For the first time in a while I went to both conferences this spring in New Orleans and Brighton respectively.  I gave papers at both events, which were important opportunities to develop my new business, catch up with old friends and make some new ones.  Funding my own attendance  led to me to reflect sharply on whether they were worth the money.

Firstly, let me admit some bias.  I’m British and have attended most IATEFL conferences since 1990, was once co-ordinator of its Learning Technology Special Interest Group and was on its main committee for a few years in the 1990s.  This was only my second TESOL, the first was Chicago 1996.    I appreciate there are dozens if not hundreds of other national and regional ELT conferences and events each year which I will not discuss here.

Programme

TESOL takes place over 3 days where IATEFL is over 4 days with a mixture of large plenaries and smaller sessions from lesser known speakers.  Both have pre-conference events and activities. TESOL only accepts around 27% of proposals whereas IATEFL accepts all  from correctly completed applications.  There was little discernable difference in quality between the two, I saw some excellent and indifferent presentations at both.  The biggest challenge is working out which sessions to attend and finding their rooms on time.

 

I  like IATEFL’s SIG  track, in which each Special Interest Group has a dedicated day of programming in one room or cluster of rooms, which enables you to follow an interest in more depth, and reduces the hassle of finding session rooms.

 

Coverage of Learning Technology

Both conferences had some very good presentations, IATEFL’s was mainly through its Learning Technology track, though it had a reasonable distribution of technology-related presentations on its main programme which I like better as I prefer these issues more “mainstreamed” rather than just left to geeks like myself.

My TESOL presentation on the future of courseware and mobile learning was one of the few mobile-related talks on the main programme, as TESOL has a separate “E-Village” with a different application process and timetable with shorter presentations from practicing teachers.  These included  some who talked about direct and recent experience of using smartphones and iPads with their students, which I found really useful.

Venue

New Orleans and Brighton are both vibrant and enjoyable tourist destinations.  It was good to see New Orleans getting itself back after the trauma of hurricane Katrina,  but it was not a very convenient location for many would-be participants from the major populations of TESOL members, and numbers were significantly down.  Brighton by contrast is a very convenient location for many UK and international delegates and numbers were up.

Both venues were too small for their respective conferences, and there were over flows to nearby hotels requiring a minimum 10 minute walk.  This is inconvenient for participants quite dispiriting for presenters (myself in both cases) who are likely to get smaller audiences.  I appreciate that it is impossible to find an affordable city –based venue that  can accommodate 1500+ delegates.   I found myself watching the IATEFL opening plenary on a TV screen in an overflow room, because the plenary room was full, a big disappointment, and after this I avoided most plenaries and watched them on IATEFL Online when I got home.

Evening  programmes

I had a great time in both places, but in TESOL you have to find your own fun because there isn’t a social programme.  By contrast IATEFL’s is full of  evening events and presentation from David Crystal, story telling, Pecha Kucha and a comedy night.  Plus the publishers and the British Council organize  drinks parties.  I was surprised to see that IATEFL also offered trips to nearby tourist destinations while the conference was still on.

Costs

It cost me around £1200 to attend TESOL and around £500 to attend IATEFL. A big chunk of the former was for the flights which cost around £450 and the need to stay a couple of extra days.  TESOL’s recommended hotels were expensive and I found myself a much cheaper B&B on Tripadvisor, which I also used for IATEFL.

In both cases it pays to plan ahead to get cheaper travel and accommodation.  IATEFL requires you to be a fully paid up member and pay your conference registration of £125 when you submit your proposal 6 months  before the conference, whereas you can delay with TESOL, which works out a bit more.  I was irritated to have to pay TESOL an additional $75 (£46) to use a data projector, IATEFL stopped doing that some years ago.   All this can be difficult for teachers applying for grants or funding from their employers which depend on their getting a paper accepted.

 

Exhibition

The TESOL exhibition was a shadow of the one I saw in Chicago 1996, a sign of both the times, and the reluctance of exhibitors to incur the expense of going to New Orleans.  It looked a bit lost in a huge hall, and the presentation/conference spaces rented by some publishers and  English test providers looked very forlorn.  IATEFL probably had the same size exhibition but it filled its space and had a real buzz to it.  This was helped by providing free coffee  to delegates.

Exhibitors, especially  small companies, at both events were concerned at the time, trouble and expense of having a stand, particularly at TESOL which charges a lot for Wifi or even extra chairs.  Some regulars decided not to bother this year, and enjoyed the freedom to network and attend sessions instead of having to be chained to their stands all day.

Online events

TESOL provided some online events related to its E-Village before its convention which I never got round to joining, and filmed some conference sessions which I think  you could view for $50 but I can’t find the link to this now.   It was also possible to see a webstream of the CALL-IS E-Village presentations.

By contrast, the British Council provided a very impressive IATEFL online presence, with videos of the main plenaries, and interviews with over 70 presenters including myself.  This is the fifth time it’s done this, and it attracts tens of thousands of viewers, most of whom could never dream of being able to attend in person.  IATEFL is arguably too reliant on the British Council for its online conference, particularly as the British Council’s branding on the site gets stronger every year.

 

My advice to both organisations

Both organizations are run by a mixture of volunteers and full time salaried staff, and this year, with the help of the British Council they invited committee members and conference organizers to attend each other’s conference.  I hope this will enable them to develop the kind of perspective offered by this article.

TESOL should enhance its social programme to enable more networking, especially for new and international delegates, and it needs a more formal approach to making sessions available online.  IATEFL  has shown that there is a real demand for online, without undermining the demand for face to face. Despite the wealth of High Definition and online, there has been a growth in the demand for attending sport and live entertainment and I suspect this will also be the case for professional conferences.   This also means presenters need to raise their game, and it’s good to see both conferences encouraging them to develop their presentation skills.  I was worried though about some plenary presenters who seemed overly focused on entertaining their audiences losing the substance and relevance to ELT.  There is a happy balance between the two,  achieved by Gavin Dudeney who had good content, beautiful visuals and was once a stand-up comic, damn him!

I worry about the long lead-in times for conference presentations, TESOL presenters have to submit proposals 9 months beforehand, and wait 4-5 months to know if they’ve been accepted.  IATEFL takes 6 months, but even that seems long, especially in the digital sphere, and both organizations ought to think about how they could achieve shorter lead-in times, perhaps for part of their conferences.

I guess there will be challenges ahead for the exhibitions as course materials and marketing becomes increasingly digital.  This is a risk for both conferences as they rely heavily on the support of the publishers, exam bodies and course providers who exhibit and sponsor events and presentations.

Verdict

So, which conference is better?  It really depends on what you want and the kind of ELT world you come from, as the conferences reflect two very different teaching cultures and approaches.  I prefer the more international approach  and flavour of IATEFL, but diversity and challenge is good, and for this reason I’ll probably put in another TESOL proposal.  Trying to gauge now what is going to be current and interesting in learning technology for Philadelphia in March 2012 is going to be tricky but I’ll give it a go.