I've been trying to put my finger on why the NEXT conference feels different (and I had the exact same feeling at their conference last year). On paper, it's like other conferences: there are keynotes, there are sessions, there are chances to meet others at meals, and there's swag (although the Schoology swag tops anything I've ever seen at a conference). But there's something that makes NEXT special, so this post is a reflection on why.
I heard a repeated comment from other people at the conference that this was the best conference they'd ever attended - and I heard that comment a lot. That's quite a statement to make, and when I asked someone specifically why, here was the response: "It was the sense of community. It was really something unique, and I haven't felt that at other conferences."
Well said. When I think back on it, the entire conference focused on connecting and being part of something meaningful, not just about the product. So how did they manage to build that sense of connection and community? Here are a few things that I think made this possible.
- Connecting with the development team. Not only were there sessions led by the Schoology's development team, along with open lab time where you could just stop in & chat with them, but Schoology's development team attended other sessions to get feedback and ideas from users. This opportunity to connect with the very people who build and enhance the platform made us feel like we were part of the company's vision and roadmap. And it helped us put faces with names, which always helps with community.
- Connecting with the founders of the company. The opening keynote was given by Jeremy Friedman, the CEO of Schoology, and Ryan Hwang, the Chief Product Officer. Not only did this let the attendees see and hear from the very people who started the company, but they shared their vision with us and let us know where they were headed in a very personal way. In addition, Jeremy hosted a "fireside" chat, where anyone could ask questions. Their interest and involvement in being approachable and visible connected the very top of the company with its user base, which was pretty powerful.
- Connecting virtually with other users. All attendees were enrolled together in a common course for the conference. This isn't necessarily unique as many conferences have apps or sites to post resources, but what made this work so well was the way people used the course updates to connect with each other at the conference. The stream of posts from users (not just Schoology folks) pulled everyone into the conversation -- people posted questions, ideas, resources, and even arranged to meet face-to-face with others. Basically, it became the central communication and sharing spot, which allowed for connections to occur naturally and made people feel included in very collaborative way.
- Connecting in person with other users. The conference was paced very well, which impacted how people could connect with each other. Too often, you're racing from one session to the next with little time for reflection or conversation. The schedule had at least 30 minutes between sessions, plenty of time for lunch, and snacks provided during the breaks. I got the chance to connect in person with so many more people during this conference than I usually do, mostly because the time structure allowed for it. But, in addition to the schedule, there was an 80's party with an awesome live band, a place to get pictures taken, and snacks & beverages on one of the nights. This opportunity let us connect with each other socially as well as professionally.
- Connecting with something bigger than ourselves. I don't know if this was intentional, but the two keynotes were laden with the idea of connecting to larger ideas. Fareed Zakaria really made me think about where education fit into globalization and equality, and Ken Shelton made me think about what it means to connect with students and their needs. Both keynotes made me feel like, as an educator, I am part of larger community that can change things for the better. And I felt like I could do it with the community surrounding me in the room.
If you're a company who hosts conferences or provides those types of services, you should pay attention to what Schoology is doing, because they're doing something right. And their amazing growth is testament to that. Their company slogan, "Learn. Together." is at the heart of what they do, and this includes NEXT. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do next year. If their previous conferences are any indication, it will be something special.