DIY Professional Development | In Print

Create Your Own Un-Conference

Do-it-yourself professional development can include unconferences like Edcamp

EdCamp is a grassroots movement of do-it-yourself professional development "un-conferences" that originated in Philadelphia in November 2010. In just a year and a half the phenomenon has gained serious momentum across the country and now around the globe.

This teacher-driven, bottom-up approach to professional development has reinvigorated educators' passions for learning by creating an environment that, according to participants, rewards their curiosity, allows them to explore their passions, and values their experience and knowledge.

T.H.E. Journal Contributing Editor Jennifer Demski recently talked with four EdCamp participants to find out how social media and web 2.0 tools have fanned the flames of this movement and why teachers are so eager for a professional development experience that they themselves create.

Kristen Swanson is an adjunct professor at DeSales University and was the technology director of Springfield Township School District in Oreland, PA, when she cofounded the first EdCamp in Philadelphia in November 2010 with Dan Callahan, K-5 technology specialist at Burlington Public Schools in Burlington, MA. Callahan also is the organizer of EdCamp Boston and president of the EdCamp Foundation. Bill Selak, organizer of EdCamp OCLA (Orange and Los Angeles counties, CA), teaches music to elementary school students in the Covina-Valley Unified School District in Covina, CA, and educational technology to college students at Azusa Pacific University. Finally, Karen Blumberg, organizer of EdCamp NYC, is the technology specialist at The School at Columbia University, an independent K-8 school in New York City.

Jennifer Demski: First, what is an "un-conference?"

Kristen Swanson: Michelle Boule wrote a really cool book called Mob Rule Learning in which she covered a bunch of DIY learning methods that are sprawling across the country. She describes an un-conference as a conference that operates under the open-space tenet of learning, which means that whichever people come are the people who are supposed to come.

Whatever happens is what's supposed to happen. The place it happens in is the place it's supposed to happen in. It's all in the moment. It's a very free-form professional learning experience. Everything is built the morning of the event based on what the attendees want to learn and share and discuss.

Demski: That doesn't sounds like most professional development that's offered to educators. The un-conference format did not originate in education, right? Had you attended an un-conference before starting EdCamp?

Dan Callahan: Yeah. I met Kristen and a whole bunch of other teachers at BarCamp in Philadelphia in 2009.

Swanson: BarCamp is an un-conference for computer programming.

Callahan: It was an interesting day. That was really the first time that most of us had met in person. We'd known each other online through our professional learning networks and Twitter, and we decided that morning to put together a session on social media in schools. We actually met some other educators that day who came to our session. It was a really positive experience for us, and we knew coming out of BarCamp that we wanted to offer this type of experience to educators.

Demski: What made you think the format would work well for educators?

Callahan: The first thing that stuck out from our experience at BarCamp was how empowering this was. The traditional conference is entirely based around the idea that some group somewhere is going to decide who you're going to listen to and when. And, let's face it--most professional development is terrible. It's unfortunate but it's true.

It's very heavy on school districts or schools paying for some outside expert to come in and give you the one right answer to solve a problem, never taking into consideration the knowledge and expertise of the people in the building--many of whom could run a similar session, but with the actual knowledge of what's going on at that school.

Swanson: One of the tenets of EdCamp that we emphasize is the fact that it's made by teachers, for teachers. Your voice as a teacher is important, and I want to hear what you have to say. That's often how the most meaningful learning occurs, learning that actually does follow teachers back to the classroom to make an impact on their students.

Demski: How does it work?

Swanson: At EdCamp, all of the topics that are going to be covered that day are crowdsourced. The participants come in the morning, we give them breakfast and coffee to perk them up a little bit, and during that time we go around from table to table and encourage people to put topics up on the session board--they build the schedule themselves. The session board is essentially just a big poster board with sticky notes on it, and people go up and post something to the board that they'd like to share, or a topic that they'd like to lead a discussion on or learn more about. After about an hour, the day is planned, and everybody heads off to the sessions that they are interested in.

Demski: I can see how some people might think this is a little unconventional. How do you initially get people to come?

Callahan: Twitter has worked very well. We've spent years building up networks on there and, for many teachers who are online, Twitter is their primary networking tool.

Bill Selak: I found out about EdCamp on Twitter, and I think most of the people who've joined the EdCamp movement in California have come directly through Twitter. I was just an attendee of the first EdCamp in California--EdCamp San Francisco--and now I organize EdCamp for the Los Angeles and Orange County regions.

I've created a Twitter handle for EdCamp OCLA, and I've been tweeting announcements and reminding people about upcoming events. Then those involved would retweet, so it's become almost like an RSS feed through Twitter. And anybody who isn't on Twitter has found out about it from friends who are.

