Post-NECC Reflections (With Thanks and Apologies to Steve Hargadon)

Far and away the biggest issue on my mind as I write this reflection (and my biggest regret from the conference) is that Steve Hargadon was hurt, and that I might have in any way contributed to this. Many bloggers, including me, openly expressed their criticisms of Saturday’s edubloggercon. You can read Steve’s (heartbreaking) response in the comments of a post by John Pederson, who wasn’t even at the event. (Thankfully, my post didn’t appear until Sunday – I’m glad it at least didn’t contribute to Steve’s Saturday evening low.)

I think every single one of us who attended this year were glad that the edubloggercon brought us together, and the event very much owed its existence to Steve. I want to publicly thank Steve for his efforts on this – and the many other projects he donates his time to for the benefit of our community.

I remember NECC 2006 and how happy I was to run into one or two bloggers during the conference… and how amazing the edublogger meet up (on July 6th at Rock Bottom in San Diego) was – and it was just one evening at a bar! The game was totally changed in 2007 when Steve spearheaded the organization of a full day pre-conference edubloggercon. The energy of that event carried over into the first Bloggers Cafe at NECC throughout the rest of the conference. At the time, I started a page on the edubloggercon wiki (which Steve created) for an Edubloggercon West, to occur the day before the CUE conference in California. Even though I did no work to make that event happen (and even though I couldn’t even go due to the new arrival of Clark), Steve made it happen and Steve was there. This year’s edubloggercon and Bloggers Cafe were also direct descendants of last year’s events, and were also direct results of Steve’s hard work over the intervening months. I’m certainly guilty of taking advantage of this good thing without having done anything to contribute to making it happen.

So I’d also like to publicly apologize to Steve for not pitching in. I also need to apologize for posting my concerns about the event online first rather than contacting him directly. He was good enough to respond to my comments on Darren Draper’s blog a month before the event. I never got back to him with additional ideas then, and once I finally had something to add (during the conference) I posted it to my blog in the form of a criticism (however positively framed by “looking ahead“). I’ve made suggestions for next year – and in the post offered my help to Steve and any other organizers. Now, I’m going to follow up this post with an email to Steve pointing him to this and personally offering my help. I hope I might be able to try out some new things at Edubloggercon West next March, or perhaps earlier at CUE and FETC’s Innovative Learning Conference in October or the CUE and CLMS/CLHS Tech Conference in December (where David Jakes will be one of the keynotes).

Additional Reflections

All that being said, I did see some innovative participatory sessions at NECC this year, among them Hall Davidson’s cell phone session in which participants used their phones (and interacted in other ways, as I wrote about here), Will and Sheryl’s session in which participants had small group discussions to define community (which I also wrote about here), and Chris Lehmann’s Understanding by Design session, in which participants created a lesson plan together. Candace Hackett Shively also posted some great new ideas for interactive sessions as a reflection on the conference. This is the first and strongest lesson I take away from NECC:

Participation is absolutely vital to good professional development, and finding innovative ways to tap the creativity of the folks in the room has an even greater impact.

In the wake of all the blogging about the “edupunk” movement this Spring, I found a sort of DIY or hacking theme to my experience at NECC this year. By far the one thing I shared with the most people was how to jailbreak their iPhone. I think the power of this device is awesome (for users in general and for educators or students specifically), so I was happy to go through this so many times – and to help people truly “own” their phones, which are probably the most feature rich computers they own. Despite the good luck others had with the WiFi, I also found myself “hacking” my way into network access, by repurposing Mac Mini’s driving conference displays as access points and by accessing other’s password keychains (with their permission). I suppose in a way, several of us also “hacked” the edubloggercon and the bloggers cafe when we voted with our feet and created spaces for more informal conversation. I’ve always been a fan of subversive teaching. It’s why I wear a tie when I present; the more conservative you look, the more radical things an audience will be receptive to hearing. So this is the second lesson I’m taking away for my own efforts as a professional developer – and that I plan to pass on to teachers:

Ownership, personalization, and creation are a particularly motivating treo when it comes to learning – and opportunities for subversion can sweeten the deal.

