Making the Most of the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference

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As I write this, it is four weeks from the start of the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference. So I thought I would use this blog post to discuss the annual meeting and offer my suggestions for making the most of the EDUCAUSE conference. I’m also hoping that others will write in with ideas they have for making the conference special.

For first-time attendees, the annual conference can seem overwhelming. Approximately 7,000 people will be in attendance, including vendors, and the sheer scale of the conference can make you feel as though you are lost in a sea of humanity. But this year, there is a First-Timer Pit Stop area in the lobby where you can get advice for planning your first conference. My advice? Take advantage of this service! Also, on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in the 500 Ballroom a short orientation will be held for first-timers. This session is designed to provide two things: (1) a chance to meet others who are attending for the first time, and (2) a chance to listen to EDUCAUSE staff and conference committee members give an overview of the conference and go over some aspects you might not have considered.

Below are my “Top 10” things to do at the conference. The common theme is meeting and talking with different attendees. The power of EDUCAUSE is the opportunity to talk with a wide variety of people from many different types of institutions and in many different types of roles. The conference brings together an incredible collection of talented people willing to share their experiences. There is no other venue where you can find so many experts in higher education information technology in one place. And as we have noted in earlier Professional Development Commons blog posts, building and maintaining a strong professional network of peers is critical to your success.

10. Poster Sessions. These occur during the lunch sessions on Wednesday and Thursday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in Exhibit Hall H-K. The poster sessions represent an incredible opportunity to engage one-on-one with people doing interesting projects. When I first started coming to the EDUCAUSE meetings, I didn’t appreciate how useful these could be. But soon I realized that the poster sessions are a wonderful place to benchmark what you are doing against what others are doing and to find ideas that can improve services at your own institution. Mark these sessions as a “can’t miss” for at least one of your two lunch days.

9. Discussion Sessions. Focusing on a particular aspect of higher education information technology, these sessions are run by volunteers in the community and are a chance to meet others doing similar work or having similar interests. If you have not attended these in the past, you should be sure to do so. Over the three days, there are 58 discussion sessions.

8. “Meet the EDUCAUSE Staff.” In sessions that start with “Meet the EDUCAUSE Staff,”EDUCAUSE staff members make themselves available to answer questions from attendees. These are a great opportunity to find out how to get better connected with EDUCAUSE. If you are interested in being more active in the community, this is a great chance to talk to the leaders of EDUCAUSE. If you are interested in professional development opportunities, for example, you should plan to talk to Julie Little. If you are interested in finding a way to participate in some of the ECAR studies or working groups, talk to Susan Grajek. For teaching and learning, talk to Malcolm Brown about ELI. Reaching out to these EDUCAUSE leaders is a great way to learn how to get connected in EDUCAUSE.

7. Preconference Sessions. I am a big fan of the preconference sessions. These sessions usually run for the morning or afternoon on the Tuesday of the conference. This is an opportunity to really engage in a topic with thought leaders from the community and a group of people, like yourself, who are trying to learn more on a topic. These are usually very interactive and give you a chance to gain a lot of information in a short period of time and make professional contacts with others. One of the sessions I attended early in my career was on leadership and was led by Annie Stunden, who was then at Northwestern University. As helpful as the material was, I now also feel comfortable talking with Annie in other situations and found that she was an incredible resource and colleague for a wide range of issues.

6. Sessions. With over 500 sessions at the conference, there is sure to be one on just about any issue that interests you. Although it is important to listen to sessions in your particular area, I recommend that you make certain to pick sessions outside your own area to broaden your perspective. One that I recommend is Dr. Kenneth C. “Casey” Green’s session on the Campus Computing Survey. Taking place on Thursday at 8:00 a.m., this is usually one that you need to get to early, since the room will fill up. This is the twenty-fifth year for the survey, and Casey brings tremendous insight into the forces and issues shaping higher education today. He is an excellent speaker and someone that shouldn’t be missed.

5. Lunch. Step out of your comfort zone and sit at a table where you don’t know the people sitting next to you. If that seems too bold, many of the tables are set up as topic tables; find a topic you want to discuss or learn more about, and sit with people from other institutions discussing that topic. This provides another opportunity to meet people who can help you build your professional network.

4. Core Data Service Session. There are three separate sessions where EDUCAUSE staff will demo the tools for analyzing data from the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service (CDS). The CDS is created by institutions providing a vast amount of data on their services, practices, and budgets. I consider it one of the most valuable services that EDUCAUSE provides institutions because it allows you to benchmark your work against that of other institutions. This session explains how to unlock the secrets the CDS provides and how to use all the data in the most effective manner.  If your institution is not a CDS participant, you can take this back home as one of the projects you will initiate, thus making yourself invaluable to your institution by working to get its data entered.

3. Exhibit Hall. The EDUCAUSE Exhibit Hall is a great place to learn about products that are under development – and also to get some free swag. When my kids were young, they loved the exhibitor goodies I brought home, some of which we still have today.☺ Each year I find at least one vendor doing innovative work that would benefit my institution. One area I absolutely love is the startup-alley. Here you will find startup companies that are focused on the education technology market and that are doing new and innovative services, some created by students. For me, seeing what problems the startups are focused on allows me to discover where I need to check on how we provide that service.

2. Keynote Speakers. With the launch of TED and its vast archives of wonderful speeches that anyone can view, a person might try to make the case that face-to-face keynote speakers are unnecessary in a conference. What these speakers do, however, is set the stage for common dialogue, across all participants, on the lessons raised. This year, EDUCAUSE has selected three fabulous keynote speakers; take the time to listen to these speakers and the ideas they are sharing.

1. The Opportunity to Be Social. First, extend the conference to your social networks. If you are active in social networks, you can add your personal voice to the conference through your tweets, comments, and likes. If you are not active in social media, this might be the time to use Twitter or other social media apps to follow the online discussion. This brings out a new view of the conference. Second, make connections with people; this is what the conference is all about. Check the attendee list and find an acquaintance or colleague to go out to dinner or visit with in the evening. Look for EDUCAUSE Board members, who are always willing to talk with conference attendees. Don’t miss the opportunity to connect with as many people as you can. Your email will always be there for you to answer, but you won’t have the opportunity to make and meet with friends for another year.

I would love to read your comments on what you find most valuable about the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference.

Jack Suess is Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

© 2015 Jack Suess.