Callahan: Many EdCamps have built their own Facebook pages or their own websites. Some EdCamps will send out e-mails or letters to local school districts to try to reach them. It depends on the region and how many people they think they'll have attend their conference. I'm now organizing EdCamp Boston, and we sold out all of the tickets in two weeks without having to do anything other than putting up a post on our blog and getting the word out on Twitter.

Demski: The speed at which this movement has grown seems to indicate there is an unfulfilled need in professional development, but the format does require teachers to take a little bit of a risk. How exactly does a session come together in less than an hour?

Karen Blumberg: I actually attended that first EdCamp Philly in 2010. I heard about it through Twitter, and I drove down to Philly from New York City with two faculty members from my school who'd never been to an un-conference.

I'd been participating in various un-conferences for a few years--I'd already been indoctrinated into the idea that you can have a blank schedule and you can decide that day what you want to have a session about, so I was super-excited to have a space where teachers could go that was specifically designed for them to learn about what they wanted to learn.

When we got there that morning, I saw two people I recognized from Twitter, and they were both holding iPads. I had brought my iPad too. It was late 2010 and schools had just recently started buying them, so I decided to put a session up on the board about how we were using iPads in the classroom--it was so obvious.

Demski: What about your colleagues who'd never attended an un-conference before? Did they lead any sessions, or were they more passive that first time?

Blumberg: Well, I said to them, "Okay, what do you guys want to talk about?" They said, "What do you mean? We can't lead a session!" I said, "Of course you can!"

I explained to them that you're not lecturing. You're not in charge of talking and presenting for an hour. You're just facilitating a conversation. One of them ended up doing a session on Google Apps for Education.

The other one had built a really great network on Twitter and had gathered all of these great ideas from other educators that she'd tried out in her classroom, so she did a session on all of the cool tools that she uses in her fifth-grade classroom that she picked up from her network, and then opened up the discussion to the other educators in the room to learn about the tools that they use.

That was one of the first times either of them had presented at any type of conference, and now they're like seasoned pros.

Callahan: One of the keys to EdCamp is that we recognize the expertise of all of the people in the room, all of the time. I don't know what's going on inside everyone's classroom back at their schools, so I'm not going to say, "Here's the right answer. Go do this." Instead I'm going to say, "Here's some strategies that I've tried. Some of them have worked, and some of them haven't." At its core, a really good EdCamp session should be based around an open and honest dialogue.

Selak: There's so much emphasis these days on personalized learning, collaborative learning, and student-centered learning, yet most professional development does not reflect that in the way that it's administered. With EdCamp, you don't have to spend months preparing an hourlong keynote presentation. You can just lead or participate in an hourlong discussion on something that you're interested in or passionate about.

The EdCamp format also gives you the benefit of immediacy and timeliness. Four days before EdCamp OCLA in January 2012, Apple's iBooks Author was announced, which gives classroom teachers the ability to author their own books. So, four days after that announcement I was able to lead a session on iBooks Author. That would just be impossible to do with a traditional conference, where you'd have to plan out your session and submit proposals ahead of time. EdCamp lets you respond in almost real time.

Demski: What do you do about quality control with this format? How do you know the information being shared really represents best practices?

Swanson: That's one of the most common criticisms we see. In some ways we can't know, because the sessions are crowdsourced and happen organically. We do know, though, that the type of people who've been attracted to EdCamp are top-quality award-winning educators. That certainly helps.

Blumberg: Through my experiences at EdCamp--even at that first EdCamp Philly--I've learned more than I ever did at grad school, because I've gotten just-in-time learning on so many different subjects, and I was able to move from session to session. You have to be motivated. You're responsible for your own learning so, if you're not being stimulated by the session that's happening in one room, you just move to another room and nobody takes it personally.

Swanson: We call it the "Rule of Two Feet." At any given point, at any time, it is acceptable in the culture of EdCamp to get up and walk out of a session for whatever the reason. We've found that by giving people the empowerment to self-police the sessions, it does quite a good job of self-maintaining the quality of the sessions that are occurring. If there's a session in which the methods being discussed aren't student-centered or are questionable for some reason, that session will empty out pretty quickly.

Blumberg: It's funny, though. You don't really know if a session on the board will garner any interest at all until that session starts and the room for that session remains empty. There have been times at EdCamp NYC where that's happened. On the other hand, at the first EdCamp NYC, people gathered for a session that was on the board, and the person who submitted the idea for that session wasn't there.

