Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Unplugging Conferences

There are times when technological innovations can fundamentally alter our practices or culture. This is not to say that we aren't sometimes so enamored with technology that we attempt to use it to solve human or social issues in impractical ways, but other times we actually create tools that have the power to re-create us, and I believe that is the case with the effect of the read/write Web.

For the last few years there has been an increased trend in the ed-tech arena to explore the use the collaborative tools of the Internet to change the nature of conferences or workshops. First on my radar were David Warlick's informal and loosely-scheduled gatherings of educational bloggers at conferences where he was speaking, which he called "edublogercons." These gave rise to last year's first all-day and now formally titled "EduBloggerCon" in Atlanta before NECC 2007, Chris Lehman's EduCon 2.0 in Philadelphia, a host of smaller gatherings at local ed tech conferences, my own Classroom 2.0 "LIVE" workshops, the online "OpenPD" sessions of Darren Draper and Robin Ellis, and this June's EduBloggerCon '08 and NECC "Unplugged." Trying to avoid the U.S.-centric model of all-good-things-invented-here, similar events in the UK called TeachMeets have been being held, and there are surely others. Going outside of the boundaries of educational technology, Open Conferences,Unconferences , Bar Camps, Foo Camps, and a host of other collaboratively organized events (see links below) are mirroring the the openness and self-organization opportunities not created by, but significantly strengthened and enhanced by the Internet and the Web.

This should not be surprising, and is eloquently described by Clay Shirky in his profound book, Here Comes Everybody:

A revolution in human affairs is a pretty grandiose thing to attribute to a ragtag bunch of tools like e-mail and mobile phones.... [These technologies] are manifestations of a more fundamental shift. We now have communications that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change.... [T]he core idea is [that] we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations....

By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management (and its attendant overhead), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort...

For most of modern life, our strong talents and desires for group effort have been filtered through relatively rigid institutional structures because of the complexity of managing groups. We haven't had all the groups we've wanted, we've simply had all the groups we could afford. (pp. 20 - 21)

I would argue that we are not only now capable of organizing, publicizing, and holding group activities without the traditional overhead associated with larger institutions--as Mr.Shirky states--but we also now have a set of Web tools that substantively create new ways of interacting in those group activities which redefine our productive capabilities. Some are listed below, and I'm hopeful that this post will elicit comments from others who have other methods or experiences which can become a part of the larger body of practice we can all draw from when looking at holding these kind of events.

I'm also listing a set of links that I've been keeping up at, a wiki I set up to document these ideas. I'd like to invite, as well, those who are interested in using NECC Unplugged as a venue for exploring the benefits of a collaboratively-built schedule of sessions during a traditional conference, to join me on in a working web-conference meeting on Thursday, June 5th, 2008, starting at 4pm PDT / 7pm EDT / 11pm GMT. Links to the Elluminate session will be posted at for the call. NECC Unplugged offers a host of opportunities, as its generous sponsorship and promotion by NECC's organizers will give it unique reach. Preliminary planning includes offering time for speed or "lightening" demos, facilitated discussions, group meet-ups, informal mentoring, ad-hoc panels, daily wrap-ups, and even a chance for attendees to give an abbreviated version of sessions they either wanted to give at NECC but were not formally accepted (the " Salon de Refuses"), or to speak on topics that weren't prominent or current when presentation submissions were due months ago. While my efforts will be focused in the Bloggers Cafe area, there will be six physical "lounge" areas for these activities. NECC Unplugged, it seems to me, holds the potential to become akin to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, a great addition to an existing and more formal event.

One element to these meetings that intrigues me, and which I'm still trying to quantify, is the ability for an engaged and devoted group to succeed in producing from their own experiences material and learning which not only meet what a single expert might bring, but often exceed traditional expertise. Darren Draper and I have been struggling to find a easy phrase for this, what he calls "Hargadon's Law," but which surely has been expressed somewhere else by someone more eloquent. It's the literal equivalent of 1 + 1 = 3, which does not invalidate the value of an expert, but which demonstrates or draws out the wisdom of a group, showing it to be significantly more powerful than typically manifest in more traditional teaching environments. Again, arguably not founded on the technologies of the Web, but enhanced and focused, perhaps, by using them.

