During the pandemic, professional learning, like everything else, needed to adapt. With many borders closed, air travel less available, and people experiencing varying stages of public restrictions and lockdowns around the world, more learning happened at home. Like remote learning for schools and higher education organisations, professional learning courses and conferences pivoted to online formats. Presenters presented from home, and participants participated from home. Education organisations capitalised on cost-effective online options for professional learning.
At my school we looked to the virtual, but also to the local and internal. We engaged consultants in targeted and ongoing work alongside our staff, provided opportunities for staff to present their expertise and practice to one another, and arranged time and forums for staff to engage collaboratively in whole-school strategic priorities. We continued, when and where possible, to provide opportunities for intentional and meaningful face-to-face professional learning and to connect with external experts and organisations.
Virtual professional learning, so ubiquitous in 2020 and 2021, has many benefits. It is better for the planet. Without travel and catering, it has lower carbon and economic costs, and a lower environmental impact. It allows greater equity of access for those who may not be able to afford travel, accommodation, and conference costs.
A 2021 paper in Nature Sustainability by Skiles et al. and a 2022 paper by Yates and colleagues in The Lancet confirm that virtual conferences provide environmental sustainability and participant equity benefits. The virtual format overcomes social, economic, and travel-related barriers for those most likely to be impacted by these. It increases participation and representation of those from institutions and countries with limited resources, women, professionals with a disability, and early career researchers and practitioners. It also provides opportunities for increased accessibility through the use of live captions, live chatbox Q&A, and recording sessions for participants to watch later.
However, virtual professional learning has its downsides. After a couple of years of online learning formats, there is a level of Zoom or virtual professional learning fatigue. Digital access in low income countries continues to be a barrier to participation in virtual conferences. Despite some sessions being recorded, time zones of global conferences often favour those in Europe and America. As someone in Western Australia, rarely have the times of international virtual conferences been friendly. Over the last couple of years, I have been scheduled to present at times such as 1am and 4am. Learning or presenting from home also requires the presenter or participant to manage competing demands, not to mention juggling the use of a stretched wifi network across the household’s multiple devices and technology needs. I have attempted to listen to virtual conference keynotes in my kitchen while cooking dinner and trying to focus on the words of the speaker rather than the sounds of my family.
There is something immersive and nourishing about the in-person conference experience. While I may have been able to attend more conferences virtually than I would have been able to in person over recent years, I have missed being there, in situ, with the sights, sounds and smells of another place. I have missed the time afforded by solo travel to sit with ideas, consider them, and think beyond the transactional busyness of the day-to-day. It is often ‘being away’ that allows the space for clarity and creativity of thought, moving us beyond the narrowness of the here and now, to broader perspectives and possibilities. Mostly, I have missed the human connection, including serendipitous meetings; and corridor, coffee, and dinner conversations with colleagues and presenters.
I have found in my own research (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b, 2020), that professional learning is highly individualised, context-specific, and that the ways in which we professionally learn are many and varied. Experiences that shape our professional beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of so-called ‘professional learning’ contexts, solo or collaborative. Effective professional learning can cost a little or a lot. It can happen in person or online. It can take air miles, accommodation budgets, and well-known presenters, or be located on site at work, or in a car while listening to a podcast, or at home via a webinar. Professional learning is a core part of staff belonging and wellbeing. For schools, it should be judicious and simultaneously aligned with the individual’s professional goals and the school’s strategic priorities. It benefits from being ongoing in some way – whether that is a continuing partnership between professional learning provider and school, through a mentoring or coaching relationship, or by a small group of colleagues sharing and developing their learning together after attending a conference or course.
As the world opens back up, and previous models of professional learning become possible once more, Yates et al. challenge us to find new, innovative, and hybrid ways to provide professional learning. They challenge us to focus on planetary health and equity, as well as on effective learning, networking, and collaboration. Organisations can and should continue to consider in what ways they invest in and support the learning of their staff, the kinds of opportunities they provide and promote, their professional learning environmental footprint, and the inclusivity of their offerings and practices.
Netolicky, D. M. (2020). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Routledge.
Netolicky, D. M. (2016a). Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University).
Netolicky, D. M. (2016b). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of professional capital and community, 1(4), 270-285.
Skiles, M., Yang, E., Reshef, O., Muñoz, D. R., Cintron, D., Lind, M. L., Calleja, P. P., Nerenberg, R., Armani, A., Faust, M. K., & Kumar, M. (2022). Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nature Sustainability, 5(2), 149-156.
Yates, J., Kadiyala, S., Li, Y., Levy, S., Endashaw, A., Perlick, H., & Wilde, P. (2022). Can virtual events achieve co-benefits for climate, participation, and satisfaction? Comparative evidence from five international Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy Week conferences. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6(2).