since you will need to maintain this list, update its members, and eventually expand, consider how much work will be involved for you as the founder. You can eventually seek help from other members as needed, by forming subcommittees. You will know when the time is right to create these groupings. Also, as the group continues to grow, you might want to create a website for current and future members. This could become useful as you morph from remote communication to f2f meetings.

Step 4: Schedule Face-to-Face Sessions

After about six months, when membership is either steady or still increasing, you might want to schedule your first f2f conference. Depending on your group’s goals, you can start with one meeting a year and add more as interest grows. Your members are best suited to identify the need for f2f meetings, so a survey is a great tool to gather the desired information. Additionally, as you enter this stage, put together an event-planning committee (made up of group members). Remind committee members that each conference will still need to be free and scheduled at a convenient time. Solicit topics of interest, urgency of need, and level of members’ expertise. The key here is to use your members as presenters as well as the audience. You might wish to develop a subcommittee to review abstracts. For example, I already had the event planning committee created and asked those individuals to review proposals. They graciously agreed.

Step 5: Put Your Members to Work

After the topics for a local conference are selected, contact members and ask for volunteer locations to host the meeting. The goal here might be to choose a different site each time. Remind the hosting institution that these sessions need to remain free, and if they could provide a continental breakfast or light refreshments for attendees, that would be great. Then connect the volunteer host with the event-planning committee to begin the planning process. Once arrangements are finalized, the entire group should receive an invitation to attend the event, including relevant program details and directions. The information should also be cross-posted on your website, and members should always be reminded to spread the word to their co-workers, peers, and nonmembers. Once everything has come together, you can poll attendees during or after the meeting on how to improve future events, make suggestions, or propose alternative conference topics.