Tweet-ups and tweet-watchers – how IATEFL Harrogate changed ELT conferences for ever…


Harrogate Conference Centre

For any readers who don’t know what IATEFL stands for, it’s the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. The IATEFL Annual Conference took place last week in Harrogate. For any readers who don’t know where that is, it’s a spa town in Yorkshire 3ookm north of London.

I drove from London to Harrogate with two Turkish friends, Burcu Akyol and Şebnem Oral. Well, I actually hadn’t met Şebnem until I picked her up from Heathrow Airport the very same day. I now think of her a friend for life. Conferences can do that to you.

Burcu was still basking in the glow of having organised the ISTEK conference in Istanbul, which had taken place two weeks earlier. I wrote something about that conference, too, which you can read if you scroll down.

There are some obvious things that you want to do when you’ve just spent four hours cooped up in a car. You want to shower, change and get down the pub to meet people you’ve never met before but who you feel you know intimately.

Sorry? Did I mean to write that? People you’ve never met but feel you know intimately? How does THAT work?

The answer of course is that all the people involved follow each other on twitter. And they all knew that they were going to meet up – tweet-up, in fact – at the IATEFL conference. They also knew that they would be meeting some tweet-amigos and amigas for the first time.

We knew that the quickest way to organise a tweet-up get-together on that first evening was to tweet about it. Another friend and conference delegate, Jamie Keddie, had already found a pub where we could meet. He’s a resourceful lad, is Jamie.  The pub had two things going for it. It was near the conference centre and they were going to show the Barcelona v Arsenal game on TV. I realise that this was more of a plus for me than it was for Burcu and Şebnem, but we went anyway.

The pub was called Christies. It still is.

Christie's Bar, Harrogate

Burcu, Şebnem and I headed down to Christies. It was almost empty and we sat at a big table, fully expecting it to be rammed with people by the end of the evening. We were not disappointed. After a few minutes, a woman called Vicky Saumell came in. I recognised her immediately, even though we had never met. I even knew that she was from Argentina. Because we follow each other on twitter.

Burcu, Vicky and Şebnem, about five minutes after meeting each other

The pub began to fill up. Some of the people were Harrogate folk who had come to watch the match. Others were conference-goers and, almost without exception, tweeters. In the next three hours, about thirty conference delegates came into the pub, in ones, twos and threes. Most of them had met at least one other person before – at a previous conference, usually. 

We all met at least one person that we ‘knew’ for the first time. Apart from Vicky, I met Andy Hockley, Karenne Sylvester and Nik Peachey. Hugging people that you have never met before is a really enjoyable but bizarre experience. It’s like hugging a television newsreader. It also seems to me that tweeters are generally huggers too – no one seemed to mind being hugged by a complete stranger – but then that just may be that I’m a big guy and resistance to my hugs is useless.  🙂

Each new wave of tweeters were greeted with more and more extravagant embraces and screams of delight, punctuated with shouts from irate locals asking us to sit down  so they could see the football.

Replying to Scott Thornbury’s comment stirred another memory, something that I had meant to write about first time. I won’t mention the person’s name so as not to embarrass her, but if you know that this story is about you, then please comment and tell me if I’ve got it right. The story is about Emma Herrod, and she’s written to say she’s OK about being named. 🙂

About six months ago, Emma, a freelance ELT teacher who lives near London, joined twitter. She lives in Windsor, not what you might call a hot-bed of ELT (if such things exist) and is therefore somewhat isolated professionally. She asked which conference someone who was new-ish to the profession should go to if they could only go to one.

I tweeted back and suggested IATEFL.  She duly made plans for that, and then dipped her toes more into twitter, and – like everyone – ended up with a kind of support posse, the kind of thing we usually refer to as our PLN (although I’m growing less enamoured of that expression, but we will let that pass).

Within a few months, she had lots of twitter-friends whose online company she enjoyed but who she had never met. When it came time to go to Harrogate, I think she got a bit apprehensive. She even tweeted that she was on a bus into Harrogate, indicating a combination of nerves and excitement.

