Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What is an EdCamp? Part I

EdCamp Detroit was an eye-opening experience. A perk of being a university professor is attending a lot of conferences (NCTM and TEDxGrandRapids to name two recent ones). I had never been to an unconference, however, and was looking forward to checking out this new approach to improving teaching.

The first thing to know about EdCamps is that there are no prearranged speakers. Participants arrive and encounter instructions like those shown below. EdCamp Detroit had 32 slots available spread equally between four one-hour sessions. To my amazement (since we always struggle to find enough K12 teachers to present at Math in Action) these slots began to fill rather quickly.

I have given plenty of talks, but I will admit that this format intimidated me a little - maybe because I had not done my typical preparation. After overhearing one of the organizers encouraging another participant to put an idea up on the board, I decided to take a risk. I selected a time slot at the end of the day and a topic that I thought would allow participants to be actively engaged. Most people feel like their brains are full at the end of a conference and I wanted to provide an opportunity for them to release that pressure by reflecting on what they learned. There will be more on my presentation later, but first I want to provide an overview of the EdCamp Detroit experience.

I chose sections that I thought I could incorporate into my final session. The first was called "The Flipped Classroom and Screencasting." Dan Spencer shared his ideas for using available technology to enhance learning and referenced examples like Khan Academy and MathTrain TV. Steve Dickie led the next session on "Pseudoteaching." He referenced blogs by Frank Noschese and Derek Muller (which actually questions some of the assumptions made by Khan Academy). In the third session, Mike Kaechele led a discussion about "Collaboration Across Classrooms." This included a Skype session with a group at EdCamp Boston (led by Marialice Curran) which allowed participants to share their experiences and see the power of this resource in action.

@TheNerdyTeacher shares with participants at EdCamp Boston
Very little of this was new to me. Again, I have more time than your typical K12 teacher to explore emerging educational approaches, ideas, and resources. Still, I was energized by these sessions because of the involvement of the participants. EdCamp presenters expect everyone to get involved and in most cases participants oblige. I left Mike's session excited to see what would develop in mine.

To be continued...


  1. As someone who has been on a conference program committee and helped to review proposals, I have one concern about this EdCamp . . . And, I understand that when you're dealing with innovation, there are going to be strategies and practices that are tried before there is an adequate research base. Fine. But, is there a way to call B.S. on a presentation? In other words, if I read a proposal that lacked academic rigor (e.g., Brain Gym) then I could easily score it low and recommend it not get included in the conference. But at EdCamp we could find Brain Gym being offered at 10:00 AM, no? And, maybe calling "B.S." isn't even what concerns me. Perhaps nobody calling "B.S." and the audience eating Brain Gym up and taking it back and implementing it into practice is even more troubling???

  2. Sean,
    It's a valid concern. In the first, session when Khan Academy came up as a model for flipping the classroom, I called "time" (not BS - sorry) and talked about alternatives. In the next session, research was brought up that demonstrated that the Khan Academy approach was ineffective in science education. This calmed some of my fears.

    What if I hadn't been there? I don't know. But all the more reason that we must be involved in this growing PD model.

    Besides, I see this as a trade-off. What if some troubling practices slip through? (They already do through reviewed journals and conferences.) The empowerment of teachers in the development of their profession is worth it. This is something I have strived for over my entire career.

  3. Agreed on the troubling practices already slipping through in other arenas.

    At Edcamps, we encourage not just simple presentations but discussions about our practices. I'd absolutely expect somebody to call BS in a session if people are saying things that are factually untrue. Especially since, hey, we have the internet, it shouldn't be difficult to find information supporting an opposing position if need be.

    Secondly, we actively encourage people to vote with their feet if a session isn't meeting their needs or expectations. If a person is going to call out the facilitator for presenting poor practices, I'd hope they stick around at least log enough to explain why.

