Part 2. Becoming a More Central Participant in the Learning Sciences

As learning scientists, we know that learning can be thought of as a process of enculturating and contributing to the ways of thinking, being, and knowing of a community. Throughout graduate school and the several years after, we can understand our own trajectory as moving from observation to legitimate peripheral participation to increasingly central participation in the learning sciences. Our field also recognizes that knowledge is collaboratively generated and shaped, so working together with others offers opportunities to improve our own research and to speak back to larger conversations within the field.

What many people often lose sight of when completing their doctoral work is that the actual research is not the entire goal or purpose. In many ways, you can see the doctorate itself as just a mediating process (albeit an important one) to becoming a meaningful participant so that you can shape the ongoing discourse of a community that deals with topics that you highly value. Seen this way, becoming a central participant in the learning sciences (assuming that is where you see your professional identity) is your goal. Your dissertation is your first stake in the ground in identifying yourself within the community—it highlights what particular issues you will contribute to and so on. This section aims to shed some light on some of the things you can do to become a more central participant in the learning sciences community, with a particular focus on activities organized by the International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS).

Navigating an ISLS conference

Perhaps the single most important way to become a more central participant in the learning sciences is to attend the annual ISLS meeting. This gives you an opportunity to meet face-to-face with scholars whose work you’ve been reading, as well as to build your own network of peers. Given that meetings are only once per year, it can take quite some time to expand your network, so we encourage you to attend learning sciences meetings as early and as often as you can (and as your advisor, institution, or other funding source can support financially…). There are mechanisms, such as poster sessions or workshops, that you can actively participate in even in the early stages of your work. Making the most of the conferences that you attend is a skill to be mastered.

Plan your time by making a schedule

Take the time to sit down before the conference starts and look actively at the program and proceedings. From 2021 onwards, note that ISLS meetings have parallel learning sciences and CSCL programs, so make sure to look carefully at both. Since these are disseminated online (typically through a conference app), you can star the talks you want to see and make yourself a schedule that intentionally engages your interests and broadens your viewpoint. Try to read the papers you are especially interested in before you come to the talk, keeping in mind that the paper and the talk may differ slightly as the researchers may have made some developments since they had to submit.

At ISLS conferences, there are generally several types of sessions: poster sessions, paper sessions (both short and long), symposia, keynotes, and pre-conference workshops. Poster sessions generally involve many people presenting posters at once, and often free food and drinks are served. You have the opportunity to walk around and engage with the posters that interest you, and it’s the best session to meet many new people and ideas at once. Paper sessions are a bit more structured and typically involve scholars sequentially presenting their work in short (~10 minutes) or long (~20 minutes) talks. Symposia are essentially organized paper sessions in which presenters organize their talks around a particular theme or idea, usually with a discussant who presents last, reflecting across the session. Papers and symposia are great ways to go deep with a particular idea and to engage with a family of related ideas. Finally, the keynotes are generally one-hour long talks intended to be relevant to the entire community. They are intentionally chosen by the conference committee to support the entire community in conversing about and converging around one set of ideas. People’s questions are important too, as they highlight how the field in its diversity is responding to these ideas. Since no other talks are at the same time as the keynotes, most conference-goers attend them. Discussing the keynotes can also be a great conversation starter when networking throughout the conference, so don’t miss them.

Most importantly, when making your schedule, be attentive to yourself. Have you just crossed the Atlantic Ocean and are running on four hours of sleep? Do you need some time to get adjusted to a new place with a language that you are unfamiliar with? Are you traveling with family members? Conferences can be very intense, but just like running a marathon, it is important to pace yourself. There is no requirement to attend every event! As you make your schedule, remember to balance the many opportunities of the conference with your own priorities, including rest and leisure.

Attend sessions mindfully

Once you get to a session, don’t be shy. If you are at a short or long paper talk, use it as an opportunity to sit next to someone you recognize and to take part in a conversation that the session is about. After a person’s talk (or a series of talks), raise your hands and ask pertinent questions. You may be surprised how this may draw others to you and get you engaged in conversation (sometimes well after the talk itself, initiated by someone that heard you ask). Lastly, if there is time, stay after the talk and start a conversation with a speaker or audience member. In short, use this opportunity to network around the ideas that are important to you and surely to others.

Another important tip has to do with attending keynotes. These are the rare times where a sizable portion of the learning sciences community come together face-to-face, making it an opportunity to observe its dynamics. First of all, arrive early enough to get a good seat. Don’t be pushy, but of course if there are chances to sit near someone you wanted to talk to, then go for it! Obviously if you have a really good question then you should ask it, just bear in mind that several hundred participants are going to hear you so it may be a bit nerve-wracking (no pressure!).

