One of the things I asked Jeff early on in planning for Learning 2.0 in Shanghai last week was whether or not I could do something a bit different in my sessions. I just did not want to “prepare” a 45-minute presentation to “deliver” to the people in the room for a variety of reasons. I’m sure the genesis of this feeling was because of the “unconference” format we used at Edbloggercon last summer in Atlanta, but I find myself more and more questioning the “get up in the front of the room and impart knowledge” model that is so thick with irony in the context of this conversation that it just doesn’t feel quite right anymore. So, anyway, what I decided to do for my five sessions was to simply offer up a topic, prep 10-15 minutes of discussion starting context, and then sit down and try to facilitate a conversation. Happily, Jeff was all for it.
For the most part, that’s how it worked out. Sheryl and I decided to combine one of our sessions, and we basically ran a discussion on overcoming obstacles around some key questions. And two of the sessions ended up being slated as “unconference” sessions where I prepped even less and just tried to let the conversation fly. But the other two had me talking for about 15 minutes on the topic and then just opening it up. And from my standpoint, at least, some fascinating discussion ensued. And what was great was that Jamie McKenzie sat in on one, Gary Stager on another, and Wes on a third. And they all contributed to the conversation. I just played the good group therapist and tried to reflect and deflect, prod and probe, without giving too much of my own bias away. (I will say that someone who I least expected came up later and heaped on some genuine love on what transpired conversation-wise in one of the sessions. It was a nice moment.)
On a number of different levels, I guess this could be seen as selfish. For one thing, I didn’t have to do as much work, and for another, I got to hear and learn about other people’s ideas and experiences instead of simply conveying my own. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some work and deftness that went into leading a worthwhile discussion. But it is a much different beast from nailing together that PowerPoint or that wiki page and then going through it step by step, filling up the allotted time. And my bottom line takeaways were that a) for me at least, it was a much more fulfilling experience, and b) for the participants, I think, it served a more effective purpose. (If anyone was in the rooms with me for those sessions, I’d love to hear your feedback.)
So here I sit, as do many of us right now, I’m sure, thinking about NECC 2008 and the looming deadline for proposals about a week away. And I am seriously struggling. Because I want to do something really different. Something disruptive…not in a bad way, but to push the envelope a bit. I want to bring the unconference to the conference, not just have it on it’s own separate day, and I’m wondering how to best do that.
Without totally cutting my throat here, it’s becoming obvious that traditional conference formats just aren’t as needed as they used to be. That’s not to say that there still won’t be 14,000 people (not including you) in San Antonio trudging from room to room, getting a look at the latest tools or ideas and learning just enough to make them dangerous, and wallowing in the multi-gajillion dollar vendor floor picking up huge Best Buy bags that will end up in the nearest landfill a day or two after. (My, how many laptops we could buy for kids and teachers with the money getting thrown around down there.) And it’s not to say that getting together face to face is no longer important. (K-12 Online is an amazing undertaking, but the totally virtual conference leaves something to be desired as well.)
In this world, every moment can be a conference session, one that’s much better than watching some slide show. I mean seriously…throw a dart at any conference session list and see if you hit one that can’t be done better through the network. (Ok…there are some, I know. But what percentage? 10? 20 percent that would be worth traveling the distance to see?) Somebody somewhere of late talked about this new, on demand, speed learning a la Twitter that’s cropping up, and it is pretty powerful. Tweet that you want to learn something and voila…instant classroom. The other day, John Pederson and I decided to learn Yugma (worked for him…I still can’t get it to see my Skype list.) And then Jeff tweets that he’s trying WiZiQ and all of a sudden I’m in a room with about 10 other people from like 10 other continents and we’re all chipping away at it, trying to figure out what works and how. And after you read Jeff’s post on the topic, tell me he woulda’ walked out of a conference session able to write that.
Point is, I think, that there is a better way today than sitting in that room facing forward doing what all of our kids do. (And look, I’m guilty as charged here too in terms of most of what I do when I present.) And that’s why Edubloggercon left us all in a daze. Because it wasn’t that. It was participatory (if you wanted it to be.) It was passion, not passivity. And, I don’t know, but yeah…I want my kids teachers to be learning the way I do rather than spending my tax money to sit in those sessions. If that comes across as hubris, my apologies. But I’ll gladly pay their way to the next Edubloggercon, wherever that might be.
So, I’m askin’…how do we bring the unconference into the conference?
Chris Lehmann says
What was that sound I just heard, Will? Was that the sound of you helping me figure out how to make the call for EduCon 2.0 conversations?
I’m trying to figure out how to get folks to submit ideas for this… and we’re going to include “How is this conversation interactive? (on or off-line)” in the proposal.
