The venue is the newly refurbished City Learning Centre in Lambeth, south London - all hi-tech and hi-spec. The occasion is Teachmeet, a gathering to share the latest in good teaching practice and technology through a series of short, snappy presentations by teachers about what works for them in the classroom.
The atmosphere is social, with "nibbles" and beer, and lots of discussion. In the early days, some TMs, as they are dubbed, were held in pubs with only a laptop for technical support.
TMs are very much a grass roots learning experience, driven by teachers for teachers. They have come a long way in nearly five years since they were set up by a group of Scottish teachers. They are gaining popularity nationwide, with an estimated 60 or more UK events organised annually at local level.
"Teachmeet provides a space and social atmosphere to share ideas - there is something special about getting peers talking to each other," says language teacher Ewan McIntosh.
Now running a digital media consultancy, he was one of the original TM group, which included an expert in virtual learning environments (VLE), a lecturer and a pioneer primary school blogger. They started sharing ideas online and decided to meet over a pint.
"Teachmeet is not about technology but about teaching," says Ewan. "It's a trading of stories - the technology helped us find each other." The TM events began to take off after being showcased to a packed audience at the 2006 Scottish Learning Festival and then in London at the 2007 educational technology show BETT, which has hosted events ever since.
Lisa Stevens found out about Teachmeet through BETT and says it has changed her life. A primary language teacher in Sutton Coldfield with several years' experience, she admits: "I knew technology in the classroom was a good idea but I didn't know where to start - I was very nervous and felt overwhelmed by the BETT show and was nearly put off altogether when I sat next to the geekiest guy on earth, who laughed at my laptop."
Then she says: "I was rescued by a group of wonderful teachers at the Teachmeet event. You do get the occasional geek, but that is not what it is about - it is not just the technology stuff but tips and support."
As a result she has become a regular follower of TM events, not only in the Midlands but in other parts of the country when they are streamed online. She has gained a whole range of ideas to enhance her teaching practice, including: Easy Speak microphones (which help pupils record voices, sounds or music); storytelling with www.goanimate.com; gaming programmes such as Myst and Epic Citadel to encourage boys' creative writing; and Voki, a website where pupils can create and customise their own avatars. The enthusiasm of her pupils has inspired colleagues to follow her example, in particular with Wallwisher, a virtual Post-It board where pupils can post ideas and responses.
Ms Stevens also gained enough confidence to present at the 2009 BETT show as well as develop a part-time educational consultancy career. Many teachers like Ms Stevens describe Teachmeet, which is often likened to "show and tell", as some of the best continuing professional development (CPD) available.
Emma Baker, a primary teacher in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, says: "It's such a refreshing CPD method. There's no time to stare out of the window and think of the million things you could be doing - you just feel intrigued and inspired. I feel that I can try more, experiment and share my ideas with other like-minded teachers."
TM was a lifeline for design technology teacher Alasdair Douglas, who nearly left teaching after a difficult time at a challenging secondary school in a deprived area of Sunderland. "I was a depressed, run-of-the-mill teacher, working in a rough area, just going through the motions in the classroom and feeling I couldn't go on. Going to Teachmeet switched me back on to teaching - and I've discovered hundreds of often free online resources, and ideas from which I can pick and choose to switch my pupils back on to learning."
As varied as TM events are, they share an "unconference" style with PowerPoint presentations more or less outlawed, encouraging creative presentations lasting no longer than seven minutes.
Drew Buddie, ICT co-ordinator at the Royal Masonic School for Girls in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, took visual metaphor to another level when he wore a Captain America costume to encourage teachers to value and present their ideas.
"I started on stage as me but then put the costume on with all its chiselled pecs and abs - demonstrating to the audience that: 'I'm not the superhero you think I am just because I am presenting - anyone can present.'"
Each TM event also offers two-minute "nano" sessions for those wanting to deliver something short and simple, such as a demonstration of how to use Google more effectively. Any presenter over-running their allotted time risks, quite bizarrely, having a cuddly toy thrown at them. There is no set programme; a computerised fruit machine picks at random who is going to present next. The only rule is that presentations have to be about something which is happening somewhere in a classroom.
A recent survey following a TM event in Hampshire found varying attitudes to technology among participants, from nine per cent having no confidence at all to 31 per cent being very confident. More than three-quarters of the attendees were teachers, although twice as many worked in primary than secondary.
The TM events also attract educational consultants and company representatives, but sales pitches are not allowed. Events sometimes attract sponsorship from ICT businesses or organisations, such as Vital, a professional development programme delivered through the Open University.
An organiser of a Hampshire TM event, ICT co-ordinator Ian Addison, believes the next step is to get schools and local authorities to recognise the value of Teachmeet and release teachers to attend during school hours. "At the moment teachers have to decide to go in their own time - many say: 'Why should I?'"
Open and free to all, the TM events are usually organised through a Wiki page and advertised through online mailing lists, VLEs or social networking, particularly Twitter. At the Lambeth Teachmeet, primary teacher Dawn Hallybone told her colleagues that it was "often quicker than Google if I have a question and need a rapid response because there are lots of other teachers out there to help - and the thing about Twitter is there's no obligation to reply, but many do".
Thanks to digital media, Teachmeet tentacles are stretching abroad, particularly to North America and Scandinavia. Its advocates maintain it can work effectively anywhere from a large conference space to a staff room meeting or inset day.
There is usually an organic randomness about a TM event but it can be focused on a particular technology such as a recent one in Sheffield which looked at gaming as an educational resource.
Ian Usher, e-learning co-ordinator for Buckinghamshire County Council, used the TM model recently for a meeting of ICT co-ordinators. He acknowledges that some people still want structured conferences and keynote speakers, but says: "We've all been to conferences where everyone listening knows there's more cumulative knowledge in the room than the person giving the PowerPoint... and that's where Teachmeet comes in."
Teachmeet on tap
- What Teachmeet is about
Examples of Teachmeet presentations
- Looking at Google properly http:ianaddison.net?p=486
- VitalICT, Poisson Rouge and Googling: http:ianaddison.net?p=388
- Voki: http:ianaddison.net?p=229
- Teachmeet Fishbowl, where a group of teachers sits in the middle of a room and discuss a problem facing them: http:teachmeet.pbworks.comwpage21222153TeachMeet-Fishbowl.