Her PLN, people she had never met, rallied round and told her where they would be and where she could find them. Literally within minutes of arriving, she was part of a gang.

I like this story because it suggests that future generations of teachers going to conferences alone will have a support group that could not have been dreamed of before.

So this was the first tweet phenomenon, the tweet-up. Tweet-ups aren’t new, but Harrogate raised them to a new level, I suppose by the sheer numbers of people who took part in them.

A tweet posse or twitterflock: must consist of at least four nationalities

Meanwhile, plans had been made to film the conference and live stream it. Again, this is not new, but the novel aspect of it was that the people watching in different parts of the world tweeted about it to each other, and to people they knew at the conference. This had also happened at the Istanbul ISTEK conference, and in that case had caused some interesting confusion as to whether tweeters were actually in the conference hall or watching it on their computers.

In a moment which summed up the technical brilliance and supreme inconsequentiality of the tweet-happy live stream at ISTEK, Gavin Dudeney boldly tweeted that he was about to wave his arm above his head. He duly did, and this momentous moment was observed, and tweeted about, by people in Portugal, Hungary, Scotland and Vietnam.

It’s the combination of live streaming and tweeting which is sort of exciting and ground-breaking. The idea of sitting alone in front of your computer watching live proceedings of a conference in another country is a little bit sad. You’re the person without the invitation to the party. But when you’re tweeting to a posse of people who are also not at the conference, and who in addition are communicating with you from different countries and continents, then it becomes a very connecting and cool thing to do.

I was at both ISTEK Istanbul and IATEFL Harrogate, so what do I know about the remote experience? Well, what I know about it is what I read in the tweets of the remote posse – and they seemed to be having just as much fun as we were.

Here’s a pic of two people (who also happen to be great bloggers and tweeters) who gave an excellent presentation at the conference. They also coincidentally happen to be guest bloggers of mine. Shelly Terrell’s guest blog will appear on a computer screen near you soon. Don’t go away…

Shelly Terrell and Özge Karaoğlu, after their brilliant presentation about web 2.0 tools at IATEFL Harrogate
Me doing my 'Diversity of Language' Pecha Kucha presentation for the third and final time. That's it, folks! If you haven't seen it, try to find the Paris version on youtube via Shelly Terrell

1    There was, as there always is these days, a Pecha Kucha night at IATEFL Harrogate, with a mixture of old and new PK-hands. Just wanted to mention Karenne Sylvester’s astonishingly beautiful poem about the development of English, and a brilliant first effort from Ana Parisi from Greece, who suggested that ELT schools should target third-age learners (mainly because they don’t have pushy parents). But most of all, I want to salute the wonderful compering of Lindsay Clandfield. He’s done this a few times now and practice clearly makes perfect.

2  Do everything you can to catch Petra Pointner’s brilliant talk at IATEFL about using twitter with her students.  Just when you thought you’d exhausted all the possible uses of twitter, along comes Petra with a whole series of imaginative ideas.

Watch the first part here:

27 thoughts on “Tweet-ups and tweet-watchers – how IATEFL Harrogate changed ELT conferences for ever…

  1. I’m totally envious of all the fun had at Harrogate, and grateful that Twitter and Harrogate Online allowed me to follow along!

    For me, the conference that first changed things was IATEFL Cardiff, because that was the first major conference where I think that Twitter was fully used to broaden the conference audience, and to include global participation. It was certainly the first time I’d felt the immediate benefit of Twitter and online streaming. Being able to “share” a workshop or interview with participants in Cardiff, and simultaneously with teachers in other countries, was a heady feeling indeed 🙂

    Several of us in Japan were so excited that we tried to something similar–on a MUCH smaller scale–with our next JALT conference (as did many other groups, I recall in my hash tag memory). While our tweet ups weren’t nearly on the scale of Harrogate’s (or even Cardiff’s) we were just as excited. I even made it the topic of a feature article in our Teaching Children SIG’s newsletter–“The difference a network makes” ( so I could share my own excitement.