I happened to be in the room, and Meenoo Rami, who does Engchat on Twitter, stepped up and started to show the group some of the blogging exercises she does with her high school English students. People were just chitchatting, she took over, and, the next thing you knew, everybody in that room ended up sharing projects that they did using blogging in the classroom. They ended up having an awesome discussion. I saw a ton of tweets about it.

Demski: That brings up a point about the role of technology in EdCamp. Are people live-tweeting the sessions? Is there any archive of the days' events?

Selak: One of my favorite parts from EdCamp OCLA in January was that a handful of colleagues who couldn't make it in person were following along through a Google Plus hangout, a live stream feed, or just communicating via Twitter. One person was on Twitter nonstop throughout the event, participating in various discussions to the point that people thought she was actually at EdCamp.

We had planned on having one room at the venue be a dedicated streaming room through Ustream, but what ended up happening was that people were streaming video from their phones and laptops in a Google Plus hangout for their friends who couldn't make it.

Swanson: It's really amazing during an EdCamp to see how many people from other states are following along in the conversation via Twitter even though they're not physically present at the event. Almost all EdCamps have a very vibrant back channel so, during the day, while the sessions are going on, people are often sending tweets with hashtags related to different lists.

Blumberg: Another component of EdCamp is the gathering of archival information. We encourage people to write blog posts reflecting on their sessions, or summarize their notes and put them up in a collaborative space like the EdCamp wiki.

Swanson: The number of reflective blog posts you'll find after an EdCamp has always astounded me. Not only are people coming and learning during the day, but they are also trying to follow up on that learning and making sure that it really does continue into their classrooms.

Demski: The speed at which the EdCamp movement has spread has been meteoric. I've been told that, within its first year, 21 EdCamps had been held throughout the globe, and by May of 2012 that number is estimated to go up to 92, including EdCamps in Chile, Hong Kong, and Sweden. Would this have been possible before the advent of tools like Twitter?

Swanson: That's such an interesting question. I think that educators have always been hungry for sharing and learning, but I don't know if we've necessarily had the tools to get together and connect as quickly and as easily as we can now. So, while I certainly don't think that the rise of social media was the cause of the movement, I certainly do think that social media enabled it, as I think it's enabled a lot of different groups to mobilize in a way in which they couldn't mobilize before.

Stage Your Own EdCamp

The best way to learn how an EdCamp works is to attend one. Check out for a list of upcoming EdCamps across the country.

In the meantime, here's a simple step-by-step how-to guide for planning and putting on your own EdCamp:

  1. Reach out to your Professional Learning Networks with a note that you'd like to host an EdCamp in your region. Even with its loose structure, hosting an EdCamp event is not a one-person job but, with a strong team of like-minded educators at the helm, your EdCamp will be a success.
  2. Find a location for your EdCamp--a school works great. The location should have a strong wireless network, a large room for the day's opening and closing events, and plenty of rooms for breakout sessions. Also, white boards and projectors are key.
  3. Even if you find a free space to hold your event, it's likely you'll need funding for things like insurance, web hosting, and breakfast for your attendees. Check in with to see if any funding can be directed toward your event, and for advice on how to reach out to sponsors.
  4. Once the location is locked down, find a date that works and spread the word! Set up a Twitter account for your EdCamp, create a Facebook page, and put together e-mails and fliers to advertise the event. You should also create a blog, website, or wiki for your EdCamp where attendees can register and get more information as the day approaches.

Now that you've successfully completed the planning stages for your first EdCamp, here's what to do the day of the event:

  1. Most EdCamps begin with breakfast. That's the time to encourage your attendees to write potential session topics on index cards and post them to the schedule board--a piece of poster board at the front of the room.
  2. Sessions can be practical or theoretical; they can cover technology or have nothing to do with technology at all. Encourage your attendees to share their talents and knowledge, and to speak up about topics they've always wanted to learn more about.
  3. Let the learning begin! Be sure to post the session schedule online (remember, you've already created a Facebook page, blog, website, and a wiki--continue to use them!) and keep it updated throughout the day. Encourage your attendees to live tweet their experiences using a hashtag dedicated to your event and to post updates to your EdCamp's wiki. Also, make sure all attendees know they can leave any session at any time, for any reason. In EdCamp it's called "Voting With Your Feet"--this day is about individual learning, and if someone feels like they're not getting what they need from a session, they're encouraged to move on.
  4. At the end of the day, bring everybody together for closing remarks, and thank them for making the day a success. Encourage attendees to write up reflections from their experiences throughout the day and post them to their personal blogs and to your EdCamp's website. Create an archive of the day's tweets, posts, and session notes for attendees to access after the event.