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The AISA Virtual Conference: Inspiring Innovation

Demonstrating all that is positive and possible in online professional learning
By Graham Watts
The AISA Virtual Conference: Inspiring Innovation

The Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA) embraced a plethora of new opportunities to innovate, engage, and learn as we shaped our 2020 Annual Conference, which took place from 24 October – 27 November this year.

The AISA Professional Learning Design Team decided we did not want to replicate the three-day conference model that suits onsite, face-to-face learning. Instead, we spread the online learning into smaller, more spaced-out chunks to allow participants time to prepare, engage, practice, and reflect.

Typically, our conference offers whole-day “Deep Dives,” where one group collaborates with a facilitator for five hours. This wouldn’t work online, we determined. So we developed a linear model for Deep Dives, offering 12 hours of collaborative and self-paced learning spread over five weeks.

Online Deep Dives

With 12 Deep Dives on offer, AISA endeavoured to meet the identified learning needs of educators, school leaders, school finance managers, admissions managers, school nurses, and counsellors.

The AISA Deep Dive learning architecture is as follows:

Week 1: Synchronous meeting between participants and facilitator and initial interaction on the learning management system (LMS) that forms the foundation of the Deep Dive

Week 2: Asynchronous, self-paced learning based on the LMS

Week 3: 2 x 90 minute synchronous workshops to go deep into the topics being explored

Week 4: Asynchronous, self-paced learning based on the LMS

Week 5: Summative meeting, reflections and action planning for the next steps

The learning does not end in Week 5, however. Participants are invited to work towards earning a competency-based, micro-credential that demonstrates their mastery in the area of the Deep Dive. This is likely to become the focus of educators’ professional development for the rest of the school year.  

Virtual Conference Day

In addition to the five-week Deep Dives, we created a one-day virtual conference model that took place in the middle week of the Deep Dives. This day was as much about community building and making connections as it was about professional learning. Rather than using external facilitators as we were with the Deep Dives, the Virtual Conference Day honoured the experience and expertise of those working in AISA schools.

Some of the design decisions were challenging. When working with the four time zones that span Africa, it is hard to find a time that suits everyone. Designing a pace and vibe that will keep participants engaged for a full day, especially over the weekend, took careful planning. Ensuring that participants could connect and talk to each other as they would at an onsite conference led to some innovations in online networking.

The virtual conference consisted of short, pithy workshops and discussion groups. These included:

Innovative Practice Workshops where AISA educators showcased a successful approach to a common problem or challenge. The fascinating innovations and insights that were shared demonstrated that Africa remains the continent of innovation.

Learning Partner Workshops where AISA’s Associate Members and Conference Sponsors led solution-focused workshops highlighting their current partnerships with schools in our region.

Affinity Groups where people came together around an issue or interest that they have a shared passion for. These groups were an innovation this year and proved to be enormously popular. Groups included “A Call to Action: Promoting Women in Leadership”; “Join the Movement for Change: Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in International Education”; and “Stepping Out in International Schools in Africa: Equity for LGBTQIA+ Educators.” Affinity Groups will continue to meet during the year following their initial meets as part of the virtual conference day and I predict will become a core component of future conferences.

Creating Personal Connections at a Virtual Conference

After exploring many technological possibilities, we decided on three options that would allow participants to network online during the breaks between workshops. Our “Coffee Shop” feature facilitated groups that formed around interests such as recommendations for travel in Africa and sharing top tips on books and TV shows.

We also included a 1:1 discussion facility and added the conference delegate list to this feature so that participants could see if contacts from other AISA schools were attending and set up a chat with them. Although the Virtual Conference Day moved along at a fast pace and offered many choices for engagement, these online connection capabilities were accessed by almost everyone to the point where we had to remind participants that the next session was about to begin.

Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, with 95 percent of attendees stating that they would take part in another Virtual Conference Day. No matter what the future holds, AISA’s future professional learning program will include online components in Deep Dives and Conference Days. The new normal will be a blend of onsite, face-to-face professional learning with many more online opportunities than we have seen before.

Graham Watts is Deputy Executive Director for the Association of International Schools in Africa. 

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