Stephanie Sandifer says
Very nice post Will!
I just put together a wiki page for Chris (for EduCon 2.0) with examples of how CFG protocols can be modified to create “conversations” rather than conference “presentations.” If you are interested, here is the wiki page: http://educon20.wikispaces.com/Protocols+Examples
What you describe in this post was a very brave move on your part. Effective facilitation of group discussions is very difficult to do and it takes a lot of work — although it may not look like it from the participants’ viewpoint! Good job on moving out of your comfort zone in an effort to increase the conversation and the learning. 🙂
Mark Wagner says
Great post, Will. I think you’ve captured something that a lot of us have struggled with… how to model this new kind of two-way learning while still getting the point across in 50 minutes – not to mention still getting selected by the conference planning committees.
I like the 15 minute preso followed by discussion format. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Dave Winer’s hypercamp idea. I’ve wanted to see an educational hypercamp for a long time, and the edubloggercon was very close. It would be great to bring the format to NECC as a grassroots movement – however small it might be.
As for the formal submission process, I don’t see why we can’t be a bit subversive (as Tom March might say). Still submit our topics with just as detailed a submission as we might usually… and then run the session in the format we prefer when we get there (if we’re selected, of course). Eveyone expects that the content of the session will be updated to account for the intervening nine months (despite the flaw ddraper points out in the system)… so why shouldn’t the format of the session also be modified to account for the lag between something like the edubloggercon and a formal box to check in the NECC submission process?
The remaining problem might be (and Draper didn’t touch on how NECC apps are worse than many other similar conferences) that NECC online applications are just too darn detailed.
In any case, I hope you (and many others) take the ideas you posted to heart and that there is a whole new breed of session at NECC in 2008. 🙂
Dean Shareski says
I’m not yet convinced it has to be all or none. Listening to a 45 minute lecture/presentation can be powerful and effective. The problem with the 15 minute quick and dirty followed by the 30 minute interaction is that often it’s not enough time to create a proper context for the discussion. Depending on your audience many wouldn’t be ready to engage in intelligent discussion.
I would guess that many of the 14,000 NECCers would need context to be provided that they don’t have. The Edublogger deal was more of an audience that would fit the style you propose.
The other component that can fit into the 45 minute presentation is back channeling. The perfect f2f conference would include 45 minute presentations with back channeling followed by a 60 minute discussion the next day. Allow time for reflection, research and great questions. We know that many students aren’t able to process information and respond within a 45 minute class, why not provide that in a conference format?
So while I love the unconference, without some solid context, the discussion I fear might be less than engaging.
Nancy White says
I have been twiddling on the idea of “over the shoulder sessions” where we have a large room with chairs in little groups of 2 and 3. People site down with their selves and/or with laptops and show each other how they do something. Then they switch. Then a bell rings and people move into new pairs or triads.
When you learn something really fantastic from your partner, you give them a token. Then there is recognition for those who were given the most tokens and they do their “over the shoulder” demo to the full group so the rest of us can a) learn what they had to share and b) improve our sense of how to share our own learnings.
So there is learning at two levels. Something tangible and the process of good over the shoulder learning.
Steve Dembo says
Don’t know if you remember way back in the day, but this is the very topic that got me podcasting to begin with. The idea that when you have 20-200 people in a room, there’s got to be something better you can do with the collective brainpower than simply talking at them.
I’m with you, the question is how do you harness it, and in particular how do you give it any longevity once the conference ends?
One other thing to contemplate… Those of us that have been to and presented hundreds of sessions are ready for something new. But what percentage of the teacher population is ready to move past it? How many teachers still need to learn what the Read/Write web is? Why blogging is significant? While we surround ourselves with people who have taken the blue pill, the majority of educators still don’t’ realize that there’s a
pill to take.
Will Richardson says
@Dean…I agree…not all or none. But think of how these types of sessions might model something different for those who might not be “ready.” And, like I said, I think there are a healthy number of topics that are well served by the 50-minute stand up and deliver. But I would argue the vast majority are not.
Dean Shareski says
So every conference should have 2 strands…”Tell me about….” and “Let’s talk about…”
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says
What you are saying makes sense.
Unconference models are basically constructivist approaches. Constructivism values facilitator-supported learning that is initiated and directed by the learner.
I believe strongly in this style of learning. I used an unschooling method when homeschooling my own kids and I used constructivist learning theory in the delivery of content both my K-12 and higher ed. classrooms. And interestingly, when I do PD most of it is learner centered and hands-on. But for some reason, the conference presentation was the sacred cow. I had a real teachable moment in Shanghai thanks to the freedom Jeff gave us to be very organic in the delivery of our sessions and your gentle push Will. I, as a constructivist, was pushed in my own personal conception about how learning takes place.
