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By the profession, for the profession ... a comparative review of AFMLTA national languages conferences.

ABSTRACT

2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the National Languages conference of the AFMLTA. The conference was held in Melbourne with a welcome reception at the Melbourne Immigration Museum and conference dinner in the iconic Eureka Tower. Almost 300 delegates attended the conference from around Australia, as well as a contingent from New Zealand and a handful of participants from the US and Indonesia. The conference continues to receive highly positive feedback from delegates across a range of areas. In this paper, we explore the evaluation data from the 2015 conference in relation to the two previous conferences held in Darwin in 2011 and Canberra in 2013. We also highlight and discuss topical issues raised by respondents to the online evaluation survey, which contribute to ongoing professional learning planning and research on the professional learning needs of languages educators.

KEY WORDS

professional association conferences, registration, languages teachers, educator professional learning

Introduction

The Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations (AFMLTA) has conducted online evaluations of its last three biennial conferences, held in Darwin in 2011, Canberra in 2013 and Melbourne in 2015. Discussions of the conference evaluations for the 2011 and 2013 conferences have appeared in previous issues of Babel (Absalom & Morgan, 2012; Morgan, Absalom & Scrimgeour, 2014). Data collected from the evaluations have been useful for planning ongoing professional learning for the AFMLTA membership, some 3500 teachers of languages across the nation, and for reflection on changing trends in languages teacher needs, contextualised in relation to national and international literature, events and responses to languages teaching and learning. In both previous papers, the evaluation data have been considered in light of issues affecting the profession and Its members at the times of writing (2012-13 and 2014-15). Such issues included:

* the professionalisation of teaching and a shift to accreditation against accountability standards (see Clarke & Moore, 2013, for a nuanced discussion)

* consideration of the literature on the most effective and valuable professional learning for teachers and how conferences specifically meet language teacher learning needs

* content, orientation and focus of conferences for best outcomes at a national scale, and

* the delicate balancing act of providing what our languages teachers want when some come for teaching ideas, others for the latest theoretical and research findings, and all for opportunities to network with peers in challenging and sometimes isolated workforce conditions.

With data from three conferences, we are in a position to take a more reflexive perspective on the professional learning needs of teachers of languages, and on trends in the evaluations that give rise to issues of moment for broader discussion.

This paper considers these issues, identified through evaluation of the data from the most recent conference, compared with previous data, and in light of contexts of teaching languages today, across the years of learning from preschoolers to tertiary students; and, indeed, as lifelong practice before, during and after formal schooling.

In particular, we address the issues of comparison of the AFMLTA conference with like conferences in other disciplines; expectations of content in 'by the profession, for the profession' conference programs; the needs of early career teachers, and whether they are missing out on the fun of conferences that could assist with teacher self-efficacy, satisfaction and retention; and the most prevalent consistencies in evaluation responses, and what these mean in relation to the issues identified and for ongoing planning.

The conclusions drawn relate not only to ways forward in maintaining the relevance and value of AFMLTA conferences, but also to contributing to the political agenda and advocacy for the languages profession, using conferences to drive the national agenda, rather than merely responding to it. In this way, the AFMLTA seeks to serve its membership through positioning itself as a critical and reflexive national professional body leading the learning and development of teachers of languages, and positively influencing the contexts in which we work.

Summary of evaluation data, and identification of issues arising

Response rates

There were 250 responses to the 2015 conference evaluation, representing 84 per cent of the total 298 delegates. This percentage participation is both high and consistent with previous evaluations of conferences in Canberra (2013, 75 per cent response rate) and Darwin (2011, 83 per cent response rate). Such high participation rates, and cumulative data collected over a five-year period allow for interpretation of responses as highly indicative of delegates' views, and also of medium term trends, which are useful for providing a snapshot of interests in the conference, issues for consideration, and for informing planning for future conferences.

Who attends?

Attendees are predominantly female (78 per cent). Forty-one per cent are secondary educators, 23 per cent primary educators, 12 per cent tertiary educators/researchers, 11 per cent jurisdiction consultants, two per cent students (four participants), while 12 per cent list 'other occupations', such as book sellers, exhibitors, and travel/tour consultants. These figures are consistent with both the previous AFMLTA conferences in Darwin and Canberra, where 76 per cent and 83 per cent were female attendees respectively. The majority of attendees are employed in full-time, permanent positions (57 per cent), and part-time permanent positions (20 per cent). A total of 77 per cent of attendees are in permanent positions, while 14 per cent are employed in casual positions, and a very small number are retired, unemployed and looking for work, or students. Nineteen per cent are not currently teaching languages (but may be in jurisdictional roles as languages consultants), 22 per cent currently teach French, 20 per cent Italian, 19 per cent Japanese, 10 per cent Chinese, eight per cent German, seven per cent Indonesian, six per cent Spanish, two per cent Korean and 11 per cent other languages, including Vietnamese (four attendees), Greek (two attendees), English/ESL (four attendees), Arabic (two attendees), and Russian, Latin , and Tiwi and Arrernte (each one attendee). These percentages are similar to previous conferences (see Table 1).

