The Rise of the Unconference for Professional Development

If you’ve been to a conference, you know the formula: The organizers determine the speakers, presenters, a panel of experts, maybe some breakout sessions that allow participants to chime in periodically.

Participants show up, listen to experts and maybe walk away with some CEUs. If the keynote speaker is entertaining, that’s a bonus.

Rarely is the food an exciting draw. Typically, the muffins are dry, other breads are stale, lettuce is limp, and the coffee is lukewarm and weak. Occasionally, there’s a corporate sponsor so tastier, fresher food can be happily catered.

The old conference format has been losing support, particularly among educators, who complained that top-down professional development programs fail to account for how difficult it is to integrate new techniques learned at conferences into the school day.

Chat rooms, Twitter chats, and other Internet discussions have empowered teachers to share ideas democratically, without any formal organization of the conversation. That has led to an increasingly popular approach to professional development conferences – the unconference, in which the participants are the organizers. They gather for free events whose subject matter is determined by attendees once they get there. The discussion is open and engaging. All participants, depending on their knowledge and experience, take turns as group facilitators in the course of a day, share and share alike.

In the education sphere, where teacher workshops are plentiful, and continuing education credits are required to maintain one’s license, the unconference has taken hold thanks to the EdCamp Foundation, providing a blueprint for unconferences across the country.

Since the first EdCamp in 2010, more than 1,100 have been held around the world, including four at Berkeley County schools, giving educators an opportunity to choose how the discussions will be organized and what subjects they will cover.

Research shows participants love them. A survey of 769 participants found 94% gave their EdCamp experience a positive rating and planned to participate in another one.

These unconferences promote “The Rule of Two Feet.” There is no social stigma to participants walking out of one discussion and finding a different one they prefer.

Charleston County School District (CCSD) has been experimenting with a hybrid conference/unconference for its “Digital Campfires,” and is planning a full unconference in the spring or summer of 2019. The Digital Campfire is an annual learning event for CCSD teachers who are dedicated to increasing technology usage in their classrooms.

Lainie Berry, director of innovation and digital learning for CCSD, says many teachers were at first uncomfortable with the democratic nature of the first unconference sessions four years ago. However, as they have acculturated to having their opinions sought, they have become more comfortable.

“The feedback from teachers is that it’s empowering,” she said. “I think this is the next phase of professional learning.”

Nexton Elementary, Sangaree Middle, and Sedgefield Middle schools all hosted EdCamps in the Spring 2018. Sangaree invited teachers from Berkeley and the two Dorchester school districts.

Sharon Snyder, director of professional development at Berkeley County School District, says organizers give up any measure of control at an unconference in order to allow educators to achieve the personalized learning they crave.

Participants at unconferences benefit from hearing many different perspectives, rather than just those of one or two designated experts. Comments in a single session might come from a first-year teacher, a department chair, a superintendent, a second-year assistant principal, a state teacher of the year, a media specialist, a university professor, and a director of professional development.

The conversations are also more intimate because individuals are talking to each other, rather than making – or listening passively to – speeches.

On the other hand, the expertise of industry leaders that are usually shared at ordinary conferences may be absent at an unconference.

Ironically, two instructional technologists who led EdCamps in Berkeley County schools were asked to report what they had learned at a conference in Chicago – exactly the kind of presentation eschewed at EdCamps.