Network intentionally

Many people come to conferences to be social. Most learning scientists enjoy meeting new people in general and are especially open to chatting with graduate students. Therefore, a conference is often a place where approaching someone new is appropriate. While “networking” can seem intimidating or inauthentic, it helps to think about it instead as “meeting and building relationships with people who share your interests.” Networking is useful for discovering career opportunities, but it also helps with your research by connecting you with people who might have unique insights about the work you are trying to do.

In general, there are just a few don’ts of networking, but they are important. Don’t be pushy, by which we mean, try to let the conversation flow organically and end when it ends. Your goal is to get to know the person, not necessarily to ask them for a favor now. It is to set you up in case you communicate later, so you can say in a future email, “As you may remember, we met at the ISLS conference!…”. Don’t interrupt people if they are talking to someone else. We’ve read advice that says graduate students should generally be the first to leave the conversation. While this isn’t always true, the underlying idea is to be aware of cues for when it is time to politely leave the conversation.

And now for the dos! We recognize that networking in this way is not always easy for participants who may not feel comfortable with English and/or with the outgoing style of interactions typical in, for example, the United States, so here we offer specific conversation starters. Do introduce yourself by sharing things like your name, institution, year, your advisor, and/or where you are from. Talk briefly about your research (and we do mean briefly). It may be a good idea to have a practiced elevator pitch about your research ready. Let the other person ask follow up questions. “I work with middle school students on learning about ecosystems through painting” is probably enough information. Then, ask them a question or two. Here are some great starters:

  • How are you enjoying the conference?
  • Have any sessions really stood out to you?
  • What are you working on lately that you’re excited about?
  • Is this your first time in [conference city]?
  • Are you presenting this year?
  • What did you think of the keynote?
  • How about them Yankees? (Don’t ask this.)

If there is someone you really want to meet and you know they’ll be at the conference, it can be helpful to send an email and set up a meeting time in advance. However, you want to do this with a real purpose. In your email, demonstrate that you have read the person’s work, or ask your advisor to introduce you if that’s appropriate. Otherwise, it’s best to just engage someone when you see that they are free at the conference.

Luckily, ISLS conferences have many “coffee hours” between talks, with snacks and beverages included in your registration fee. These are usually great times to engage people, since people are usually looking for someone to talk to as they sip their free coffee.

We like to use the metaphor of “tapping on someone’s shoulder” to mean introducing yourself to them. In general, we would not recommend literally doing this, but it’s often easier than you think to introduce yourself to someone new, or to have a mutual colleague make that introduction for you. Here are some tips drawn from conversation analysis about the finer details of networking.

Participate deliberately—make your contribution

There are many things you can do to guide your transformation into a more seen and heard community member. One of your best bets is to participate in the doctoral consortium. The doctoral consortium typically accepts 10-12 PhD students, towards the end of their studies, to take part in a 1.5 day pre-conference workshop. Every year, different co-chairs and mentors are chosen by the year’s conference organizers to host the doctoral consortium. While the activities and group dynamics vary, the underlying rationale remains the same: to deliberately help aspiring learning scientists become more central members in the scholarly society. So, networking and apprenticeship opportunities abound. This resource, not surprisingly, was originally conceived at the doctoral consortium meeting of the 2019 CSCL conference in Lyon, France, with the interest of extending the impact of doctoral consortium. While the actual face-to-face time between aspiring learning scientists and the co-chairs and mentors cannot be replicated out of financial constraints, making some of the key ideas widely accessible can. (Thank you modern networked technologies!)

The nice part about the doctoral consortium is that it offers a great way to develop acquaintances and friendships with others at similar points along their career trajectories, to discuss issues of relevance to this sensitive developmental stage in your career, and of course to get one-to-one mentoring from (oftentimes) multiple senior scholars. While the application process can be competitive, it is worth investing your time and effort to put together a solid application. Usually, doctoral consortium participants receive substantial support to fund their participation in the conference as a whole.

In addition to participating in the doctoral consortium, the most straightforward way to participate in a conference, besides attending talks, is offering one! No point in reinventing the wheel here: there are already a number of good resources available on giving a memorable (or at least competent) talk, touching on topics such as how to prepare for your talk and making fabulous presentations.

Historically, ISLS conferences have included a “New Member Session” specifically for those new to the society or who are attending their first ISLS conference. The session generally features speakers representing ISLS, the Network of Academic Programs in the Learning Sciences (NAPLeS), and learning sciences journals, so key ideas and pathways to success in the field are made explicit. The session is often a good opportunity to meet with other newcomers. In recent years, new members have been invited to (optionally) bring a poster about their work and get feedback from new and continuing ISLS members. It makes for a great set of conversations, usually around snacks and drinks.

If you have or want to develop an academic presence on social media (see below), there are a handful of things you can do to stay up-to-date and/or participate in the ongoing conference developments. Generally, the conferences have a hashtag you can use that helps streamline your feed to quickly see who else is at the conference and what they are talking about (#EnteringTheLearningSciences). Consider live-tweeting sessions, questions you hear, or your own emergent musings that strike you during talks. And don’t be afraid to publicize your own talk using social media!