    Of course, there’s the whole tipping point idea. And with the greater numbers who enjoyed the benefits of IATEFL Harrogate Online, and with famous folk like you sharing your enthusiasm in blogs and online, perhaps Harrogate will prove to be the ELT conference that all successive ELT conferences try to emulate. (I hope so!)

    I think that the conference where “Twitter transformed conference life in ELT forever” might be different for each of us. It will be the conference where Twitter first changed our perception of what conferences might be.

    In any case, the change is certainly a welcome one. With a profession as far flung as ours, anything that democratizes conference participation is a wonderful thing!

    1. Hi Barb!

      well, you know how I love a dramatic header! 🙂

      When I get round to writing the post, you will see that the main change was the off-site community, watching and tweeting.

      Will try to write it later today.

      Thanks for the suggestion re OUP in Thailand…

      1. Well, clearly I simply have an extreme case of ELTwitter-envy for not being in the midst of all the transformativeness!

        After reading Gavin’s lovely post on the difference between last year and this (, I can see that clearly, this was the year for Twitter.

        Now I just have to figure out how to get myself over to one of these big conferences (without paying for the flight from Japan, of course!). If OUP won’t spring for a Ken and Barbie tour, I wonder if they’d consider a Ken and Barbie preso …. 🙂

        p.s. glad you didn’t need the suggestion!

  2. Couldn’t agree more- watching the Pecha Kucha on Friday evening and sharing our excitement online with others around the globe as it happened was fantastic. Wasn’t Karenne brilliant?!

    1. Karenne was a revelation – and also plan to congratulate Lindsay on the terrific hosting he did – better make time to write this post before I give it all away in replies to comments!! 🙂

  3. Hi Ken

    I look forward to your next post! I agree IATEFL Online was a great event and it was so exciting watching the PK and chatting to people from around the world was a brilliant experience, all from the comfort of my own home.

    I wonder if tweeting from a conference will become the norm in the future?

    1. Tweeting from a conference is already the norm amongst tweeters so, like so many things, there is a divide between those who do or don’t.

      The nexus of the post – when I finally write it – is more about tweet-ups – the strangely emotional moment when people who know each other only from twitter actually meet face to face…

      1. “…the strangely emotional moment when people who know each other only from twitter actually meet face to face…”

        Yes, IATEFL brought me face-to-face with a number of fellow tweeters for the first time, but I don’t think it was so much a Twitter phenomenon as a Web 2.0 one. Just two weeks earlier, at TESOL in Boston, I’d experienced a similar feeling of delight and familiarity on meeting a number of my online students face-to-face for the first time, and on being witness to their meeting one other. This has been happening on a fairly regular basis – in a variety of locations – ever since the program started, and, as the program expands, the crowd gets bigger. If anything, the relationship that is established in an online study program is possibly richer and more enduring than one that develops in the somewhat constrained communicative space that is Twitter. For what it’s worth.

  4. Twitter IS constrained, just as Pecha Kucha is – and brings its own rewards. The fact is, you meet up with, in my case, Nik Peachey, Andy Hockley and Karenne Sylvester, and you do feel you know them a bit – maybe that has to do with their blog presence as well.

    Whatever the reasons, in conference terms, there are postive effects, like… actually, I’ve just thought of something I’m going to add to the post. Thanks for stirring the memory, ST! 🙂

    1. Scott,

      For me there’s a difference between meeting f2f with people I’ve trained on online courses, and people I’ve met on Twitter, and I think it comes down to length of exposure.

      Some Twitter people I’ve known for a very long time – many of them I know very well: their likes, dislikes, their work, their social time, hobbies, foibles and all the rest. This information seeps out over months and years. And then there are their blogs, which give further insight…

      On online courses, and particularly the shorter ones (some of the ones we run are only four weeks long), a good deal of time is spent at the beginning establishing the community and sharing lives, but once the serious work starts and the community is in place, this often takes a back seat to the actual content and discussion.

