This year saw the first Schools History Project Summer Conference held online instead of in person at Leeds Trinity University. Although cancelling the ‘live’ conference was a hard decision as the new Director, it proved to be the right choice. Not only because the ongoing restrictions would have made a face-to-face conference almost impossible, but because it allowed us to do things in new and different ways, helped us reach new audiences, and put on a financially successful conference that was almost universally well-received by the delegates.
There were many questions (technical, marketing, pricing, programmatic, systematic) that needed to be addressed in the setting-up of a first virtual conference, but rather than run through them all here, I wanted to take this to focus on one area that revealed both the strengths and drawbacks of moving to online delivery – the idea of community.
Creating a community for history teachers
The Schools History Project is, for many history teachers, the highlight of the academic year. It is usually a chance to not only access 13 hours of top-quality, subject-specific CPD, but a chance to meet other teachers, make friends and put faces to Twitter handles. More importantly though, it is an opportunity to share with and learn from colleagues – it is the place where many teachers feel most a part of the history teaching community. In the recent past, as an attendee, before becoming Director, my own practice has been shaped by a series of reinforcing experiences: something said in a plenary session was demonstrated in an example shared in a workshop, which was clarified for me by a conversation over breakfast. I was able to put these ideas into practice with the help of links sent to me after a chat in the car park just before heading home. These shards of inspiration were given to me by a huge range of people from vastly experienced teachers and educators to a newly qualified teacher with less than a year’s practice under his belt. A virtual conference, despite the existence of pretty vibrant history education Twitter conversations, was not able to replicate that.
The limitations of online delivery
This sense of belonging to a community isn’t just emotionally reassuring but professionally useful as well. While the feedback for all parts of the conference was almost universally positive, the one session that attracted some negative comments did so because of disgruntlement about the ambition of what was being suggested. While the vision laid out was certainly ambitious, in a ‘live’ setting, those who felt that what was being suggested was not within their reach could have been reassured by others who could sympathise or suggest that, at least parts of it, were achievable. Similarly, an easier interaction with the presenter might have allowed some clarification about what she was proposing. Or even, perhaps, having to frame a question to someone’s face might have led to a softening of tone that the baldness of a Q&A textbox does not encourage.
In the feedback from the conference, many people said that they missed the communality of the live event and it is clear that ‘it wasn’t the same’. So, does this mean that the online delivery was deleterious to the sense of community of history teachers? That would depend on what people mean by ‘the history-teaching community’. In the wake of Black Lives Matter campaign and the questions it throws up about inclusion, access and fairness, many people, notably Leeds Trinity University’s own Alex Ford, have questioned the extent to which such a community exists, whether it is as open and welcoming as many would believe and to what extent the people who use the phrase ‘the history-teaching community’ actually represent the majority of history teachers in this country.
The benefits of online delivery
While the ‘live’ SHP has been undoubtedly brilliant and valued incredibly highly by those who attend, having a virtual conference allowed SHP to reach many people whom, the feedback tells us, were unable or unwilling to come to the live event. Around half the delegates who ‘came’ to the virtual conference had never been to Leeds Trinity. The most commonly cited reasons were cost, location and time pressures. While the ‘live’ summer conference has always been incredible value, its ticket price still represents a significant outlay for cash-strapped schools and departments.
By going online, we were able to offer ticket prices between one-tenth and one-sixth of the proposed cost of the ‘live’ conference making this a much more attractive offer to many who were unaware of, were unable to be part of or perhaps even felt excluded from that group that frequently attends the conference. In short, by going online we were able to open up the offer of superb, challenging and inspiring CPD to more of the history-teaching community to show them what SHP and Leeds Trinity have to offer.
Lessons for the future
So, the challenge for the future is to find a balance. To maintain the open-door that online delivery provides whilst still preserving the warm, sharing and positive atmosphere that ‘live’ allows. This is a difficult challenge but a welcome one, and one that would not have presented itself without the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Matthew Stanford is Director of the Schools History Project (SHP), an organisation based at Leeds Trinity University that provides inspiration for history teachers through its courses, published resources and training. It works in partnership with OCR in providing a GCSE history specification based on SHP principles (OCR B). The Project publishes a wide range innovative learning resources in partnership with Hodder Education. It also provides highly-regarded professional development for history teachers through its conferences and courses.
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