Value the diversity in our field

The learning sciences is a heterogeneous community, comprising participants with a wide variety of ideas, backgrounds, and experiences. As with any community and society broadly, issues around equity shape your and other peoples’ trajectories as they become more central participants in the field. For example, people may face barriers as varied as having jet lag because they had to travel quite far to attend a conference, speaking English as a foreign language, and being minoritized by virtue of their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other social discrimination structures. Thus, it is important to be critically aware of and reflexive about issues of access, power, and cultural ways of being. Listening actively and empathically to remain attuned to the context and subtexts that are part of your interactions is vital. All of us doing these things can help foster an inclusive community which respects its members’ various ways of knowing, being, and learning.

Have fun!

While there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had in attending talks and chatting with others, organizers of ISLS meetings plan various social events to give people the opportunity to relax and get to know more about one another. Several social events are typically organized, including a general reception (after the opening keynote) and conference banquet. The general reception is a great opportunity to catch up with people you haven’t seen since the last conference and enjoy a free glass of wine or other beverage together. The conference banquets have been a bit more varied, having included boat trips, exquisite dinners, and entertainment. On many occasions learning scientists have hit the dance floor, so don’t miss the opportunity to boogie with someone whose chapter or article you’ve idolized in the past. Most of these events are free, but generally the conference banquets have an associated fee.

Another important way to have fun when attending a conference is to visit a few days early or stay late. Why not take a few days to walk the streets of Paris on your way to Lyon? Why not stop for a few days in Bangkok to get a Thai massage after several days in the Singapore heat? Balancing some enjoyment with the seriousness of the conference is a great way to decompress and enjoy some of the perks — like traveling to new places — that academic life brings with it.

Activities between conferences (the other 51 weeks…)

While the conference is arguably the central annual activity of the ISLS, there is certainly a lot to be done during the other 51 weeks of the year to stay connected to other scholars, to keep current with cutting-edge research in the field, and to become a central ISLS participant. In addition to the benefits of being an active and contributing member to your local research group or institutional doctoral program, here are some suggestions for things you can do to more fully participate in the learning sciences community between conferences.

Join an ISLS committee

The ISLS has several committees with varying aims and scopes. In general, people volunteer to participate on these committees, and student participation is welcome. Such a committee is a great way to contribute to the field and to meet scholars outside of your institution. The best way to get yourself involved is to attend an open committee meeting during one of the conferences, but you can always just reach out to a chair via e-mail and express your interest.

Attend a related conference ​

Regional conferences tend to offer an intimate conference experience that allows for easier networking and exchange of more emergent ideas, especially if those conferences are focused on graduate students. Many regional conferences are relatively nearby and low-cost or free to participate in, so they can be more feasible to attend. Networking with other conference-goers tends to be easier at these conferences given their smaller size. Presenting at these conferences can also be a bit less nerve-wracking, as they are more welcoming of works-in-progress. As a bonus, regional learning sciences conferences often bring in great faculty keynotes. Some regional learning sciences conferences we know about are:

(Disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive list.) These conferences often pop up emergently and are not always on a regular schedule, so stay up-to-date using your networks. If there is no learning sciences graduate student conference in your area, consider getting some cross-institutional colleagues together and organizing one! Do be aware that there are conferences taking place all the time. Even some of those that say “learning sciences” in their titles might not be relevant to your interests or networks. As you decide whether or not to attend a conference, take a look at previous proceedings, who the keynotes are, and whether anyone you know has attended that conference in the past so you can ask them about their experiences before committing. In addition to regional conferences, learning scientists often frequent larger national or international conferences across research areas, such as LAKAERA (consider the “learning sciences” and “advanced technologies for learning” special interest groups), EARLI, and IDC. While some of these conferences are very large, many have special interest groups (SIGs) or activities for young scholars (e.g., EARLI JURE). In some regions, “summer schools” or other specialized workshops similarly offer opportunities to network with a close group of people. Try to keep posted on those that are relevant to you.

ISLS Student Association

The International Learning Sciences Student Association (ILSSA) is a formally established committee under ISLS in 2019. The association aims to serve as an international community for all students of the learning sciences. ILSSA’s mission is to support and develop the intellectual, social, and professional development of graduate and undergraduate students in the field of learning sciences and within ISLS.

Become a reviewer

Writing good reviews is a skill that needs to be honed. It is vital to the knowledge building processes of a scientific community and therefore highly appreciated by its members. Students are often intimidated to review papers for journals, particularly if their own publishing record is incipient. Still, one of the best ways to get yourself into the conversation—to see what ideas are emerging in the field and what scholars are up to—is to review papers even at these early stages of your career.