Ideas for enhancing or creating self-organized meetings:

1. Use a wiki to organize the event. Or rather, use a wiki to let others help in organizing an event. You can even transfer the responsibilities for topics and organization to those who are attending! Ask them to sign themselves up on an "I'm attending" page. Make a blank agenda and let them fill it in. Granted, there is a little training or hand-holding that has to take place to teach others how to use a wiki, but return in collaborative effort from your group results in a huge net savings of time.

2. Ask your attendees to volunteer to promote the event, to facilitate sessions, to give speed demos (under 5 minutes) of successful tools or strategies, and to actively participate in whatever session they are in. Let them use the wiki to schedule themselves in to open slots you've created. You can also encourage the use of the "law of two feet:" if you're not giving or getting enough from a session, find or create another one.

3. Encourage independent discussions. Typically frowned upon in a formal conference, encourage participants to seek each other out for one-on-one mentoring, even skipping scheduled sessions to do so if they aren't interested in what's on the agenda. Consider building in as much informal time as formal time. There's nothing more tiring, and unproductive, for me than to have to rush from session to session at a conference, only to collapse at the end, to get home to all my catch-up work, and to not have the time to really go through my notes and drill down on items of significance. There's a temptation to schedule every minute because the organizers don't want to look as though they haven't done a good job! Don't be afraid of longer break times.

4. Be willing to change, reschedule, and reformulate on the fly. With a "living" wiki agenda, getting participants used to checking the wiki for upcoming sessions or activities allows you to make good changes when you need to.

5. Bring in special guests through video-conferencing tools. Skype video-conferencing deserves a post of its own. Some of my favorite times during an event have been during the lunch break when I've "trolled" the edublogosphere for short Skype conversations. Last week at a workshop in Phoenix, I sent out a twitter message and soon had our group talking with David Jakes , Chris Lehman, Dean Shareski, and Leigh Zeitz . We also interviewed a group of students from a high school technology leadership class, and I must say that the student interview panels I have done remotely are almost always a real highlight of a workshop or conference.

6. Use the wiki as a repository for all notes, brainstorms, links, photos, etc. The wiki then becomes a living extension of the meeting, a collective resource that is richer than our individual memories or perceptions, and which can be used as the basis for future events.

7. Encourage blogging, select blog tags, then use Technorati or Google Blog Search to feed into your event wiki the posts written about the event.

8. Take digital photos of the attendees and add them to the wiki or shared document you've created. Better yet, ask them to do so. You'll be amazed at how much more readable and memorable notes are when you can see the pictures of those who were there. You can ask attendees to tag their photos uniformly, so that they can either be viewed at outside storage services like Flickr, or easily embedded through widgets on your wiki.

9. Record sessions by audio or video, then post them for those who were not able to attend. Good audio recorders are now really easy to find at most office-supply stores. With a good webcam and free services like and, you can also video-stream meetings live for remote viewers or participants, and record them as well.

10. Start a social network or group for meetings or workshops. is really good for this (full disclosure: I do consulting work for Ning). A social network with a good discussion forum allows you to transfer some of the discussions to the online forums instead of needing to take place in the actual meetings, or to keep discussions going well after a physical meeting is done. Lots of important discussions happen better over time when they can be addressed "asynchronously" and without rush that having to be resolved in the allotted time on an agenda can bring. Look at the Cue Community as a good example of this, or check out the brand new NECC 2008 community network.

11. Allow, or even promote, "back-channel chatting." You can use a standard IM or chat-client, including, or a web-based service like Not only do most programs allow you to save the chat for later review, but they also can promote valuable ideas, thoughts, and questions from the quieter participants who might not normally jump into a discussion.

12. Remember electrical power and network needs. An event which encourages laptops to be open and in use at all times needs to have have lots of extension cords, power strips, and good Internet access. Don't forget to check the filtering that might be in place as well in case it will block you from your critical Internet resources.

13. Have fun!

Footnote (from

"Unplugged refers to rock musicians primarily known for playing electric amplified instruments (usually the electric guitar & electric bass) performing live using primarily acoustic instruments.

"The word became incorporated into the title of a popular MTV series that began in the 1989/1990 US TV season, MTV Unplugged, on which musicians performed acoustic or "unplugged" versions of their familiar repertoire. Many of these performances were subsequently released as albums, often featuring the title Unplugged."

(Cross-posted from