Peer-to-Peer Learning: Why Your Attendees Are Experts Too

While big-name keynoters and experts can offer lots of insights, it’s also important to give attendees opportunities to engage in peer-to-peer learning at your conferences.

Last week, I got an email from a fellow association editor who had a few questions about how we manage the different channels here at Associations Now. She wanted to know if I would be willing to chat with her for a few minutes.

Of course, I was flattered and happy to talk. At the end of our 20-minute chat the other day, I realized not only that we had more in common than we probably thought at the start, but also that we are facing some of the same issues. Among them: how to best integrate our print products with our digital ones and how to compete for our members’ time with for-profit competitors that often have a much bigger budget and staff than we do.

As I was sitting down to write my blog post this week, that conversation also got me thinking about the importance of peer-to-peer learning at association conferences.

Don’t get me wrong: Industry experts and well-known keynoters can offer lots of takeaways and insights to attendees, but it’s also important that association conferences make time to allow attendees to learn from one another. In fact, I’d argue it’s a huge loss if you’re not taking advantage of the collective brain power of your attendees.

One way to do that is to eliminate experts and keynoters entirely, which may sound extreme, but it is exactly the strategy the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges is taking with its 2020 California Great Teachers Seminar.

“With no experts or keynote speakers, the seminar is based on the principle that faculty are the experts in teaching and learn best from one another,” says the conference website.

If you’re not yet ready to say goodbye to keynoters and other experts, there are plenty of other options available that will promote peer-to-peer learning.

For example, more associations are using hackathons to bring together attendees to solve problems affecting their industries. The American Political Science Association held a Diversity and Inclusion Hackathon at its 2018 Annual Meeting, where attendees came together to come up with ideas to make the industry more welcoming to everyone. That collective brainstorming led to more than 10 product ideas.

Some associations offer peer-to-peer learning formats and spaces at their annual meetings. For instance, this year the Community Associations Institute hosted four Campfire Sessions, which were held in a cozy space and designed “to spark attendee conversation, engagement, and peer-to-peer learning.” And here at ASAE, we offer OpenSpace at our Annual Meeting & Exposition, where attendees can come up with the topic or challenge, set the agenda for what’s discussed in their “pod,” and invite colleagues and new connections to join them.

One other idea I like is to pair attendees up with learning buddies. They are in the same vein as conference buddies, but they do more than help new attendees navigate the conference. Instead, these buddies create a learning plan together ahead of the conference and hold one another accountable to it. And then once the conference is over, they get together again to share what they learned and talk about how they will apply it in the upcoming weeks and months.

What steps has your association taken to ensure that attendees learn from one another—and not just from experts on the main stage? Tell us about them in the comments.

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Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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