An unconference is a participant driven meeting or gathering. In education this would typically involve collaborative professional learning, typically with a theme or a focus area, and is intended to be less formal than a traditional conference.
Usually, the agenda is developed by participants on the day or it can be partially established via online collaborative documents and websites. There is no suggested timing for an unconference.
Common types of unconference such as 'EdCamp' are normally taken place over a day. Generally an unconference is free to attend, although some may require a contribution towards food and venue hire.
- Content is driven by the participants through co-creating the agenda and volunteering to share knowledge.
- The agenda is flexible and may change over the course of the day.
- Attendance should be open to all and should be free or at a very minimal cost.
- Teachers share their own practice, learn from other teachers and have the opportunity to ask questions, meet other teachers and build a professional learning community.
How do I run an unconference?
Anyone can run an unconference. However, you do need to consider a few things in the planning process:
Identify your target audience
If your target audience is teachers at your school then this will impact the decisions you make about venue, timing and selecting a date for the unconference. If you are trying to reach a wider audience you need to consider this when thinking about where you will hold the unconference and what time or day of the week, or time of the school year, will be best to maximise attendance.
Select a suitable venue
This will take into account your intended audience but also needs to consider the possible agenda of the unconference. Are you intending to have a number of workshops over the course of the day that require separate break-out spaces or will it be less formal and more flexible discussion groups? Identifying the style of unconference will help identify the most appropriate venue to facilitate these activities.
Develop a basic structure for the day
Will the whole day be participant driven or will you have some set activities, for example a panel discussion or a skype to another learning event somewhere else in the country/world? Identifying a basic outline for the day, but allowing the content of the different sessions to be determined by participants, should enable the day to run smoothly while at the same time allowing for a high degree of flexibility and participant ownership of the learning. Options include: pre-arranged workshops or presentations, options for participants to 'pitch' an idea (either verbally or by writing it somewhere central as they day progresses) for interested participants to workshop, discussion zones for emerging connections made by participants etc.
Decide on participation protocols
Some unconferences encourage participants to move in and out of workshops, discussion zones and presentations at will. Others ask that participants remain for the duration of any workshop or presentation they attend to avoid disruption for participants and presenters/facilitators. Whatever you decide, this needs to be made clear to participants at the commencement of the event.
Select a catering option
Select a catering option and communicate this to the participants in advance - As is typical with any event, food is a very important consideration. Depending on the venue and the level of formality of your unconference you have a number of options for food. You can provide people with an online ordering system in advance and they order and pay for their food and it is delivered at lunchtime with their name on it. You can ask for a basic fee to cover food and then organise catering, ensuring that you cater for all dietary requirements. For a very relaxed event that is held at a central location participants may go and buy their own lunch from a local cafe or restaurant. As long as you have clearly communicated the plan to participants it should not matter which option you choose.
Things to consider
- Working with a team to design, prepare and run the unconference ensures that the workload is manageable and gives the unconference a greater chance of success.
- Selecting an appropriate date and time for the conference will make a big difference to how many people are able to attend.
- Choosing a focus area or topic for the conference may help people decide whether or not it is relevant to their context and may increase attendance as people may be less willing to commit to attending something if they do not have any sense of what they will be learning.
- Identifying a hashtag for people to use to share their learning with the wider community will increase the traction of the unconference and should make it easier to run another one in the future.