A few other moments brought additional perspective to my otherwise relatively narrow experience of the conference as an edublogger. The woman who asked in the K12online conference session whether it was about student learning (45 minutes into the session) and Brian Crosby’s post about teachers who didn’t even think to bring their laptops to the National Educational Computing Conference both reminded me of the tremendous gulf between someone in my role and many classroom teachers. In this election year, I am reminded that politicians often have to reach out to voters who are not immersed day-in and day-out in the issues they as professional politicians deal with so intimately. When speaking publicly, a politician can’t get too caught up in the details at the expense of their message. The third lesson I take away from NECC is relevant, I think, to both professional developers and classroom teachers:

It is critical to stay on message, and to remember your audience; spending too much time on the details or on communicating your own excitement can be detrimental to your audience’s (or students’) learning.

Now admittedly this is a balancing act. I would definitely advocate sharing the nuts and bolts details necessary for a teacher (or student) to get started with whatever you want them to learn – and I definitely advocate sharing your passions, but we need to remember that they are after all constructing their own meaning and that this usually happens gradually and organically over time. In fact, I have to remind myself of this when it comes to my own learning. John Becker’s post about the poverty of attention captured this for me as well. I need to remember that even at an event as packed with learning opportunities as NECC, there is only so much I can process in a day, which is why I’m still working on writing this more than a day after the event ended. This is also why I found the Understanding by Design model Chris Lehmann shared so intriguing – it focused on goals and essential questions. Ideally, this approach acknowledges that learning is organic and slow, that patience is a key ingredient.

I wasn’t quite this deliberate about it, but had I taken the time to formulate an essential question for myself before attending NECC 2008, it would’ve been something like this:

How can I scale my business?

The full answer to this question is going to take some time yet to formulate, but I did take a few things away from this conference. I already knew that I’m interested in scaling to the point that I own a business, rather than just a job. And I already feel that some form of passive income is going to be necessary. From Will and Sheryl, I was inspired to reconsider online distance learning as an option. From Rushton Hurley I was inspired to reconsider creating some sort of intellectual property, such as a traditional book. In any case, I think the collaborative power of online learning networks will also play a role, and in this regard the conference suggested the start of a reading list: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, who was the opening keynote speaker, and Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky, which was the focus of a talk at the edubloggercon.

If you have any reactions to these reflections, or any to add, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. :)

PS. I also learned that even though I am not very good at remembering to take pictures, that really doesn’t matter when you are immersed in a “culture of capture” in which a critical mass of people of taking pictures and recording video. A quick search of flickr turned up more good pictures of the events I participated in than I ever could have captured – with me in the photos to boot. A choice few I had to download into iPhoto for posterity. ;)

Edubloggercon Reflection: Looking Ahead

As I commented on a post by Darren Draper just over a month ago, I was concerned that edubloggercon and NECC unplugged might be too structured to maximize conversation. I was extremely excited to see the gathering of minds present at this year’s edubloggercon (and it was much larger than last year – by Steve Hargadon’s estimates it grew from about 65 to over 200). Steve was once again heroic in his efforts to make it happen, but sadly I did indeed find it to be too structured for my tastes.

The Problem

During the first session I popped in and out of each room (as was my habit at NECC before the edubloggercon and bloggers cafe). I attended to other things and connected with those I could on the fringes. In the largest room something very like a panel session had developed. There was a very large panel to be sure, but a much larger audience… in general there was one person speaking and about 80 or so listening. Plus, this was the room with the intrusive Pearson camera crew (which is a topic well covered elsewhere). In the Second Life Cafe, where one of the other sessions was held, the topic was exciting, but the “presenter” stood at the center of 30 or so folks who were as near as I could tell only listening. I had a resource to share, so passed it on to someone in the back before going on my way.