Previous evaluations of the Darwin and Canberra conferences have indicated high levels of returning delegates (more than 70 per cent of attendees) (Absalom & Morgan, 2012; Morgan, Absalom & Scrimgeour, 2014). The 2015 Melbourne conference, in contrast, had an even split of first-time delegates and returning delegates. It is heartening to observe some consistent returnees, with delegates who have attended AFMLTA conferences since the 1980s (Sydney 1980, Perth 1982, Hobart 1984, Adelaide 1986 and Canberra 1988) extending an intellectual and professional association network memory across four decades. Most returning delegates, as might be expected, attended the Canberra (2013), Darwin (2011) and Sydney (2009) conferences, and many also attended the AFMLTA conference the last time it was held in Melbourne (2005). It is to be expected, and our data confirm, that large cities attract attendees from the larger pool of local teachers, who may be influenced by factors such as travel and time costs in determining whether or not they participate in conferences elsewhere. It does not appear that the majority of first-time attendees are early career teachers, as the demographic data cited above Indicates that 71 per cent of attendees are 40 years of age or older. Including 44 per cent who are 50 or older, consistent with the previous two conferences, where well over 50 per cent of attendees were over 40. This figure may be indicative of the demographic of teachers of languages, nationally and internationally (Morgan, Absalom & Scrimgeour, 2014), the cost of the conference for younger teachers, or of language teacher association (LTA) membership numbers, the last of which is predominantly in the 40-plus age group (Scrimgeour, 2015, unpublished data on MLTA memberships). What the age data indicate is that finding ways to increase younger teacher participation in conferences remains a challenge, and something that both state- and territory-based LTAs, as well as the AFMLTA, must consider as a critical factor in teacher collegiality, teacher retention and teacher preparation (Buchanan et al., 2013).

It will be interesting to see if the first-time delegates to the Melbourne 2015 conference (124 individuals) now continue to attend AFMLTA conferences, with the next one in Queensland in 2017. Twelve per cent of responders stated they were not planning to attend the 2017 conference (most of whom identified as Victorian based), while 45 per cent stated they would attend (representing a cross-section of attendees from all states and territories), and 43 per cent stated they were unsure about whether they planned to attend (again, a significant number from Victoria), Expectations of numbers attending the 2017 conference, based on these data, are that around 200 delegates can be expected as the minimum number (if all of those who answered 'yes' and half of the 'unsure' do attend). If significant numbers of Queenslanders attend in addition (only 27 delegates identified as being from Queensland for the Melbourne conference, whereas the MLTAQ has more than 700 members, who are regular attendees at languages professional learning events held at a state level), numbers should again be close to the 300 mark. The issue of conference cost is discussed further, below. Continued tracking of attendance data and provenance of attendees relative to location of the conference will provide further insights into who attends and for what reasons, which will be useful for predicting the numbers of attendees, to allow for more targeted planning.

Nearly a quarter of attendees (23 per cent) are presenters at the conference (see Table 2). The implication of this balance of delegates is that the conference provides an important venue for the dissemination of research and the sharing of teacher work, classroom practice and ideas for teaching. The idea of conferences providing a platform for work and research from the profession is an additional idea taken up in the issues discussion below.

Almost 90 per cent of responders are members of their state or territory LTA, Those not members (34 individuals) identified mostly as representatives of traders at the conference, or as international delegates. This high percentage of LTA members supports the significance and value of the AFMLTA in bringing together its member associations from across the nation in these biennial conferences. A comparison of the provenance of participants across the three last conferences reveals some interesting --but not surprising--insights related to the location of the conference. These data are presented in Table 3, along with percentages of LTA membership in 2015 (which, unremarkably, are closely aligned to the provenance of participants). There were no participants from the Northern Territory, for example, in Canberra, after constituting 12 per cent of participants at the previous conference held in Darwin.

Two participants from the NT came to the Melbourne conference, reflecting, perhaps, some changes in the local professional association and its increased national outlook. Similarly, Canberra participants peaked when the conference was held in Canberra, and settled to a little above the previous level (from six per cent to eight per cent) for the follow-up conference in Melbourne. Victorian participation nearly doubled when the conference was held in Melbourne.

