Reactions To My First 'Unconference'

Today I attended my first unconference, a one-day event put on by NERCOMP on the learning management system (LMS).

March 5, 2012

Today I attended my first unconference, a one-day event put on by NERCOMP on the learning management system (LMS).

This was the first unconference in which I've participated, and the first one that NERCOMP has put on.  

Some quick reactions to the unconference format:

The Future: I left the unconference thinking that I've experienced the future. One of the goals of an unconference is to take all those great conversations and discussions that happen in the hallways and common rooms of a traditional conference, and make those conversations the central theme of the entire gathering. We really do not need to sit through the traditional PowerPoint presentation and Q&A anymore. The combination of presentation recording tools and free presentation publishing platforms has moved the voice-over-talk from a scarce to an abundant good. What we all need time for is more conversation. The unconference privileges the conversation over the presentation, and allows that conversation to move where the attendees want it to go. The results are fluid, productive, and inclusive.   

More Work for Organizers: Putting on an unconference requires a leap of faith. I have great respect for the NERCOMP organizers of this LMS unconference. They broke new ground with NERCOMP, and demonstrated a willingness to experiment and to cede control to the participants. Conference organizers really need to trust that the conference attendees will use the time wisely, and will have the social and communication skills to make the conversations useful to all attendees. I imagine that planning an unconference involves lots of thinking about how to organize the discussions, how to move people between discussions, and how to educate participants about how to get the most out of the experience (while the experience is occurring). Questions of how much information to share ahead of time with participants, how to direct group behavior, and how to elicit real-time feedback all take on added importance.  In a traditional conference the work is about choosing (and recruiting) the right presenters (as well as much else I know). In an unconference, the work is about getting the right people together, and then designing an environment that fosters maximum collaboration and synthesis.

Importance of the Venue: The venue is critical in any conference. But an unconference requires a different type of set-up. I think the ideal room set-up for an unconference would be a big room, large enough to have a few different circle conversations going at once. What you want is the ability of people to leave and join new conversations fluidly, with little disruption to the ongoing conversation.

Keynotes:  I suspect that the choice of someone to kick-off an unconference in a keynote is even more important than in a traditional conference. The keynote address has to set both the right tone for the unconference while framing the discussion to be had. Delivering a keynote that feels like the start of a conversation is a hard trick to pull off.  Fortunately, we were lucky enough to have Michael Feldstein, Senior Program Manager of MindTap at Cengage Learning, and the person behind the indispensable e-Literate blog site. Michael combines an unparalleled knowledge of technology and the ed tech world with a master educators ability to keep a roomful of people engaged around a common set of challenging ideas.   

Have you participated in an unconference?

What are your thoughts on this format?


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