Shaking up the ELT conference format

ELT conferences are great. They’re an opportunity to learn, to network, to make new friends. They’re also a chance to enjoy a few nights out where it’s acceptable that ELT is the only thing on the conversational menu! But having attended a couple of conferences already this year, with IATEFL on the way, and with my memories of past years still fresh, I increasingly feel that the ELT conference scene could benefit from a bit of a shakeup. On May 8–9th this year, ELTjam and Oxford TEFL Barcelona are hoping to do just that with our Innovate ELT Conference.

Here are a few of the things about ELT conferences that we felt were due an update and how we’ve decided to address those things for our event in Barcelona.

1. Where are the students?

Students and learners inform everything we do, so it seems odd that they so rarely feature at conferences (2011’s Unplugged Conference, also held in Barcelona at Oxford TEFL, being a rare exception). I know that most of us see students every day, but involving them in our professional development seems appropriate given how integral they are to the profession itself. At Innovate ELT we’ve decided to have a range of sessions, some with learners and some without. We feel this allows delegates to get a really good idea of how innovative methods, technologies and materials work in their intended environments.

2. Where are the tasks?

It’s important that people who attend a conference are free to go to whichever sessions they want. But all that input and no real tasks? It’s definitely not how we’d set up a lesson. So at Innovate ELT we have little tasks and activities for the delegates to do during the event which will help everyone to process the information and think more about what innovation means to them and how it might impact their work.

3. Why do the delegates do all the work?

There’s a lot of moving around for delegates, especially at big events like IATEFL, so it would be nice to see a bit of role reversal. At Innovate ELT we have a whole session called Speaker Speed Dating, where the speakers come to you! So if you’ve always wanted to ask Scott Thornbury something but have been too shy to approach him, you’ll now have the chance! The idea is for small groups of delegates to ask questions and discuss things which have come up throughout the event.

4. Why can’t I join in?

At most conferences, speaking is for speakers while delegates listen or talk amongst themselves. At Innovate ELT, though, there will be opportunities for delegates to work together and report back what they’ve learned. The final session of the conference is going to be an opportunity to share what we’ve learned and what we predict we’ll see in the future of ELT.

5. And finally, who ordered the craft beer?

We did!

At most conferences, nobody gets any exciting beers in, but anyone who knows ELTjam knows we never like an event to run dry. Barcelona brewery Espiga is sponsoring Innovate ELT so naturally delegates will get to sample a bottle … or two.

Here at ELTjam, we’re all really excited about IATEFL too, and, as I’ve said, we think ELT conferences are generally great;  however, we also feel that it’s the right time for the format to get a bit of a shakeup. We’ve got a great lineup of speakers, including Scott Thornbury, Nicky Hockley, Lindsay Clandfield and many more, plus talks on a whole range of topics, from mobile to methodology and coursebooks to CLIL.

If you’ve got ideas of ways you’d change the traditional conference, let us know in the comments below or come along and tell us on the day in Barcelona!

Tickets and more info can be found on the website.



18 thoughts on “Shaking up the ELT conference format”

  1. Folks,

    These are all great things to do, but it’s worth perhaps tipping a hat to those conferences who have a rich history of doing them; a history which stretches back a good ten years, in some cases.

    There are numerous examples, but the British Council E-Merging Forum in Moscow, which has been running every year for the past five years has always incorporated many of those things, particularly 2 and 4 (and craft vodka!), the IH DoS Conference has incorporated some of them too – for at least the past three years, particularly 3 (though with actual practising teachers and DoSs), the ISTEK conference in Istanbul has incorporated learners during its fine history, and many of the IATEFL SIGs have been adding some of these elements as far back as 2001.

    I think the conference format has been well and truly shaken up in many, many places over the past ten years, and it’s great to see the Innovate ELT building on the legacy that so many of our great conference organisers and institutions have built. But please don’t forget the people who truly pioneered these innovations.

    Good luck with the conference.