Queensland participation has remained relatively steady across the three conferences, and can be expected to significantly rise for the 2017 conference. South Australian participation was a little higher in Darwin than in Canberra and Melbourne, but is relatively steady, as is Western Australia's. NSW attendance increased when the conference was in nearby Canberra, and is steady overall. Tasmanian participation, from a low base, has increased across the three conferences, and may provoke consideration of how to involve the smaller states and territories in national events, and in support from the AFMLTA. New Zealand attendance remains steady, with staunch support from 'across the ditch', reciprocated in similar numbers of Australian delegates to the equivalent conference in New Zealand on the 'off' years of the AFMLTA conference. Other international delegates come from Finland and Indonesia. Aiming to increase international involvement should be a concern of the AFMLTA executive, as international delegates consistently comment in the open comments sections of the conference evaluation on the quality of the conference and on its international currency.

Who paid for delegates to attend?

As in previous conferences, most attendees had financial support to attend the conference, and mostly this came from employers (e.g. schools, education jurisdictions, exhibitors and traders). Registration costs were fully or partially covered for 75 per cent of attendees; travel costs for 43 per cent and accommodation for 37 per cent (remembering many were local, and only required local travel and no accommodation). LTAs provided some scholarships, and some tertiary attendees were partially covered by personal professional learning funds.

How do participants know about the conference?

Overwhelmingly, responders indicate they hear about the conference from LTA and AFMLTA communication (53 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively), and from colleagues (29 per cent). The next most important sources of information are workplace (13 per cent), 'word of mouth' (12 per cent), Internet search (12 per cent), and through advertisements in the AFMLTA journal, Babel, (8 percent). These data support the current policies of both AFMLTA and the LTAs of providing email, publication and social media dissemination of information about the conference. Some of the 'other' means of hearing about the conference included the New Zealand conference, so this is also clearly a useful avenue for information. Strategic attendance and publicity at other international conferences might provide the AFMLTA with a higher international profile and an additional mechanism for supporting and advertising the AFMLTA conferences.

How satisfied were participants?

As for both previous conferences, high levels of satisfaction with the conference were indicated in responses, in 'very satisfied' or 'satisfied' selections on a five-point scale (the other choices being 'neither satisfied nor dissatisfied', 'dissatisfied' and 'very dissatisfied'). A total of 91 per cent of responders were very satisfied or satisfied with 'the conference as a whole', consistent with the previous two conferences (91 per cent Darwin; 94 per cent Canberra). 'Organisation of the conference' rated very highly with 96 per cent satisfaction (compared with 86 per cent Darwin and 89 per cent Canberra), indicating improvement in organisation overall. Other highly rated categories for satisfaction were the venue (97 per cent), communication (90 per cent), catering (92 per cent), the conference dinner (87 per cent of those who attended), and lanyard and pocket program (82 per cent). (See Table 4)

Cost of registration had a satisfaction rate of 53 per cent, with 25 per cent neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, although 18 per cent of responders were dissatisfied with the cost (and four per cent selected N/A). The issue of conference cost needs to be considered in light of a number of other factors, including who pays for conference attendance, venue choice, conference inclusions such as international speakers and catering, and relative costs compared to similar conferences. Some of these issues are discussed further below, but with fewer than 20 per cent of responders dissatisfied with the cost, and fees remaining pegged at 2015 levels for the 2017 conference, it may be less of an issue than a satisfaction rating of 53 per cent implies. For early career teachers, the need for support, as offered by LTAs through scholarships to attend the conference, and support from schools for their teachers, may require additional attention, and sponsorship, for example, may be needed.

Open comments for conference organisation questions were on the whole extremely positive. There was praise for 'excellent plenaries', the 'plurilingual theme', 'being among like-minded people', 'networking', the 'engaging array of presentations', the 'sensational' food, the 'exceptionally smooth' running of the conference, the 'great venue and facilities', the 'perfect execution' of the conference, 'ease of online registration', 'very classy' welcome reception, 'still raving' about the 'spectacular' dinner venue and 'amazing band', 'great range of traders and not too many', and how many 'loved the mini-program in the lanyard'.

Some commented on their wish for 'more hands-on sessions', while others thought there was 'too much attention to practical and teacher-led workshops'; 'variable quality' of the breakout sessions; not being able to 'see all the sessions I wanted to attend'; a desire to 'have the final program earlier' and 'have bios for all presenters'; that the conference was 'too expensive' for teachers paying their own way, or casual employees, or for 'retired' attendees; and 'print on pocket program a little hard to read'. The last point might be connected to the demographic of attendees.

Satisfaction in relation to conference content and the program was also high, and again consistent with both previous conferences. There was consistently high support for the range of themes, range of speakers and preparedness of speakers (percentages being all in the high 80s), and good support for the practical and theoretical balance of the program (77 per cent satisfaction). (See Table 5) This last category always attracts many comments, which centre on two kinds of needs the conference meets: an expectation that there will be sharing of teaching resources and opportunities for 'hands on' workshops; and the call for research and theory rich content. This issue has been discussed at length in the previous papers on the Darwin and Canberra conferences (Absalom & Morgan, 2012; Morgan, Absalom & Scrimgeour, 2014), but remains a slightly contentious issue (77 per cent support is still high). Guidance from LTAs on how conferences might be 'layered' to provide more relevant hands-on content at LTA or AFMLTA levels, and more international, national, theoretical and research influenced at the national level might assist in defining the purposes of the conferences better. It should also be noted that both 'kinds' of content are catered for at the national conference, and that session selection (and hence clear information about sessions) becomes important.

