I enjoyed attending the Sloan C Emerging Technologies for Online Learning in Las Vegas last week. I enjoyed listening to the speakers, tweeting out what I was learning, presenting a session about Google Plus and Doctoral blended learning courses, and interacting with colleagues I knew and colleagues who I met for the first time. But probably the session I enjoyed most was the “Unconference” session that was held after the closing of the actual conference.
The Unconference was facilitated by Jen Ross from the University of Edinburgh. There were about 40 of us who first gathered in stadium seating to hear Jen share the outline for the session. We randomly divided ourselves into table groups. On the walk to the tables, I found a Twitter friend who I had not met. Amy Collier is the Associate Director for Technology & Teaching at Stanford. We chatted a minute and then moved to our respective tables. She and I tweeted back and forth for the rest of the session about what our respective tables were doing. At the first table, our task was to identify “What does it mean to be a teacher in the context of emerging technology?” Each of the tables uploaded their results to a Google doc at which time, one of Jen’s colleagues took what was uploaded, and identified the main themes that emerged. After a short break, everyone then moved to tables based on one of the themes. The themes were:
- Point 1: Being human
- Point 2: In the learning landscape, technology is not enough and teaching is not enough.
- Point 3: The work of the teacher
- Point 4: Risk
- Point 5: The social
- Point 6: The way of the student
Following the table groups there was a “fishbowl” type set up where there were 6 people on stage with one empty chair with the rest of the group sitting in chairs facing the stage. This began an open conversation in response to the previous table group work. One of the participants made the statement, “Why can’t the actual conference be structured like this?” To which I responded, “What structures would you put in place to have the actual conference work like this?”. Another person stated how valuable he found the unconference conversations, and that he wondered why the actual conference could not be that way. One of the conference organizers was in the audience and he shared how there are people who attend conferences and just want to listen. The overall document of the conversations can be found here.
I then went to retrieve my suitcase that was stored with the concierge. Another person from the unconference walked up so she and I started talking. Turns out she was going to the airport so I asked if she wanted to share a cab which we did. Her name is Gigi Johnson who works at UCLA. I was looking forward to continuing the conversation from the unconference since she was the one who had questioned why the actual conference could not be structured like the unconference. As we entered the cab, the cab driver asked why we were in Vegas and we shared that we were educators. The driver’s accent suggested he was originally from a country outside the U.S. so he had us guess where he was from (We guessed Egypt, Iran, Greece and several other countries, but his nationality was Italian). Then, for the whole drive to the airport (about 20 minutes), he talked about the American educational system and how the real problem with American education is parents. Needless to say, Gigi, my unconference friend and I did not get any time to talk with one another during the cab ride. As we got out of the cab and each walked towards our respective airlines, we smiled and commented about how the shared experience in the cab ride was much different than our shared experience of the unconference. But, it was another shared story.
Conferences really can be opportunities for shared experiences and shared stories.