My meandering thoughts on EdCamp Toronto

It is now a week after EdcampTO, and my thoughts about it have been slowly fermenting over that time – not really allowed to be forefront due to the insane schedule this week, but bubbling up from time to time, and certainly providing perspective on how and what I have been experiencing this week. It has been quite a while since I last wrote a really long post, so this meandering tale is perhaps overdue. Please bear with the tangents, it will all make sense eventually.

In Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, There is a scene where the anti-heroes attend a talk on drug use at a police convention. The two are half-baked, and are completely miffed at the level of ignorance of the “expert” giving the presentation (part of the scene from the film can be viewed here, but be forewarned that it contains NSFW language). To the reader (or viewer) it is quite clear that the “experts” are so far out of the loop that they have no real hope of ever understanding what is happening in the drug culture. Why am I using drug culture as an example in a Science Education blog? Because this scene clearly illustrates that the formal transmission of information in a standard hierarchical system – in this case the police force – is far less efficient at disseminating information than the peer to peer transmission of information in the social structure of the drug culture. Or, in more 21st century terminology, crowdsourcing is far more efficient than sage-on-the-stage broadcasting.

To understand the real reason I mention the Fear and Loathing scene, flash forward to this week, when there was a one day mini-conference for Curriculum Leaders. At this conference there was a presentation on the uses of Twitter for educators. This is important and commendable, as curriculum leaders need to be on top of what is happening with the social media that is having a significant impact on the field of education. But here’s the thing. I took the liberty of going to the presenter’s Twitter page and capturing the following screen grab:

I kid you not.

And six of those were from that day. I think you can see why a presentation to curriculum leaders on Twitter by an “expert” on Twitter who doesn’t use Twitter may have reminded me of the scene described above. Especially when that conference occurred just a few days after EdCamp Toronto, which is of course the real reason for this post.

EdCamp Toronto is an un-conference – part of a growing trend to democratize and crowdsource in order to disseminate information in a meaningful way through conversation, using the Open Space model. I first heard of Open Space Technology a year and a half ago from a presenter (Brad Ovebell-Carter, @braddo) at a Best Practices conference here in Toronto. It wasn’t part of his presentation, it was in conversation over coffee afterwards. I started hearing about EdCamps shortly after that, and realized that all of the best information I gathered at conferences was from informal discussions, and that un-conferences were gatherings entirely built around those conversations. So when Stephen Hurley (@Stephen_Hurley) first suggested holding an EdCamp in Toronto I jumped on board immediately.

I won’t bore you with the organizational details (which, by the way, were an order of magnitude less than any other conference I have helped plan!), but jump straight the day itself, a mere six months after it was first proposed.

For those unfamiliar with the un-conference model, there are no pre-scheduled presentations and no keynote address. Upon arrival, attendees write questions they wish to discuss on cards (or in our case, large stickies), and then vote using additional stickies on which questions they would like to discuss. From this, the volunteers frantically build a schedule of discussions – in our case four sessions of ten concurrent discussions – while the participants mingle over coffee and muffins. Everyone then checks the schedule, decides what they want to go to, and wanders off to the designated rooms. Whoever proposed the session question becomes the moderator or host of that discussion, but it is a conversation – not a presentation – that happens. As a result, everyone contributes, and the conversation moves in interesting directions with the benefit of multiple viewpoints.

Never having attended an un-conference before, my biggest fear was that the conversations would run out of steam before the allotted hour was up. The opposite turned out to be true – most conversations carried over into lunch, and the morning conversations laid some interesting groundwork for the afternoon sessions. Most participants stuck with their discussions for the full hour (and beyond), while some wanted to sample multiple conversations and wandered between sessions. This fits with the ethos of EdCamp, the “rule of two feet” that everyone is free to wander between sessions to find the conversation they want.

Because the event is democratic and unstructured, once it was up and running the volunteers were mostly free to join in on the conversations, and personally I had four of the best “shop talk” conversations of my almost two decades as an educator, and met some amazing people (for example, here’s a TEDx talk by one of them). I think everyone went away energized, and I am sure the word will spread for next year.

While attendance was down from the numbers that had registered (that can happen with a free event…), we still had a good turnout of enthusiastic participants, and it only meant we had to send people home with leftover cookies.

Interestingly, I have heard questions (from non-participants, btw) about what an EdCamp accomplishes. If it is all about the conversations, where are the conclusions? Where are the decisions? What is it for? Now that I have had this this experience, I think I can address these questions directly.

While an EdCamp un-conference does not explicitly set out to solve specific problems, neither does a traditional conference. The purpose of a conference is to share information. And the point I think I made at the start of this post is that a crowdsourced discussion is a far more efficient way to transmit useful information than a presentation. What it accomplishes is to bring people together who have something to say, and broaden the conversations. As for tangible “results”, I think there can be very little solved in a few hours, and really, if the goal is to make a decision in a fixed period of time it ceases to be a discussion and becomes instead a committee. And nobody likes a committee. But frankly, I got the feeling that if we were to have two more days like that spread over a few months, as a group we probably could tackle difficult questions in a short period of time.

EdCamp Toronto was important, and my sense is that for next time it is important to try to bring both administrators and students into the conversation. Students because it concerns them greatly, and their perspective would be immensely beneficial. And administrators, because – like the police in Thompson’s novel – the more formal meetings and conferences they hold, the farther behind and more out of touch they will become.



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