Participants were asked to rate the conference in terms of valuable professional learning, opportunities for networking, program space for formal discussion and impact on professional practice. Those who agreed or strongly agreed with the value of each of these are indicated in Table 6. Open comments in relation to these questions suggested that the importance of plurilingualism in Australian schools was a clear take home message, as well as the value of networking and discussion time, and that the conference raised issues that require further contemplation.

Which session types and presentations were most valued?

In terms of which kinds of sessions were of most interest to participants, the top four were plenary sessions, practical workshops, classroom-based research and academic/theoretical sessions, all with strong support as first or second choices. ICT sessions were slightly lower in the rankings, as were panel sessions, although both of these were well supported within the top three choices of some participants. The only clear lessons from these data are that there is support for a range of kinds of sessions, and that all six included in this conference were welcome inclusions for many attendees, and, as one respondent put it, 'ranking does not imply that lower ranked options should be omitted from the program'. Another response, also summing up the general sentiment, was that, 'the combination of sessions was fantastic--I see the range of session types invaluable and would love to see all session types retained'.

Plenary sessions were evaluated separately at the Melbourne conference, to allow for a more finely detailed examination of the individual sessions. All six plenary sessions (Diane Larsen-Freeman, Stephen Dinham, Jane Orton, Joseph Lo Bianco, the bilingual panel of Hajek, Larsen-Freeman, Lo Bianco and Morgan, and the Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) panel of Cross, Marsh, Gearon) were rated as excellent or good by over 60 per cent of those who attended these sessions. Lo Bianco's session was the most highly rated, with over 90 per cent satisfaction from those who attended. Comments focused on the range of plenary speakers and the 'good mix' of local and international, the language use-and-practice and political contextual landscape balance, and much support for exploration of the plurilingual theme, which one participant described as 'fascinating and a good introduction to plurilingual pedagogy for a teacher new to the field'.

The top three presentation selections were, as in previous conferences, widely diverse. Sixty-nine individual sessions were nominated, including the guest speaker at the dinner and the politician who opened the conference! Unsurprisingly, plenary speakers and panels were the most popular, as six of the seven most popular sessions, and Lo Bianco topped the list, with 78 individual votes. The most popular individual speakers from breakout sessions were Andrew Scrimgeour, Joe Dale, Martin East and Aaron Nolan, and Ken Wong,.

Recommendations for future speakers were also diverse, with speakers on bilingualism, Asian languages, language policy, and CLIL specifically mentioned, as well as individual researchers and theorists from both Australia and overseas, including keynotes and panellists from this conference.

What were the professional learning highlights and most important aspects of the conference?

Professional learning highlights were ranked in the same order as for the Canberra conference, with confirmation of the desire for hearing about new perspectives on languages teaching and learning, balanced with the need for practical examples to take to the classroom. (See Table 7)

This balancing act of theoretical and practical needs and wants remains a consistent response across the feedback, and therefore an ongoing issue in planning for future conferences, and connects with another question in the survey, on the importance of different aspects of the conference. As in previous evaluations, the most highly rated activity (Very important or important) was hearing inspirational speakers (98 per cent). It was followed by hearing about the latest research or practice (97 per cent), networking (90 per cent), gathering practice examples for teaching (89 per cent), catching up with colleagues and friends (76 per cent), visiting trade displays for new resources (58 per cent), experiencing a new place and/or having a break (48 per cent), and presenting my own work (39 per cent). Clearly all these aspects remain important, and need to be included in future conferences.

What should be included in the conference, and where should it be held?

The discussion about conference costs is directly connected with conference inclusions. That is, choices about what to include have implications for what the conference will cost to run, and hence the cost of registration. In evaluating the conference, delegates were invited to comment on how important various inclusions are to them, reminded that there will be financial implications. Very important and important percentages combined indicate the following as most important to attendees (in order of most to least important). (See Table 8)

The ordered inclusions have been separated into three groups: those with more than 70 per cent support, those with more than 50 per cent support, and those with less than 50 per cent support. It may be useful to consider those in the top group as essential, those in the second as desirable and those in the third as less necessary.

Importantly, items in the top group were the same four top items in both the Darwin and Canberra conference evaluations. In this top group, two inclusions relate to catering. Catering is an expensive cost for conferences, but is clearly important for participants as part of the conference and at the venue, and hence included in the price of the conference. While this is convenient--or even inconsequential--for those whose registration costs are paid for by their employer, it is one element that makes conferences less accessible to those funding themselves, especially if they work part-time, or also have to meet travel and accommodation costs.