      The result for me is that I certainly know a lot of my Twitter friends in greater depth than some of the people I’ve had on online courses. This is less to do with levels of engagement, and more to do with length of exposure. The fact that Twitter friends break out of Twitter into blogs, email and, sometimes, f2f contact means that the 140 character restraint is often broken.

      So no, I don’t agree that online study programs lead to richer and more enduring relationships – I suspect that sometimes they might, but there’s a mistake in assuming that Twitter is the be-all and end-all of the relationships that are established there.


      1. Thanks for putting that thought into words, Gavin – I was beginning to wonder WHY I felt I knew the tweet-gang so well. Surely you can’t KNOW people you’ve never met or even spoken to this well.

        But the proof is in the postre. My first experience of meeting twitter followers in the flesh was Paris TESOL, and what a great start – Shelly Terrell, Valentina Dodge and the marvellously enthusiastic Kenny Christian.

        I think there is something else as well, pertinent to ELT people – the exposure that twitter offers you to this huge range of people who work in the same business. In the old days, there was the staff room, the mags and journals and the annual conference. Twitter offers so much more than that.

  5. Ken what a lovely post and yes you got all the details right 🙂 I’m fine being named, really!

    What a wonderful, surreal and emotional experience it was. The picture I have in my head of people coming towards me with arms outstretched (you’re very right about the hugging thing, and our European colleagues seem to love a good cheek kiss too:) is one I don’t think will ever leave me. It was very special.

    I share your thoughts too about the term ‘PLN’ – I haven’t got anything better at this moment in time, but does it sound a little bit ‘what’s in it for me?’? I wouldn’t like to suggest for one moment that that’s what people mean by it, but that is the reason behind my reluctance to use it. I’ll let you know when I think of a term that ticks all the boxes for me.

    Finally – I don’t think the ‘Twitter as a level playing field’ works at all without those who are more experienced, the ‘veterans’ you might say, being so humble and allowing the new people in. In turn the new people have to just dip their toe in the water and find the groove that works for them.

    So thank-you everyone for being humble and open – it makes the whole experience a pleasure!

    Emma (from near London :))

    1. Emma, you are such a shining example of the value of creating a twitter-posse, and I’m so glad I got a chance to meet you. I will NEVER forget the task you set for Burcu! 🙂

      As for PLN, thank you for agreeing with my doubts about the expression, but I think I’m coming at it from a slightly different angle. It’s the emphasis on LEARNING. I always talk about my PSG – my personal support group, an expression I first heard used by a friend who’s a Samaritan. She said she had become a Samaritan because she had a strong PSG, and she realised that other people didn’t.

      I’m actually thinking about blogging about the difference – mainly because I realise that most of my PSG – the people I really rely on on a day-to-day basis, aren’t on twitter (although most of them are on Facebook).

      Thanks for reminding me of a future blog idea!

  6. Thanks for this excellent post, Ken!

    I think you have summed up the Twitter/IATEFL experience of those at and those watching the conference really well. As I commented on Gavin Dudeney’s blog, I was watching from afar (well, London) and felt so lucky to be able to do so (even luckier, since the content is going to be online for a while yet – I need to catch up). He and the British Council team did a marvelous job, as you make reference to above.

    By the way, do you mean you won’t be doing any more Pecha Kuchas, or just that you won’t do a ‘Diversity of Language PK’?


    1. Hi Mike,

      thanks for the positive comment. And I want to repeat your congratulations to everyone who was involved in the live-streaming.

      I really want to try the remote conference experience (RCE?) at some point in the future. I’m hoping that there will be some live streaming from BrazTESOL Sao Paulo in July, a conference I am deeply upset about missing.

      I certainly hope to do other PKs in the future, but I think it’s time to put that one to bed, particularly as so many people had seen Shelly’s film of it from Paris on youtube (and reminded me of the fact after IATEFL!).

  7. Ken,

    It was great seeing you and Dede at IATEFL. Thank you for coming to our presentation! Ozge and I really appreciate your support.

