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.