A further inclusion in the top group is the desire for some kind of printed program and a nametag and/or lanyard, for identification purposes. Since 2011, AFMLTA has combined these needs into an A3 printed 'Pocket Program', which folds into a size suitable to fit in a pocket lanyard, which also includes a nametag. This is a cost saver when compared to a glossy printed 80 page plus booklet for the program, including all abstracts and presenter biographies. There appears to be ongoing support for the pocket program format.

The final element in the top group is international speakers. This is perhaps the most important element in this group as it relates to the actual content and orientation of the academic program. It is also an expensive element, and there is an increasing trend for high-level invitees to request business class travel (Personal communication, 2012, 2014, 2016). It is nonetheless important that the program includes world-class speakers (from Australia and internationally), and this is the expectation of participants. Many such international speakers work with world-class speakers in the field from Australia, but bring to the discussions alternative perspectives that are critical in a nation still so monolingually-focused (Hajek & Slaughter, 2014). This is a cost, therefore, that needs to be met. The greater the number of participants in the conference, the lower the per person cost will be in bringing in international speakers. Attracting larger numbers to the conference is therefore a way to offset such costs. Sponsorship is another alternative.

The middle group of important inclusions poses some challenges for conference committees. There is still significant support for these items. One is an additional catering item, and has been covered in the discussion above, it is also something that often can be covered by sponsors, who directly support just one afternoon tea, for example. Presenter biographies and abstracts provided online appears to be the most cost-effective way to manage the need for this information, especially as, at 55 per cent, there is only lukewarm support for printed materials. Ample information about this material being available online may ameliorate concerns with access, with delegates being able to print this material themselves if they want a hard copy for the conference duration, or as a keepsake.

This leaves the question of whether or not to have a welcome event. Again, this is an expensive aspect of the program if it involves venue, catering and entertainment costs, but serves an important networking and advocacy purpose, as well as establishing a collegial starting point to the conference. The positive feedback about the welcome event in Melbourne at the Immigration Museum demonstrates the potential for this aspect of the conference to be efficacious.

Those items in the below 50 per cent support group should be considered expendable. Conference bags can range in cost from quite inexpensive to very expensive, and are something each organising committee will need to make a decision on based on the needs of delegates. To keep costs down, committees could either go with an Inexpensive option, or ask participants to bring their own bag. Social programs are usually an add-on extra, so will allow those on a low budget to opt out if they wish. Similarly, organised transport could be an add-on, but will also relate to location of venues, including the conference and social venues.

Perhaps the most significant cost consideration for conferences relates to where they are held. For the three conferences evaluated by the AFMLTA, there has been a consistent response from participants about their most desired venue/facility type for holding the conference. Responders again ranked university and conference/convention centre facilities as first and second choices, with 70 per cent ranking university facilities first. There was moderate support for hotel conference facilities, but as a clear third after university facilities and convention centres; and very little support for school facilities, with more than 50 per cent rating this venue type as fourth preference, and only four per cent as first preference. Clearly the choice of venue is important to attendees, as 62 per cent ranked 'no preference' as their fifth choice. As in previous evaluations, however, there were numerous comments about how if schools were used, costs would be considerably lower. Other comments related to closeness to public transport and accommodation, and good seating, where everyone could see and hear the presenters. A few comments noted that teachers 'need to get away to a different environment'.

Discussion: Issues arising from the evaluation

First-time attendees versus return attendees

Kim, Lee and Kim (2012) note that first-time attendees at conferences tend to value the professional learning opportunity most highly while return participants value networking and opportunities for social connection more highly. The data from the Melbourne conference do seem to support this claim. Compare the responses to the question 'When you attend a conference like AFMLTA2015, how important are the following activities?' shown in Table 9 (percentages show the aggregated responses of important and very important).

The differences in weightings in Table 9 show support for the assertion that first-time attendees have a strong focus on professional learning and a reduced interest in social networking. Further, 57 per cent of first-timers did not attend the conference dinner, 59 per cent opted out of the optional language dinners (an opportunity to network in language groups) and 43 per cent did not attend the welcome reception. This contrasts with returning attendees who had marginally greater attendance at these social events: 48 per cent did not attend the conference dinner, 55 per cent opted out of language dinners, while only 35 per cent absented themselves from the welcome reception.

Studies of conference attendee motivation typically highlight the destination as being a decisive or motivating factor (see discussions in Ramirez, Laing and Mair 2013 and Malek mohammadi, Mohamed & Ekiz 2011). We noted above that there are clearly definable impacts on attendance in relation to the chosen location of the AFMLTA conference but the data in Table 9 seem to indicate that destination is of minimal interest either to first-time or repeat attendees.