    • Hi Gavin,

      Yes, you’re completely right. Personally I haven’t been to any of those events you mentioned and so not experienced ELT events in this format. What we’re aiming for with this event is to combine a lot of these innovative elements and try and change up the format of the event as much as possible.

      Consider my hat tipped to those that have done the same or similar before us, both in and out of ELT.


    • Hi Thomas,

      Yes, great idea. We have been looking into ways that we can add in tasks and activities before and during the event. Maybe we can add an element of blending on and offline and on and off site. Thanks for the suggestion.


      • There are lots of things which could be done. Perhaps if a session was live streamed then people watching online could also participate in the Q and A. Another idea would be if speakers did an online Q and A after they finished their sessions. Or maybe a live session could be prefaced by an online event (such as a task) that way both people who were attending f2f and online participants could interact together beforehand.

  2. So maybe you can get even more creative. Make them 100% free, have several themes or styles i.e. short talks, demos, Q+A, interactive discussions, tech walkthroughs etc and maybe stuff that bridges the gap more between the stands of sponsors selling their books and the potential teacher customers. A conference seems like a great place to find out what teachers want and to help publishers plan and design materials maybe. I saw sthg recently where uni students designed 3D limbs for kids. A fun ‘design a cover’ or ‘your dream textbook’ stand could be great.

    I admit I haven’t been to anything in years due to work, money and my family life but from what I’ve read, many events sound a lot better than the stuff I used to get sent to. The majority of presenters were selling their publications or promoting their schools. Personally, I felt like I was at sales pitches.

    With all the tech around, the socialising aspect of conferences seems to have become a bigger pull than before maybe. For instance, if I want to see or read about Gavin, I can find loads of his stuff online and even stream his talks live(ish) but seeing him in person, discussing his talk with colleagues afterwards and stalking him round town is even more valuable nowadays perhaps. Well, maybe not the last big 😉

  3. What about reaching out to teachers who maybe can’t afford, or don’t have the time to attend the conference? Or teachers who are organised on a more informal basis (not just formal organisations like ELTAs).

    Perhaps you could produce really simple ‘discussion papers’ or ‘discussion cocktails’? We have an informal group of teachers here in Berlin(Berlin GAS)and it would be great to have some new ideas from leading practitioners to spark discussion.

    This would also be another way of marketing and spreading your message.


    • A few previous colleagues said they felt some conferences and organisations for elitist in that they always had the same experts speaking and writing and as they didn’t know anyone or weren’t active in blogging or their group, they had a negative experience. My response was that they could have talked to people and also applied to speak at the events. I think you get out what you put in. If you just want to go, listen and leave to eat alone in your hotel room then fine but don’t moan that people didn’t talk to you.

      One comment I do hear a lot of though is about speakers who may not be regular teachers. You can usually tell if someone teaches regularly as you can relate to them.

      Diversity and accessibility are what we need. Some will always want serious informative talks as they need to feedback to colleagues and justify their expenses. Others will want to see friends and go out together.

  4. Looks great, Jo – I’m always amazed when advocates of communicative teaching methods, multiple learner styles and active learning choose to stand in front of a powerpoint and lecture for 60 minutes! This event sounds interesting, I wish I could attend.

  5. Looking at Point 1 (Where are the students?), I can’t help thinking that we may need a second, related question answered: who are the students? The website states: ‘Watch teachers and learners interact in the classroom and learn about new and exciting ways of delivering content and lessons.’

    Am I correct in thinking that there will be lessons with Oxford TEFL students involved – that we will be doing lesson observations? And, could I, as a speaker, have requested, for example, a room with a laptop, projector, WIFI (the usual kit), and a dozen eight-year-old learners?

    Another question that I think could/should be answered at all international conferences is: Where are the local, non-native, state school teachers (and learners)? This under-represented demographic will be the main engine of future change (or stagnation), and in a conference about the future of ELT, we will desperately need their voices. Some data on the profiles of the delegates would be very interesting.


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