This post was first published on the TESOL blog on July 9, 2020.

I remember the first TESOL Convention I attended in Vancouver, BC in 2000. I was still a student and we had organized the first ever group of students from our program to attend the Convention. I was overwhelmed by the number of sessions, the networking opportunities, and the camaraderie of all the attendees. It was a wonderful experience that cemented me in my career choices and helped me become a better teacher.

Since then, I have attended 17 more TESOL Conventions, and had similar experiences at each one. That is, until this year, when the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancellation of the TESOL Convention in Denver. As a board member of TESOL, I can share with you that cancelling the convention was one of the hardest decisions the Board has ever had to make, and we are still dealing with the ramifications of cancellation. Truly, it is a difficult time for the Association and the profession.

Despite the difficulties, however, I am impressed with the spirit of our members and volunteer leaders, and the TESOL International Association staff at their desire to persevere. New opportunities for collaboration and development are springing out of these difficult times, and on 16–18 July, TESOL will hold its first ever Virtual Convention! Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Another online meeting? I don’t think I can handle spending any more time in front of my computer screen!”, and I would normally tend to agree with you. But this Virtual Convention is going to be so much more than just “another online meeting,” and I wanted to give some information and advice that will help you make the most of this historical opportunity.

First, the Virtual Convention is not a webinar and it is not a Zoom meeting. The dedicated TESOL Convention team and the Conferences Professional Council members have been working tirelessly over the last several months to make this an unforgettable experience. After spending weeks researching various online platforms, they have chosen a platform that includes

  • online presentations,
  • live question-and-answer sessions,
  • live keynotes,
  • a virtual Exhibit hall, and
  • many social networking opportunities.

Not only will you have the opportunity to connect with other attendees live during sessions and in video calls and direct messages, you will also be able to access on-demand Convention content for up to 2 months after the Virtual Convention is over, allowing you to take in much more than you can even during the physical Convention. Think about it…for the first time in Convention history, you may be able to attend every single presentation, and connect with possibly thousands of other attendees!

Second, if you have been attending the TESOL Convention for more than a few years like I have, you may be thinking that you know all about conventions and how to make the most of them. Or you may be thinking that online meetings are “old hat” and you are ready for the Virtual Convention. But, as I have pointed out, the Virtual Convention is so much more than an online meeting, and it is potentially very different from the physical convention, so I want to offer a few tips to make the most out of this unprecedented occasion.

1. Register Early

Registration opened on 1 June and closes in just a few days (12 July). While there is no limit on the number of attendees, you want to make sure that you are registered early enough that you can begin planning how you will attend the Convention. Rates are very reasonable, as low as US$35 for students and global members, and just US$99 for professional members. Make sure to register as early as possible to ensure you receive all the information regarding attendance with plenty of time to plan.

2. Block out Time to Attend Sessions

One of the dangers of any online experience is that it is easy to get distracted by everything else going on around you. Or you might think you can just attend sessions while you are doing other things, like working from home. However, to get the most out of sessions and the networking opportunities, you have to be able to focus and spend time in the platform. If possible, take some time off work so you can focus on the Convention when it is live.

Spend time in the platform without any other distractions, browsing attendees’ profiles and participating in discussions on topics that you are interested in. Add the sessions you want to attend to your calendar and block out time to visit the Exhibition hall and networking rooms. If you are planning to watch sessions after the event, block out time to do so. Make sure to tell coworkers, family members, roommates, and so on that you are busy during those times and ask not to be disturbed.

3. Avoid “Distracted Attendance”

Just like “distracted driving”, notifications on our smart phones, email notifications on our computers, and other such distractions can make it hard for you to focus while attending sessions or participating in discussions. Turn on “do not disturb” mode on your phone, and close any applications on your computer that send pop-up notifications, including your email client. You may want to consider setting up an email autoresponder to let people know you are busy and you will answer their email in due time.

4. Take Advantage of Live Sessions Whenever Possible

Most people attend conferences for the interactions and “spontaneous” conversations that take place. Granted, that is much more difficult in a virtual setting, but it is not impossible. While you might be tempted to just watch the recordings after work or when the kids are finally asleep, find out which sessions are offering live Q&A and make an effort to attend those sessions when they happen, even if they are at a strange time. Attending live will give you a chance to ask questions to the presenter, and perhaps make comments that inspire another attendee. (See the featured sessions here, which include keynote presentations with live Q&A and networking sessions.)

5. Take Some Time for Reflection

Sometimes when doing things from home, it becomes difficult to separate various components of our lives. I know I spend a lot more time “working” now than I did when I had to physically go to my office because it is so easy to hop on the computer after dinner or early in the morning. You might be tempted to do housework or check emails between sessions, but you should take some time alone to reflect on the session you just attended and make some notes about how you will apply what you learned. It’s okay if some things go undone until later. I mean, if you traveled to the Convention, you wouldn’t be able to wash dishes or do laundry between sessions, right?

Finally, please make sure to keep notes on your experience and share your feedback with TESOL. This is the first EVER Virtual Convention, but I highly doubt it will be the last, and I am sure the Convention team would love to have your input on what went well and what could be improved for the next time. Be constructive and specific in your feedback, and if you have a solution to a problem that you noticed during the Convention, please make sure to share the solution as well. Your feedback may well contribute to the next Virtual Convention being even better than this one!

See you all online starting July 16!

TESOL Virtual Convention Logo