Costs and expectations

In all three evaluations of recent AFMLTA conferences, a regular lament relates to the perceived high cost of registration. Specifically in reference to the Melbourne conference, there were 47 comments on the cost of registration, of these 37 indicated that the registration cost was too expensive. In some cases, the language used was quite aggressive: 'prohibitive without funding', 'its [sic] prohibitively expensive, beyond all budgets. Is the reason I wont [sic] be there in 2017'. Others noted that anecdotally people were dissuaded from attending due to the cost of registration: 'I've spoken with a number of people who would have registered if it weren't so expensive'. Of the remaining comments, three respondents provided more positive feedback: 'Very reasonable given all the inclusions', 'Reasonable for the service and everything' and 'My school paid, so I didn't give it a lot of thought. I think the venue and the catering though would have been huge expenses, so I believe the cost was reasonable'.

One participant commented that 'it seemed like [there was] a major price increase over previous years'. We have noted above that the trends in evaluation data over the last three conferences demonstrate that attendees expect particular inclusions, notably catering, as well as international speakers, and a certain type of venue--all of which have an impact on the cost of registration. We also highlighted above that the majority of participants receive some level of financial support to attend. In this context, it is worth noting that registration costs since 2011 have risen minimally (as show in table 10) and were indeed frozen from 2013.

In relation to other national professional association conferences, the AFMLTA maintains extremely competitive pricing for a similar type of conference. In Table 11, we compare full rates for members/nonmembers at both earlybird and full price.

If, then, we consider the fees to attend education conferences with a national profile, it is clear that the AFMLTA conference registration costs should not necessarily be considered 'prohibitive'. Table 12 shows a selection of conferences held in Australia from 2015.

Some delegates expressed views directly linking quality of presentation to the conference registration fee, such as, 'If you want to ask $700 for attending a conference, you must ensure that every session is of excellent quality'. From the discussion above, we would suggest that the current level of registration fees is consistent across learning areas for conferences which are predominantly by the profession, for the profession. One of the aims of the AFMLTA conferences is to allow development of our extensive cohort of teachers through opportunities to share research and practice. Clearly, this will mean a mix of presentational experience and capacity. The expectation that every presentation will be of outstanding quality is at odds, In some sense, then with the collegial nature of the AFMLTA conference. Conferences which have high calibre speakers across every session are typically priced at much high levels than professional association conferences. For instance, for the EduTech conference held in Queensland in 2015 packages began at almost $1700. One of the important lessons for the AFMLTA in this type of feedback is to ensure that messaging around the conference clearly highlights the dual role and nature of the national conference in providing not only a forum for inspirational speakers but also an opportunity for development of public presentation skills of practicing teachers.

Venues

There is a clear preference in the evaluation feedback for either universities or convention centres as the ideal venue for the AFMLTA conference. In the data, however, there was some consternation relating to the perception that university facilities are economical. One respondent commented that, '[registration] was too expensive for a conference held at a university where the venues should have been relatively inexpensive'. While the venue for the 2013 conference, the Australian National University, did indeed provide discounted use of spaces, the University of Melbourne in 2015 had a very different policy with significant fees levelled for use of the venue. This seems to be the trend across the tertiary sector with it becoming increasingly difficult to secure inexpensive usage of spaces for professional conferences. As noted above, the cost of venue is one of the major considerations in the formulation of the conference budget, and one that attendees need to be aware of. The AFMLTA is very sensitive to the feedback of conference participants and, while walking the tightrope of presenting an international flagship event every two years--a strong desire from members--and allowing for representative input from around the country, we are conscious of keeping costs contained and accessible for participants.

Conclusions and ramifications

The aim of the AFMLTA in holding its biennial conferences is to lead the learning and development of teachers of languages, to provide a national forum for the sharing of contemporary research and good practice in schools, and the opportunity for teachers of languages to engage with academics of international and national renown, as well as with colleagues from different states, sectors, languages and levels of experience. The analysis of the feedback from AFMLTA2015, contrasted with data from the two previous conferences, highlights a number of issues that require ongoing attention and indicate some ways forward in maintaining the relevance and value of the AFMLTA conference, and in meeting the AFMLTA's goal of advocacy for languages programs and the teaching community, and in driving the national agenda in languages education more generally.

Clearly, a dominant feature in the analysis Is the need to both contain costs and meet the expectations of all teachers of languages, both those funded to attend and those who fund themselves. These expectations relate not only to the conference content and venue, but also to the general management of information before and during the conference, sometimes reflecting a preference for costly hard copy information in an increasingly digital age, and to the catering and social aspects of this national event.