    Ohhhhh IATEFL… I loved the experience of the PLN, tweet-ups, fabulous presentations, great performances, great PKs (I could watch yours 1000 times and I’d still laugh), and fantastic weather. Thank you for letting the general public know what IATEFL stands for and giving some background history.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Shelly.

      Your presentation at IATEFL with Özge was a special highlight. Because I knew you both already, I knew it would be good, but I was wondering how your contrasting styles would work together.

      In the end, what a treat! Fire and Earth! A truly magical presentation. When is the next one??

  8. Hi Ken,
    I watched all the tweet-ups online, and decided to be the first person to give u a big hug next year in Brighton:)
    This tweeter thing is really crazy! I nearly turned out to be a diggie (techie?) out of veggie! I met Ken, Burcu, Shelly, Özge, and many creative, humorous, multi-tasker, super-hiper creatures via this blue bird!
    Lots to say, but i’ll stop here.. See you in 45th IATEFL Conf:)

    1. Thanks, Candan.

      I’m sure the Brighton opening tweet-up will be the biggest yet. Weather permitting, it may have to take place on the beach, rather than in a pub. 🙂

  9. Am just surfacing – totally exhausted and post-conference-blue Ken, and though I normally hate to add wow, comments at the end of other comments on posts – like getting to a party late and then yelling out “hey, I brought a bottle of wine too” .. but am making my fingers type because but I very much want to say, yes, twitter made the IATEFL experience what it was and I very much, very much, enjoyed my big hug in RL from you!

    p.s. Thank you so much for mentioning my poem :).


    1. Thanks, Karenne!

      when the dust has settled, it’s the tweet-hugs (twugs?) that will remain in the memory bank!

  10. Hi Ken!
    It is great to read what the feelings were like when all of you at Harrogate met up face to face… I hope I can be a part of such an experience one day!
    The ISTEK and IATEFL conferences were amazing experiences for me (and in the beginning, knowing that I could not attend, I thought I would be missing out on a lot of interesting things) – when I found out they would be streamed live, I was ecstatic!
    You should have seen me on the Pecha Kucha night – I was in my home office and I was jumping up and down like a 5-year-old whenever one of you came up on stage: “It’s Ken! It’s Marisa!” and for everybody else.
    Twitter has helped us make a connection – not only exchanging information, opinions and the occasional song or photo. It has helped us meet each other a little bit more as people and made us very eager to meet in person – and for many, that last bit has already happened!
    Thank you Ken and hope to see you next year in Brighton,

    1. Hi Vicky,

      if the exponential rise of twitter continues as far as Brighton, we will, as I said earlier, have to organise the opening tweet-up on the beach, or in a soccer stadium!

  11. Dear Ken,

    What else is to be said! Everybody praises the success of the conference for the multiple reasons you have all been mentioning.
    I was happy to find that the online sharing did not stop there, but went on endlessly f2f.
    In the end, I am so happy to have been there with you all!


    1. Quite right, Vicky – everything has been said, either here or on Gavin’s, Shelly’s or Özge’s blogs.

      So the only thing to announce is that Shelly Terrell will be my next guest blogger! 🙂

  12. On hugs:

    Great post Ken, and well said Ken and Gavin about first-time meetings with friends you’ve only ever known through Twitter.

    Like Barbara Sakamoto, “I’m totally envious of all the fun had at Harrogate”. Perhaps more so because of the fun I had and great people I met (and hugged) at ISTEK two weeks earlier.

    The potential for mass tweet-ups will forever add a new and welcome something to look forward to when attending conferences – whether it be to re-hug tweeters already met or indulge in a first-time hug with those you haven’t but are pretty sure you recognize from their thumbnail icon – even if they are big guys 🙂

    For now, I’m looking forward to the day when I can meet many more of my PLN.

    1. I wonder if the day will come when the tweet-up is so normal, that people will march into a pub or similar meeting place, and hug someone who looks familiar from the thumbnail icon – and find it turns out to be the wrong person! I predict a riot. 🙂

      Great to meet you in Istanbul, Sean – even if it was in the less than exciting entrance hall to a student residental block. Next time, Brighton beach?

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