Teachers learn through modeling. We all do. Part of the reason so many classrooms are set up in neat rows and columns and lecture format is because that is how teachers are taught to teach in their prep programs. In return they go out to the schools and structure their classrooms in much the same way.
If we are pushing for change- we need to model that change- in our classrooms, in our inservices, PD opportunities and as conference presenters.
Great post! Thanks Will.
Tod Baker says
I sat in on one of those sessions. You were explicit about your role in facilitating conversation not imparting knowledge. Eventually, stimulating conversations emerged.
But I could have had the same conversations during happy hour at The Flying Fox. In a conference session, I expect to benefit from a presenter’s experience and knowledge.
I participated in the conversations during your session, but I still left the room wanting more and wondering about your perspectives.
Stephanie Sandifer says
You hit on something crucial in your comment. Teachers learn through modeling. I’ve been pushing for change in the way we do everything for such a long time now — PD, faculty meetings, department meetings, etc. If we want teachers to FACILITATE learning, then we have to facilitate their learning and model what we want to see happening in the classroom. If we continue to provide the same old sit-n-get PD or faculty meetings, then we are sending a message to our teachers and I believe that it’s the wrong message.
The same can be said for modeling (or not modeling) the use of technology for learning. This can also be done with faculty for professional learning. What if the principal were to send a “writing prompt” via his or her blog each week to the teaching staff?
I’ll add one more idea to this — if we change how we “do” all of our adult interactions, we also need to add a reflective piece that allows all participants to reflect on the process(es) used in facilitation so that they can begin to understand how to facilitate learning in their own classrooms. It’s as easy as adding a short 5 to 10 minute reflection period where participants are asked to talk about what worked in the process, what didn’t work, and how might they use the same process in their classroom. This is just good CFG method.
I wish I could have been in your and Will’s sessions in Shanghai. Your photos from the trip were great!
Chris Shamburg says
This has been on my mind for a while also…wrestling with not lecturing to teachers about not lecturing to students
However, there is something primal about the live audience and presentations in that medium– for me it goes back to the oral tradition and Homer to William Jennings Bryan to Mario Cuomo. I think it can be a powerful medium
Slide shows can be dull-(ever read Tufte (httpwww.edwardtufte.com) or Norvig (http://norvig.com/Gettysburg/)? But let’s not create a baby and bathwater situation. Or to use another cliche, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail…that hammer can be PowerPoint or blogging.
“Every moment can be a conference session, one thatâ€™s much better than watching some slide show. I mean seriouslyâ€¦throw a dart at any conference session list and see if you hit one that canâ€™t be done better through the network.”
I am not sure about the whole unconference thing- I would be worried it could end up like a talk-fest.
I am intending to do a blogging 90 minute workshop next week and want the participants to be able to take away from it the parts they need but I only have 90 minutes to get the message across- and the group has a wide range of knowledge on which to draw- some will be totally new to the concept and others much more advanced. I will probably go over the heads of some and loose others- but then if I just talked to them for 90 minutes the same thing would happen.
I am in a quandary but will try and pass as much power to the particpants as I can.
Pamela Carr says
I am torn about this topic. As a teacher I would love to see more “unconference” type offerings but as a student I know that sometimes I need so much more than that. I need guidance, I need a mentor, I need examples and sometimes I need it without the distractions of biased opinions (that might be more prevalent at an unconference). And as someone who is pretty tech savvy I am very turned off by people who try to make things more complicated than it needs to be…I find this alot at “tech conferences.”
Well, now I feel like I just RANTED about what I hate about conferences, but I guess that is an important part of the discussion.
I guess I am on the side of “don’t think all or nothing.” A nice balance of old and new can really work well and give the people what they NEED.
StÃ¥le Brokvam says
I also sat in on one of your sessions in Shanghai, and found it very useful. I would, however, say that skilled moderation is key, as I found some of the unconference sessions less useful personally.
Furthermore, I found that I needed time to process the information and chose to listen to others rather than contributing myself. Some way of continuing the discussion afterwards is therefore useful for those of us with slow informational digestion, whether in the form of follow-up discussions the next day (as suggested above) or some form of online discussion.
In the case of the Ning site used for the Shanghai conference, the conversation continues on the site, with discussions below each session description. From a practical point of view, it would be nice if each session had been recorded and linked in on the same page as a podcast, so people could easily revisit points made in the discussion and write more about them in the discussion board.