A related issue is the need to recognise that for many experienced teachers the social aspect of the conference is an attractive component; the chance to build and strengthen networks and enjoy the company of like-minded professionals is clearly an important function the conference fulfils. There is a need, however, to balance this against the need for a high-standard academic program. The program needs to offer both international and national perspectives, an overwhelmingly cross-Languages orientation even if viewed through the prism of language-specific teaching practices and research, and a sense of both the practical, applied experience of teachers in their classrooms and the contemporary research and theory that provides a bigger-picture contextual frame in which practitioners can consider their own practice and experience. This balancing act in meeting expectations and maintaining a principled stance toward conference content and structure naturally remains an ongoing challenge for future AFMLTA conference organisers.

Given the high satisfaction ratings the conference has received, it is clear the conference provides an overwhelmingly satisfying experience in terms of content and organisation, and maintains a strong national profile as a conference of value for its broad membership base. There is, however, still some need to extend the reach of the conference both national and internationally. The vast majority of attendees at any one conference are members of their local LTAs. There is clearly an 'untapped market' of unaffiliated teachers of languages who may well be enticed to attend if marketing and information were available outside membership networks. At an international level, to date, international participation beyond New Zealand has been marginal, yet the feedback from invited speakers and overseas attendees has always been positive. Perhaps a more targeted promotional campaign in selected regions, such as the Asia-Pacific or Europe, could attract a wider range of presenters, or participants that would enhance the international profile of the conference and extend the professional learning experience and social networking opportunities of attendees.

Finally, the demographic profile of conference attendees remains consistent with that of the broader language teacher community, but the numbers of early career teachers attending remain relatively low. In meeting its objectives the AFMLTA conference needs to look at ways of informing and attracting younger teachers to this significant national event, to consider what aspects of content and format might appeal to their needs, and what forms of information dissemination may best bring the conference to their attention.

In conclusion, the review of AFMLTA 2015, contrasted with earlier evaluations, continues to show high levels of satisfaction and relevance for its language teacher membership. Tensions will always exist in balancing costs against quality, theoretical sessions and practical workshops, maintaining a suitable social environment in the context of a tight academic program, ensuring that venue and catering are appropriate while not extravagant. Most importantly, future AFMLTA conferences must continue to reach out, attracting a wider audience of teachers, academics and administrators interested in the languages education field, appealing to a wider demographic of teachers both new and experienced, and extending its participation base beyond our immediate region so that its value and importance can continue to grow.

References

Absalom, M. & Morgan, A.-M. 2012. What languages teachers want: considering the evaluation of the 18th biennial AFMLTA conference. Babel, 47, 1, 32-38.

Buchanan, J., Prescott, A., Schuck, S., Aubusson, P., Burke, P. & Louviere, J. 2013. Teacher Retention and Attrition: Views of Early Career Teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38, 3.

Clarke, M. & Moore, A. 2013 Professional standards, teacher identities and an ethics of singularity. Cambridge Journal of Education 43, 4, 487-500.

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Matthew Absalom is a university teacher and researcher, professional linguist, Italian language coach, translator and published author. His current appointment is in the Italian Studies Program at The University of Melbourne. He holds qualifications in music, education, languages and linguistics, and his research interests cover Italian linguistics, applied linguistics and languages education. Matthew has a strong background in teacher professional learning and is a regular workshop facilitator around Australia. His university career spans three universities. He is currently a member of the AFMLTA executive having previously filled the role of President.

Anne-Marie Morgan is Deputy Head of School and a member of the English, languages and Literacies Education team in the School of Education at the University of New England, and a member of the Languages, Literacies and Literature Research Network. Her research, publication and teaching interests include languages, English and literacy education, Indonesian and teachers' work and wellbeing. She is the President Elect of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations, and actively involved in advocating for languages teachers, nationally and internationally.

Andrew Scrimgeour is a lecturer in Languages Education and Chinese at the University of South Australia. He has been involved in research on aspects of Asian languages teaching and learning, particularly on issues in learning character-based languages. He has been involved as a researcher and professional development provider for a number of federally funded, collaborative research projects, and has been involved in the development of Chinese curriculum for many years.

Table 1: Percentages of AFMLTA national languages conference of the
AFMLTA, by languages taught (percentages total more than 100 since
some attendees teach more than one language)

                                        Darwin   Canberra   Melbourne
                                        2011%     2013%       2015%

French                                    18        20         22

Japanese                                  18        22         19

Italian                                   11        16         20

Indonesian                                11        5           7

Chinese                                   10        5          10

German                                    8         6           8

Spanish                                   0         5           6

Other languages (Including Aboriginal     15        9          10
and Torres Strait Islander languages)

Not currently teaching a language         9         18         19

Table 2: Percentage of conference delegate, by roles

Presenter                        23%
Delegate (not a presenter)       66%
Trade display representative     4%
Other *                          7%

* 12 of the 19 'other' identified as teachers of languages,
one identified as a student, and one as 'organising
committee', and hence can also be added to the
delegate category, taking the delegate percentage
to 73 per cent. The remaining two identified as
attending in multiple roles (presenter and trade
representative).

