Exploring Learning Technologies UnConference
Friday afternoon I attended the Exploring Learning Technologies UnConference at OSU. I've attended a number of unconferences in the last couple of years, and I generally like the format. There is, of course, great potential for a lousy conference if the attendees don't know that the event is up to them. I didn't know anyone signed up for ELTU, so I was a little trepidatious about what I might get out of this specific event.
The registrations were limited to 50 people, so it was going to be a smaller event than some I'd attended. We were in a single large room, and it was explained to us that the sessions would occur in the four corners. As with any unconference, if you weren't getting anything of value from the session you selected you were encouraged to get up and move to a different session. It's been my experience at previous events that people are simply too polite or too self-conscious to leave a session if it involves getting up, opening a door, and exiting. Having all the sessions in a single room made is substantially easier to float between sessions if one was unsatisfied.
Another benefit of having sessions in the same room was that we could all overhear some of the discussions going on. So even if your session was satisfying, you might catch a snippet of another conversation that was even better, and thus switch gears. Each corner of the room had a computer connected to a projector, and these were used to take notes on a wiki, which was displayed on the walls. So even if you couldn't hear a conversation that was taking place, you could see the notes that were being recorded, and use those to decide whether another session might be a better use of your time.
Interestingly, I didn't see many people switch sessions. I think this is because the scheduling process we used helped ensure that people got to attend sessions in which they had a genuine interest. At the unconferences I've attended previously, people self-select to present or lead a discussion, and place their presentation on a free spot on the conference schedule (often a corkboard with index cards and thumbtacks). At ELTU, however, we did things a little differently.
When we arrived, we each picked up name tags with our names printed on them. Beneath our names was a blank space labeled "My Tags". We were instructed to write down three or four keywords describing our interests for the event. When everyone had arrived, we quickly went around the room introducing ourselves (name and department), and read aloud the tags we had written down. The organizer of the event jotted these down, and those that were repeated multiple times instantly became candidates for session topics. With the potential topics thus identified, we then worked together to place them into the schedule. This worked surprisingly well, as several participants needed to leave early, and were thus able to get the sessions in which they were interested scheduled first, so that they could attend.
There were no dedicated speakers, and no specific facilitators in the sessions. Instead, it was an open discussion. This could have really backfired, if any one attendee hijacked their session; but thankfully that didn't seem to occur. Dynamic conversations seemed to be occurring around the room, and everyone seemed to be pretty well engaged.
Without specific speakers, the participants were left to their own to take value from the sessions. I can't say that I learned a lot, but I learned about a lot of thing and collected a pretty comprehensive list of tools and technologies to investigate later. More than anything, though, events like this are good for meeting people. Some of the folks present were looking to implement technologies with which I had a lot of familiarity, so I was able to make suggestions. Others were wrapping up implementations of stuff that I want to do, so I had an opportunity to pick their brains. We all had something to share, and I'm really looking forward to following with some of these folks in the weeks ahead.
I learned about edupunk; had a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion about generational differences and how they affect people's attitudes toward learning technology; and learned about some of the cool things different units are doing on campus to share information in new ways (the Open KSA stuff going on at the architecture department was particularly interesting). One of the most entertaining moments for me personally was when Chris Hill, one of the event organizers, said he had recently heard someone state that The "twi" prefix is the new "cyber". It was surprising to find myself being quoted at an event I was attending! :)
After the final sessions we had a small wrap-up / debrief, in which we discussed the things that we think worked, and the things that could use some improvement for the next time around. One of the participants expressed a desire for a formal schedule ahead of time, so that she could know which sessions she wanted to attend. This is directly contrary to the entire notion of an unconference, so it's unlikely to occur. It was suggested instead that specific "tracks" be created, with focused topics developed within each track the day of the event. This would allow folks to better prepare while still preserving the unconference format.
Another attendee expressed concern about the general ambiguity of the event before things started. There was no way to really gauge whether topics would be discussed that were of interest to you, and there was no way to really know whether the event would be a useful way to spend one's time. Finally, several people expressed perplexity about related events that were discussed. "What's a podcamp?" someone asked, when PodCamp Ohio was mentioned.
Late last year I wrote about some of my experiences at recent unconferences, and I specifically pointed out the problems of naming and how to know ahead of time that an event will be worthwhile. I think some of these questions will get resolved over time as more people attend unconference and related events. And as more people get experience attending -- and thus participating in -- unconferences, the format will continue to improve.