During the second session, I actually attended a session in this same space – the talk on Clay Shirky’s book. This was considerably more participatory than what I’d seen so far that morning… not unlike a Bible study actually (as Will Richardson almost said at one point). Folks were quoting the book and interpreting it. Significantly, those who began the talk wound up moving to become part of the outer circle so that there was no clear leader. This helped more voices be heard. But, again there were 30 or so people present, and only one could talk at a time. As my somewhat tangential live blog reveals, I wasn’t inspired to say much.

In the third session, I joined several others I respect in another panel session in the big room. I was not at all engaged. I live blogged a bit of my thoughts on this, too. Eventually, I got into a back channel chat… and realized many of the people in the chat were in the room… chatting with each other instead of talking!

The Solution

I finally wrote something to this effect in the chat, and thankfully several of the folks in the chat (and in the room) were up for moving to the blogger’s cafe, where as Jeff describes, we finally created something of an unconference. Most importantly, multiple conversations could occur and overlap – and we were able to “play” in a serendipitous fashion. This was by far my favorite part of the day – and the conference thus far. This picture by Ewan McIntosh really captures it for me. :)

Looking Ahead

For years I’ve been interested in maximizing the conversations that generally occur during the five minutes before or after a session. I’ve been a fan of Dave Winer’s Hypercamp* concept and have at times advocated for an edu-hypercamp. I think something like this might be part of the solution for the next edubloggercon. Perhaps we can set up a space with two (or more) mini-presentation areas (not unlike the bloggers cafe actually), many “round tables” for people to retreat to for further conversation (this is key!), and plenty of power and wi-fi. Folks could then sign up for 5 minute (or 15 minute) time slots at the presentation areas, or the presentations could be even more spontaneous – even if that means a line might form. ;)

I also think that more topical longer sessions might also be effective – if the facilitators reacted to the number of participants. If it is a sufficiently small number, perhaps a conversation could be facilitated. In this case, ideally the facilitator wouldn’t even be necessary, as in the bible-study like session we had on the Shirky book. However, the Shirky session was too large for this. I’d advocate the practice of splitting off into smaller groups to discuss (if memory serves, this is what small group bible study is all about – to run with the analogy). Then, the large group could be reconvened to share the “aha!” moments of their conversation. And as with a hypercamp room, round tables could also be available for splinter conversations – I did mention this was key, right?

Others have noted that few of us stood up to make a difference. I recognize my own lack of participation in planning the edubloggercon and NECC unplugged, so I want to offer my help (to Steve or whoever) in organizing the next event to include elements like this. I’d also love to help setup the Edubloggercon West as a sort of pilot of these ideas at the CUE conference next March. I know I missed it this year (after starting the wiki page for it), but with any luck I won’t be having another baby that month. ;)

Now, the best argument I’ve heard against these proposals is this: that there may tend to be a measure of elitism among core groups of edubloggers and that the more structured sessions might help more people participate. Now, many of the edubloggers I respect most love meeting new people and learning from them. But, I also see some exchanges that are more like fans meeting a star, and these are often considerably less valuable to both parties. So I know keeping it small or segmented might potentially isolate some people… but honestly, I think the possibility of good conversation out weighs the certainty of mass disengagement. I suppose, by the way, that this is applies to my philosophies about K12 education as well.

A Call To Participate

I’d love to hear what others think of these issues and potential solutions – and I’d love to hear any additional ideas, particularly if they might be incorporated into future edubloggercons. :)

*Dave Winer’s diagram has one huge “blogging table” – but I think smaller “round tables” are key to generating more conversations and more personal connections.

Edubloggercon Live

I just saw David Warlick using Cover it and decided I’d jump on that myself for my notetaking. Sorry the notes are rough. Leave a comment to let me know what you think – or to reply to the content.