Whether it’s called an Edcamp or a TeachMeet, an unconference offers a fun, no-pressure, FREE alternative for professional development.
I first heard the term “Edcamp” about six months ago, and to me it sounded like the greatest thing to hit professional development since the Internet: Free, informal gatherings where the content is provided entirely by the participants themselves.
Then about six weeks ago I got an email advertising TeachMeet Kentucky 2014, held Thursday, October 2 on the campus of Western Kentucky University (right around the corner from me). I quickly figured out that a TeachMeet was more or less the same thing as an Edcamp, so I signed up. And I’m really glad I did.
What My Unconference Was Like
All attendees convened at 8:30 a.m. in a big auditorium. Dress code was very casual, which I loved (professional dress makes me cranky). After an informal opening talk from conference organizers Will King and Allen Martin, an 8-year-old girl named Gracie gave a really charming presentation about being a digital native and encouraged us to let her and her peers follow their passions.
Then we were off to attend the sessions of our choice, each of them just 20 minutes long. I learned about Voxer, Canva, Edmodo Snapshot, and OneNote. Some sessions were very unstructured; one I really liked was an open Q&A called “I want to do ____. What tool do I use?” where presenters and participants just swapped ideas.
I also gave my own presentation. Since I have made a lot of teaching videos using screencasting software, I talked about some things I’ve learned along the way. Signing up to present was easy: I just filled out a very short online form a few weeks before the event, basically just telling them what I wanted to talk about, and got approval from the organizers shortly after that. (The session went fine, by the way, but 20 minutes can really fly by.)
At 2pm, participants gathered again in the auditorium for a Smackdown, where anyone who wanted to could get up for two minutes and quickly present a tech tool they found useful. The Smackdown took about an hour, then amazing door prizes were awarded (Chromebooks! iPods!) and by 3pm, we were done.
Why You Should Try One
Based on my TeachMeet experience, here’s what I’d say are the reasons every teacher should attend an unconference:
Interact with real live humans. Although full-time teachers spend every day with people, they don’t get much time with their peers. Technology allows us to connect with educators all over the world, but face-to-face time is seriously limited. An unconference puts you in the same room together: It’s invigorating, it helps you recognize that your struggles and concerns are shared by others, and watching and listening to real people talk about their teaching demystifies things that might seem out of reach.
No icky corporate after-taste. When I attended NBPTS’s Teaching & Learning conference last March, I learned a lot, but I also felt the constant, unsettling presence of corporate education reform via the sponsors and their ubiquitous ads. Although unconferences can also have sponsors, those who sponsored the one I attended stayed out of the way. I never felt that any of the sessions were thinly veiled infomercials for products or flavored by a particular reform agenda. It was just people sharing what they know.
Great for low-tech people. If you’re a little tech-phobic, an unconference is a fantastic gateway to the tech world, partly because you’ll get to see a lot of neat things in action, but more importantly, because you’ll see mistakes. Stuff won’t load the way it’s supposed to, sound will unexpectedly go out, files won’t open, and it’s all okay. No one freaks out. You’ll see that tech isn’t really as scary or overwhelming as it seems.
Students are welcome. I loved the fact that students attended my conference along with their teachers. Two different groups — one middle school and one high school — came as representatives of their student technology club, and they actually presented. Inviting students to participate in our professional development seems to be a trend now, so it was awesome to see it in action.
It’s SO relaxed. None of the sessions were really polished, rehearsed deals — people just got up and talked, then did quick demonstrations of how something worked. This made the prospect of presenting much less scary, and I know that the next time I attend an unconference, I won’t feel as nervous about presenting.
How to Find an Unconference Near You
In true grassroots spirit, most unconferences are organized on wikis, free and open online spaces that can be added to by anyone. If you’re used to more sophisticated, design-conscious sites, some of these will feel clunky at first, but spend a few minutes clicking around and you’ll get the hang of it:
U.S. and Canada: On the Edcamp wiki you’ll find a running list of upcoming edcamps all across the U.S. and Canada (and a few other countries as well). The Edcamp Foundation — not a wiki — offers information on how to organize your own Edcamp, plus a blog with stories about how the Edcamp movement is growing.
United Kingdom: TeachMeet organizers advertise their conferences via the TeachMeet Wikispace.
Australia: So what I just said up there about clunky design? Teachmeet[AUS] is not one of those. It’s a gorgeous hub of information for all Teachmeets held in Australia, organized by state.
New Zealand: Check out the TeachMeetNZ wikispace for details on the emerging Teachmeet scene in New Zealand.
If you would like to add other sites to this list or know of other resources for finding or organizing an education unconference, please add these in the comments below. And if you have your own Edcamp or TeachMeet experience to share, please tell us your story! ♦