Will Richardson says
@Sheryl…I agree. I hereby vow to at the very least model effective use of technology to learn in my presentation, not simply to try model effective communication. That’s one step…
Steve Hargadon says
Will (et al.):
I’ve tried to capture some of the elements of what I think “Conference 2.0” will look like at http://edtechlive.com/Conference+2.0. I’ve been talking with CUE, IL-TCE, and NECC about implementing some of these ideas, and I think the response has been pretty positive.
I might sum up the responses above by noting that conferences in the future will benefit by having some of both styles mentioned–which don’t have to be mutually exclusive. This speaks to personal themes I’ve touched on before, but *choice* is essential here. I think having some “unconference” activities, some lecture style, and some in-between gives room for people to choose what works for them, and to grow and stretch a little.
Will Richardson says
Also, I wonder if each session shouldn’t have some sort of planning/discussion page where participants can start a discussion of what they want to learn well before the conference. (Takes some way ahead planing, obviously.) And finally, I think, the idea of doing some type of back channel to model the synchronous, non-space limited aspect of the conversation should probably enter into it. So, model, participate, converse…
Cary Harrod says
This conversation is extremely interesting, particularly in light of your visit to our school district in January 2008. I’m looking for “out of the box” thinking as we plan for how your time will best be spent with our teachers, grades K-12. I think you’re “dead on” when looking for ways to engage your audience; a one-size fits all seems to be the polar opposite of what learning in the 21st century should look like. I also deeply appreciate the conversation generated by this blog entry, as it stretches my thinking in ways I hadn’t thought possible. I’m looking forward to our continued conversations, Will!
Doug Johnson says
My sense here is that you’ve fallen into an “or” approach to conference sessions. Great conference presenters (at least those I gain the most from) provide both content and facilitate conversations or applications. In fact, I would guess most people are unhappy with a purely process approach (why did I pay my money if I don’t get good dope from an expert?) OR pure lecture (why is this person just talking at me?)
I am also going to offer up a small defense of the “sit and git” conference sessions:
Sit and Git, Spray and Pray (whatever the clever derogatory appellation du jour for short sessions offered during professional development days or conference is), such learning opportunities ought not to be simply dismissed as ineffective and drop kicked from the educational ball field. Like classroom lectures, good short sessions can be effective in meeting specific purposes. Those include:
Introducing participants to a new concept, theory or practice with the expectation of self-directed follow-up. (What is meant by authentic assessment?)
Teaching specific, useful skills, especially if practiced within the time allotted. (How to design a good rubric.)
Bending a mindset or encouraging an action. (Assessments can be used not just for ranking students, but to actually improve the learning process.) Think of the great speakers on TED.
Concrete, even discrete, learning opportunities have a place in professional development, provided they are part of a larger profession growth plan or teacher IEP.
Quite honestly, Will, were I to hire you to come speak at my conference, I’d want more than just a conversation. I’d want some expertise, some attention-grabbing, mind altering lecture, AND some constructivist-type activities.
It’d be why your gettin’ the big bucks!
Oh, I thought the Edubloggers thing at NECC was a blast, but I enjoyed because of the social aspects and not because I took away much that was useful.
All the best,
George Siemens says
Hi Will – great thoughts. Obviously (based on the number of responses you’ve received alone) you’ve hit a nerve.
I’m wrapping up an educause article on conferences (with Peter Tittenberger and Terry Anderson). If you’d like to have a look at the article, let me know…I can send you a draft copy.
I agree while you may be bored with the delivery format Steve makes a good point, there are so many teachers that still do not know what a blog is or why they would use in their class. They havenâ€™t taken the â€œlittle blue pillâ€ there not at the conference. I think the bigger question is how can you reach an audience of people that are reluctant to embrace technology. Could there be a conversation about taking risks and trying something new? I agree, there needs to be a better solution than just one way information at the conference. How do you keep that momentum when you get back? I think it needs to connect back to a vision of Professional Development. I would like to see a new twist on some of the conferences, I’m just not sure what the new twist should be.
I’m so glad that I checked my reader before calling it a day. I just received an email calling for presentations at the eMINTS Winter Conference, and my boss wants to break in the new guy (me) by asking me to present. Your post has given me some great ideas on how to approach this call. Thanks!
Dean Shareski says
Your last comment about planning ahead might usher in a new approach. The requirement that participants come with an idea, issue or plan for learning might help direct a conference. Whether it’s a sprinkling of open space technology, barcamp feel or traditional workshops, if participants know up front the format and the expectations that they will participate I think some really cool things can happen.