Table 3: Percentage of conference delegates by provenance and
language teacher association membership

          Darwin   Canberra   Melbourne   Language teacher association
          2011%    2013%      2015%       membership 2015 %

ACT       6        20         8           10.65 MLTAACT

NSW       16       23         15          14.81 MLTANSW

NT        12       0          2           00.93 LTANT

QLD       15       13         12          12.50 MLTAQ

SA        15       10         12          12.04 MLTASA

TAS       0.4      1          3           02.78 MLTAT

VIC       17       16         2           29.63 MLTAV

WA        12       7          10          10.19 MLTAWA

New       5        9          7           06.48 NZALT
Zealand

USA       1        0          1

Other     1        1          1

Table 4: Percentages of satisfaction levels (very satisfied and
satisfied) with Darwin, Canberra and Melbourne conferences

                          Darwin          Canberra        Melbourne
                          2011%            2013%            2015%

Conference as a             91               94               91
whole

Conference                  96               86               89
organisation

Venue                       97               89               92

Catering                    88               81               92

Welcome reception           83               86               85

Conference dinner           80               84               87

Online registration         82               74               89
process

Cost of               55 (16 neither   48 (23 neither   53 (25 neither
registration          satisfied nor    satisfied nor    satisfied nor
                      dissatisfied)    dissatisfied)    dissatisfied)

Table 5: Percentages of satisfaction levels (very satisfied and
satisfied) with conference content and program

                                Darwin   Canberra   Melbourne
                                2011%     2013%       2015%

Range of themes                   88        88         89

Quality of plenaries              85        89      Evaluated
                                                    elsewhere

Preparedness of speakers          82        86         89

Range of speakers                 82        89         87

Practical/theoretical balance     72        78         77

Length of sessions                72        83      Evaluated
                                                    elsewhere

Table 6: Percentages of satisfaction levels (very satisfied and
satisfied) with conference provision in key domains

Valuable professional learning experiences     90%
Sufficient opportunities for networking        86%
Program space for formal discussion            77%
Clear impact on my professional practice       74%

Table 7: Professional learning highlights in rank order for the
Canberra and Melbourne conferences

New perspectives oh language teaching and learning    1st
Practical examples to take to the classroom           2nd
Theoretical perspectives on relevant issues           3rd
Applications of ICT for languages                     4th
Discussion about the Australian Curriculum            5th

Table 8: Percentages of importance levels (very important
and important) with conference inclusions

Lunch                     93%
Printed program           84%
Morning tea               83%
International speakers    74%
Nametag/lanyard           73%

Presenter biographies     64%
Afternoon tea             63%
Welcome event             59%
Primed abstracts          55%

Social program            49%
Conference bag/satchel    42%
Organised transport       31%
Other *                   17%

* Other includes suggestions about the inclusions,
particularly 10 comments about delivering the
detailed program, abstracts and biographies in
electronic format only. There was significant support
for this idea.

Table 9: Percentages of importance levels (very important and
important) of specified conference activities

When you attend a confine(c) like AFMLTA2015,   First-time      Return
how important are the following activities?   attendees %   attendees %

Networking                                        89            92

Hearing about latest research/practice            97            95

Gathering examples of practice I can use          97            90
in my own teaching

Visiting trade displays for new resources         64            52

Experiencing a new place and having a break       53            43

Catching up with colleagues and friends           70            82

Hearing inspirational speakers                    98            98

Presenting my own work                            33            46

Table 10: AFMLTA national conference registration costs

                                  AFMLTA2011   AFMLTA2013   AFMLTA2015
                                      $            $            $

Members               Earlybird      500          575          575
                      Standard       600          700          700

Non-members           Earlybird      600          675          675
                      Standard       700          800          800

Reduced (students/    Standard       400          475          475
pensioners)

Day registration      Standard       300          330          330

Table 11: National professional association conference registration
costs in 2015

Professional                  Earlybird                Standard
Association              (member/non-member) $   (member/non-member) $

Languages--AFMLTA               575/700                 675/800

English                         625/725                 725/825

Maths                             720                     845

Music                           540/620                 595/675

Science                           700                     940

History                         350-520                   680

Geography                        1090

Personal Development/           400/430                   470
Physical
Education--PDHPE

Health/Physical                   430                   500/550
Education--ACPHER

Table 12: Other national education conference registration costs
in 2015

                                 Earlybird       Standard
                                (member/non-   (member/non-
Professional Association         member) $      member) $

Curriculum Studies--ACSA            915            1055
International education--AIEC    1040/1260      1260/1530
Research-AARE                       795            1045


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Author:Absalom, Matthew; Morgan, Anne-Marie; Scrimgeour, Andrew
Publication:Babel
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Date:Feb 1, 2016
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