Continuous professional development is a critical part of a trainer’s work. We often think of it from the perspective of our learners, but need to think of it from our personal perspective as well.I think of this now as I prepare to attend the ASTD International Conference and Exposition next week in Denver. Conferences are one of the best professional development opportunities for trainers, as it allows you to step outside of your day-to-day duties and focus exclusively on your development for a few days.The problem is, they can be expensive. Between conference fees, travel, and meal expenses, a conference can easily cost $2,000 or more. Some individuals and organizations just can’t afford that type of expense. However, that doesn’t mean trainers can’t still learn from the conference. While there may not (yet) be a way to get all the value of a conference without actually attending it, there are plenty of ways to extract substantial learning from a conference remotely.

For me, the best tool for extracting learning from a conference remotely is Twitter. If you’re an active user of Twitter you may be familiar with the concept of a backchannel.

The backchannel consists of Twitter users that are actively posting tweets during an event. The backchannel tweets could consist of key learning points or some sort of real-time feedback on the sessions’ value. Here are the three most common techniques that I use to leverage Twitter and the backchannel to extract learning from a conference I was not able to attend in person.

Viewing the Live Tweet Stream

Most conferences today now have a hashtag associated with them. A hashtag is a specific text string preceded by a number sign that Twitter users can search on. For example, the hashtag for the ASTD International Conference I mentioned earlier is #ASTD2012. This enables anyone who wants to contribute to or follow the tweets of attendees of that conference to find them all by searching #ASTD2012.

Following the hashtag live is probably the most engaging option for learning from a conference you were unable to attend. By following the live stream, you have the opportunity to interact with attendees of the conference. See a tweet the you have a question or want to know more about? Reply to the poster in real time.

As an example, I was following the tweets from the Learning Solutions conference in March, and I saw a number of tweets related to performance support tools that I found interesting. I replied to one of the posters asking who the speaker of the session was, which he quickly replied back with. Less than five minutes later, I had searched the speaker and downloaded a detailed white paper from his website.

While live following of the Twitter feed is the best option if you want to interact with people attending the conference, it is also the most time consuming. It’s not always an option to sit at your desk for hours reading and responding to tweets. Don’t have time or patience to review a tweet stream? Try one of these two time-saving options.

Reviewing an Archive of a Hashtag

If you do not have the time to review tweets as they happen, you can review the stream of tweets later on via one of the many archive options. One of the tools I often use is TweetDeck, which enables me to follow a number of Social Media feeds and searches simultaneously.

By setting up a search option for the conference hashtag, I can go in periodically and review the tweets that have come through in a single sitting. This is my preferred method of reviewing conference tweets; I will allocate five or ten minutes every hour or so to review the tweets that came in since my last review.

Many conferences will now archive their entire tweet stream, enabling users to review the tweets of the entire conference well after the conference has ended. The challenge with these archives is that they are usually text-based and are no longer integrated with Twitter, making it impossible to reply, retweet, or in any way interact with the stream.

Perform an Advanced Search for the Hashtag and the Word BLOG

Some people find limited value in the the 140 character format of Twitter. They prefer deeper context and greater detail in their learning. Even people who swear by the value of Twitter will, at times, wish they could dive deeper into the meaning and value of a tweet.

For me, that’s where blogs come in to fill the gap. More and more, blogs are becoming an integrated part of a conference tweet stream. Conference attendees tweet their thoughts as they happen during the conference, and often post reflective summaries on their blog after the fact.

These blog entries usually go into much greater detail than the 140 character limit of Twitter allows, and provide an excellent complement to the live stream. The integration of blogs with the tweet stream comes from bloggers posting updates with the hashtag indicating that a blog entry has been posted regarding the conference.

All you need to do is go to http://search.twitter.com/ and perform an advanced search on both the hashtag and the word ‘blog’. What you’ll find is a number of tweets with links to blog posts people have written about a topic. In the case of conferences this can be incredibly valuable, as many of the posts answer the question “What did I learn at XYZ conference?”

Of course, given the choice I’d still much rather attend conferences in person. The personal connections made at events like this are usually one of the best takeaways. That said, it’s no longer as simple as ‘if you don’t go, you get none of the value’. Now, there are options that enable you to extract some of the key learnings remotely.

Want to see how much someone can learn from a conference backchannel? Be sure to follow my post: ASTD ICE 2012 Conference Backchannel: Collected Resources, which will be continuously updated during and for weeks after the conference.

MoreFive Reasons I’m Sending My Entire Team to Our Industry’s Biggest Conference.

David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and member of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.

Image via ASTD.

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