The problem is that most conference goers have a belief about what will happen just as most students and teachers have a belief about what school should look like. As teachers, we have the opportunity to build relationships and change over time. A conference doesn’t have that luxury. So again, when you show up to lead/present, most of the audience have a certain expectation about what will happen.
Making the format or learning environment explicit ahead of time, allows participants to avoid surprises. Not that serendipity can’t occur but in short time frames, I think it’s important that everyone come knowing more or less what will happen so they can focus on learning. Further, if I’m a board of education paying for someone to attend, I’d hope they’d come prepared ahead of time and come away with a clear sense of what they might do in the future.
Meredith Broderick says
I think you are talking about starting a real dialouge in the conference presentation model. Yet the model of chalk and talk/ppt ( look at my pretty slides) really does not invite free thought or an exchange of ideas. So you find it a disappointing approach. Of course you do, it is. Like the classroom model it’s very structure discourages dissension based in sound principal, you may get hecklers, who want to vent. But I daresay most educators don’t go to a conference to “communicate” or even “learn”. The model doesn’t really allow it. I am not sure that making the format and content of the presentation explicit beforehand will change that.
That said I have been to presentations , one or two of them yours, that have radically and fundamentally changed the way I do things, and see things. But I think that is because I raised my own bar, I wanted more from the experience. You see this in a classroom model as well, some students want more, do not perceive you ” as the expert in the room” just the one with the most power, and they are ready to push the boundaries of the classroom, but most students /conference attendees obediently leave the urge to really “learn something or participate in a meaningful exchange’ out of the classroom and conference space.
Dennis Harter says
I sat in on two of your sessions in Shanghai. First where you did your 15 and then opened it up and then again with Sheryl when it was all discussion based.
As I said on Doug’s Blue Skunk blog, I think that there are times when someone with your skills and knowledge can push our thinking and that often comes in a “impart knowledge” form because our thinking just isn’t there yet.
Opening that up for conversation afterwards facilitates that thinking as we ask questions, share answers and construct our own meanings.
That model worked so well in Shanghai.
In the second session, I found myself hoping that you and Sheryl would give us insight into your own thinking on the obstacles of Web 2.0 tools in schools…but did find the session valuable in spite of that.
Ultimately, before you revamp your presenting style, keep in mind that at conferences (as opposed to in our classrooms, perhaps) your learners are accustomed to the “impart knowledge” style. It has worked for us in ways that it may not be working for kids.
We often talk about the now different needs of our students from what we required in school. But it is still the “we” that are attending professional teacher conferences, at least for now. I am all for good modeling, but I am not sure that the “immigrant” crowd is ready for the “native” style.
[For those that have read this comment, 27 down the list…wow…thanks for making it this far.]
You got to do less work you say? Successfully doing “I just played the good group therapist and tried to reflect and deflect, prod and probe, without giving too much of my own bias away.” is much more difficult … it’s the kind of thing you can’t ship off to India. Maybe less prep, but certainly very difficult work.
Also … I’ve always been pretty fed up with a talking head lecture telling me how to teach in collaborative, inquiry, project based ways, but the conference should not go away. It’s an efficient way to get an IDEA into the heads of a mass of people at once. It’s only the beginning. The conference allows me to focus 2-4 days on getting ideas, seeing what others have done. When I sit in a lecture, I’m not just listening to what the speaker is saying, I’m reflecting on what I’ve done and what I could do, tying it to what I heard in the last lecture or read in my reader earlier that day, asking what ifs. My notes tend to be related, but the ideas that are generated.
Are there better ways of doing some of this, sure. But just like all the old technologies, stand-and-deliver, conferences, books, all have their place. Do we need to mix it up a bit, yes. Do we need to do away with it, no.
Steve Hargadon says
Been thinking more about this. The skills of a teacher who can impart knowledge and draw in conversation at the same time are really valuable. And to do that in a conference setting is even more challenging.
It is interesting to me when technology can facilitate that. For the Classroom 2.0 panel we held in San Francisco recently, we used Survey Monkey to let the (albeit small) audience vote on the topics they wanted to cover out of the 10 we prepared for, and then had a discussion forum displayed on the screen where they could ask questions if they wanted (no one did, since all they had to do was to raise their hands). Seems to me that this kind of format would work really well for certain topics or kinds of sessions, where the value is in focusing vast expertise (9 panelists) on what the audience really wanted.
I also think the idea of a conference social network will be hugely interesting to continue to follow. My sense is that it went well in Shanghai, and that there is even more opportunity to leverage the connections and the forums for dialog. I *think* the presenter and audience (participants?) will really like the dialog *after* the conference, but how will they respond to having feedback before and during? Hmmmm… I sense we will have fun navigating those waters.