What I Learned Running the 2011 Student Web Conference

Tuesday January 11, 2011

First and foremost, I could not have done this without Kyle Cotter, my web interns, students from all of my classes, and the faculty at Springbrook High School.  In addition we had great speakers, supportive sponsors, and some of my favorite people as VIPs.  You all made this possible and I thank you.

That said, I came away from the conference this year feeling like I wanted to crawl in a pit and hide.  I tend to be very hard on myself, which is actually a quality I like, but it means that when things don't go right I take it hard.  Plus, we had some big guests and some really interested kids this year.  I put a lot of my life into webucation, and this conference is a big manifestation of my work.  So, when I things don't go right, it gets me.

Two things stand out as lessons to learn from.

Lesson One: Managing a (High School) Crowd

First, we had way too many students who were not actually interested in learning about the web.  I don't know if you've ever been to Springbrook, but it can be a little ghetto.  That's actually something I love about the school.  However, when 200 ghetto and rude students show up to the conference who aren't actually interested in the web, we have problems. 

Without going into details about how teenagers can be rude, I'll let you use your imagination, let's just say that we plan to screen our list, limit the attendees, and close registration a bit earlier next year.  We had 200 students last year.  This year we had more than 700 attendees.  It was great, but a number of students who talked through every presentation ruined it for a lot of interested kids. 

The Top Ten List

As an educator, I firmly believe that you can't blame students for being unruly when they don't have a structured environment, engaging work to do, and a teacher trained in riot control.  So here is what I plan to do next year to address the problem of having lots of unruley students:

  1. Registration will be limited to around 300 students
  2. We will focus on Web, Computer Science, and Art students primarily
  3. Registration will open on December 12 and close on December 23 (preventing last minute registration from kids who just want to skip class)
  4. All registration will be done online through EventBright rather than have people signup on paper and the web interns enter their names
  5. We will provide notebooks for students to take notes
  6. Security will be on call to pull students out (rather than teachers or other students asking them to be quite)
  7. No leaving the conference for another class
  8. We will have our lunch at the same time the school does and students can get lunch from the cafeteria
  9. Names will be printed on transparent stickers and put onto badges ahead of time so there is a pre-made badge for every attendee
  10. Seating will be better roped off to keep everyone together

Why the Professional Model Doesn't Work

Something else that we realized is that we were following the format of a professional conference: a day of lectures.  This doesn't work for high school students.  And it goes against everything I have learned as an educator.  You don't just lecture to high school students.  You lecture a little and then let them apply what they learn so it stays with them.

So next year we are going to have fewer presentations and add a 2 hour workshop so students can apply what they learned.  I think that this will really help us accomplish our goal of teaching something practical that students could go home and start working with right away.  We haven't completely settled on the format but we're thinking of having 4 talks (overview, design, development, business) and then a WordPress workshop.

Lesson Two: Technical Difficulties

How many Windows IT administrators does it take to run a Mac?  Trick question.  When the Mac crashes just opening a keynote presentation, it doesn't matter how many folks you have running around trying to fix the problem.  Although we practiced a lot more than last year (not hard since we didn't practice last year :p ), we seemed to have technical difficulties between every single presentation.

Here are a few lessons we learned in relation to the technology:

  1. Collect everyone's presentations and put them onto one drive.
  2. Use one computer for all presentations rather than trying to swap between talks.
  3. Make sure the remote for changing slides is in range and nothing is blocking it.
  4. When you buy a macbook pro off the shelf, don't.  Always increase the RAM and get a faster hard drive.
  5. If you're running a mac, make sure you have a person with human emotions and intuition operating it.

All of that said, some amazing things went well.

So What Went Right?

Alright, enough of the bad, what went right?  Pat, my buddy who teaches CS at Springbrook, sent me an email that I think put it best.  In it he pointed out three important points:

  1. Hundreds of students were exposed to web standards and the path of web freelancing that may have never been.
  2. The students who wanted to learn got a lot out of the amazing presentations.
  3. No one died.

Luckily that last one is true, because I nearly killed a student who was being ghet.  But, he's right.  The presentations were simply amazing, and we had quite a star studded cast for being a student conference.

On another positive note, Channel 9 Cool Schools came and did an interview.  I haven't been on TV before so that was pretty exciting.  I shamelessly focused on plugging my program and telling local businesses to hire my students to build their web sites.

We also got our act together with our sponsors a bit more this year.  Our favorite hosting company and long time supporter of my webucation efforts to get students free and cheap hosting, Liquid Web, provided the lanyards.  It felt good to go to a conference and not see Media Temple lanyards.  Perception, a web developmer firm out of Wisconin, helped us get the badges for the conference.

Backstage had a few improvements from last year, including some couches, snacks and coffee, and even a graffiti station.

The Shirts

We had trouble securing the original shirts we wanted printed due to some administrative and financial issues related to working within a public educational institution.  So, at the last minute (literally the day before the conference) we decided to make our own shirts.  100 white shirts and a box full for spray paint later we came up with a design involving some neon colors (the kids love it these days) and a black stencil saying student web conference. 

Kyle summed it up best when he saw the shirts the day of the conference, "I would have said they sucked if you hadn't done them at 2:30 in the morning."  Honestly, I hadn't handled a can since I was in high school so it took a bit to get it back.  That compounded with the fact that most of the students had never used spray paint and we were doing it outside in 20 degree weather in the middle of the night resulted in some shirts being better than other.

During the conference we offered custom sprayed shirts, which the kids really enjoyed.  I don't know how much other classes appreciated it though because apparently you could smell the spray paint from the second floor :p

Sponsors for Next Year

A big shout out goes to my good friend and big webucation supporter, John F. Croston III, for taking the interns out to a little after party at Fridays after the conference.  We didn't really want to go because we were really focused on what hadn't gone right that day, but I'm really glad we did, because we were able to get out the bad stuff and look forward to next year.

One of the things John suggested is that we really step up our efforts for finding sponsors for next year's conference.  The entire conference cost under $2500.  If we could find enough sponsors for next year it would mean that every student could have a badge, shirt, lunch, notebook, and maybe even a little snack.

So, if you're out there and want to help us reach this goal for next year, please let me know!