A good way to develop your reviewing expertise and confidence is to work your way up the review ladder. A great place to start is by volunteering to review for the regional conferences (see section above). You are often automatically assigned to review just by submitting. A second way to gain reviewing experience is to volunteer to join the pool of reviewers for the annual ISLS meeting. You will likely be called on to review one to several posters or papers if you volunteer (by filling out a form that goes out to all ISLS members). Both of these opportunities are good ways to hone your voice as a critical friend to work you come across.

Once you are ready to take the step and review for serious journals, there are two mechanisms to get involved in this rewarding and oftentimes eye-opening experience. One way is to ask your advisor if you can write evaluations for papers that they have been assigned to review. This can give you low stakes practice, with a rare opportunity for personalized feedback on your reviews. Of course, confer with your mentor about the ethics of doing this and confidentiality rules that apply. A second way is to contact journal editors directly and state your interests. You will be surprised at how well your request may be received, as reviewing can be laborious and volunteering is often appreciated. Sometimes journals will add you as a fourth or extra reviewer as a mechanism to both give you experience and to contribute another perspective to help make a decision.

Social media throughout the year​

Social media can be a great way to develop a professional presence. It often invites opportunities to talk to scholars in informal ways and to get information quickly. For example, we’ve used social media several times to collect the information on this page, and to share out the page when it was done. Through social media you can also find out about opportunities and new publications. Finally, it allows you to build up and control your narrative.

Many learning scientists and ISLS as an organization are active on two social media platforms: Facebook and Twitter. ISLS maintains a Facebook group that you can join and a twitter presence @islsnews that you can follow. In general, searching a social medium for the #LearningSciences or the term “learning sciences” can bring up quite a bit of relevant content. Here is some general advice for managing your social media presence:

  • Match your use to the affordances and constraints of the medium. For example, on Twitter it is considered appropriate and even normal to follow scholars you have not met personally and to respond to their tweets. On Facebook, however, it is less typical to send friend requests to scholars you have not connected with personally. While these norms of social media can be difficult to learn explicitly, spending some time on the medium will make it easier.
  • Stay professional. You can be yourself while maintaining a social media presence that presents you positively; being professional doesn’t necessarily mean you have to self-censor. If you prefer to keep a boundary between your professional and personal selves on the internet, consider getting a second Twitter that is private or modifying your Facebook sharing settings so that particular posts are only visible to certain friends.
  • Self-promote (or, if you prefer, “humblebrag”). People find it a lot easier to know about your work when you tell them! If you get a grant, publish a new article, or have been accepted to a conference, don’t be afraid to tell the world. We recognize that this advice is situated in different cultural norms, so as you seek out your own voice on social media, look to other graduate students and scholars you admire for inspiration about how they talk about their work.
  • General tips and guides for social media for academia are here, here, here, and here.

Some people do not enjoy using social media for any variety of reasons, and that’s ok too. We encourage you to participate on such media only to whatever degree feels comfortable to you and on whichever platforms you like. Have no social media? Surely you’re emailing, so give some thought to your email signature!

PS – You can follow us on twitter! @_SurajUttam and @yhod

PPS – Talking about this guide on social media? Use the hashtag #EnteringTheLearningSciences!

Stay up-to-date with cutting edge scholarship

The learning sciences is an active field, and therefore there are many things you can (and should) be doing throughout the year to make sure you are staying current with new scholarship. The learning sciences and computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) communities continue to publish new textbooks and handbooks every few years (2018; 2019) that are fantastic ways to become familiar with the core works of the community and its emerging directions. Another terrific resource is produced by NAPLeS, which can be found on the ISLS website. NAPLeS produces online webinars and short videos hosted by learning scientists on a wide range of topics of interest to the community. You can also check out the rapid community reports series on the ISLS website, or repositories such as the Center for Innovative Research on Cyberlearning (CIRCL), that feature learning scientists and brief summaries of key topics in what are called primers. For many conferences, you can also read conference proceedings for free, even if you could not attend personally (ISLS conference proceedings are stored in a repository at Lastly, regularly check the webpages of your favorite journals (Journal of the Learning Sciences (JLS), International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (ijCSCL)) and/or follow them on social media so you can read articles as soon as they are published. See the journal websites to subscribe to receive content alerts when new issues or announcements come out.

To everything there is a season

Like most professions or organizations, the learning sciences (and academia more broadly) is beholden to an annual cycle. Fixtures on these cycles are highly dependent on nation or continent, so you will have to figure out your own schedule. For example, submissions to ISLS annual meetings occur in the Fall, not long after annual submissions to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) or biennial European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) conferences. Wherever you are, get to understand the repetitive nature of the academic calendar and you will be a step ahead in anticipating when you have free time to write and when you will be drowning in conference or grant deadlines. While good research can happen at any time, there is comfort in knowing the rhythm of the year.