    At least in an Edcamp you actively have the opportunity to have that kind of discussion. Too many other district or conference events, the audience is mostly expected to sit quietly while the presenter talks. You might make a snide remark to your neighbors, but having a chance to talk about different perspectives or other, useful research doesn't happen frequently enough in other venues for my liking.

  4. Thanks for the responses. And, I fully recognize that many school districts will offer professional development opportunities on Brain Gym or on Multiple Intelligences and these decisions are made by a single administrator or small group based on the fact that this topic is popular at the moment, not because a practice is effective or worthwhile. I can see how Edcamp can be far superior to that more traditional model. Far superior! I also like that Edcamp mixes teachers from various districts along with folks from higher ed and potentially many other arenas. The diversity of thought and various levels of expertise is appealing to me. I wasn't trying to knock Edcamp or even say that traditional conferences are ideal; rather, I was just trying to overcome my ignorance with regard to Edcamps. ;~)

    Regarding the traditional conferences I've attended lately (e.g., SITE, ISTE) . . . I have noticed the rise in backchannel discussions while folks are speaking, etc. Again, I am not suggesting that the old model is the correct model, but I do think technology has given rise to a more empowered audience.

    I look forward to all venues where meaningful and quality ideas can be disseminated to an audience who is invested in learning or who can be persuaded to be invested.

  5. The backchannel is awesome and I love it, but it's still only being accessed by a fraction of the audience. It also doesn't address the need for presenters to actually engage the presenter in debate about the issues unless they are also paying attention to it.

  6. What strikes me most are the underlying assumptions about teachers in the blog post and beginning of the comment thread--and they're the same soft stereotype "idiot proofing" assumptions behind most education reform, merit pay, and standardization.

    I mean, can we *really* trust teachers to know the difference between good practice and product placement? Of course there are *some* teachers out there who wouldn't fall for it, but can we really trust *all* of them?

    It's important to be aware of these assumptions--especially between "higher" ed and the boots on the ground in K-12. We're all on the same team. We're all professionals.

    Teachers attending edcamps are among the most connected, wide-reading, critical-thinking, and self-motivated professionals. Forgive the cliche, but who else would travel beyond their school district (or even their state) to voluntarily attend a meeting on a Saturday for which they are not compensated? They're the ones most likely to skip the Kool-Aid and question assumptions. We don't need chaperones to ensure we're "doing it right", just the intellectual freedom, respect, and time necessary to allow us to do our jobs. Edcamps provide what we often don't have time to do in between meeting mandates in our buildings: network, learn, and share.

    Moreover, it's reform designed "for" and "by" the people who need it most. Pretty exciting and powerful stuff. I'm thrilled to see this happen for my profession. It's encouraging to share and be challenged in an environment where no one talks down to you or expects you to implement the next magic bullet because that's the package the district paid for. Some of the best sessions I've attended brought conflicting views onto the table and more than one person's entrenched beliefs were tested and refined. For good or ill--at edcamp there weren't rooms of silent (or silently-seething) bobble heads.

    Thanks for the conversation. Sorry I was late to the party. :)

  7. jl8910,
    Never late to this party. Thanks for you input.

    I also believe that we all need to work together as professional educators. (Please go to the third in this series to read about my vision.) I apologize if I gave the impression that I do not trust teachers In fact, I wish more teachers trusted themselves more.

    But I do believe we all (myself included) can be persuaded to make changes in our teaching practice without thinking through all the consequences. These can be consequences that I am blind to even as they are occurring. All the more reason to work together with people we trust who will be honest about experiences and concerns.

    Sir Ken Robinson says that great creative teams are diverse, dynamic, and distinct ("The Element"). I see EdCamps as one of those places where creative teams can come together. It is important that all voices are heard and valued but that we walk away with ideas to improve out practice.

  8. (I logged in with my Google Account -- seanjcl from above)

    Unfortunately, I've seen some colleagues in higher ed pushing Brain Gym as a strategy in courses they've taught and we have school districts nearby who have requested little single credit Brain Gym courses this summer (multiple sessions). These grad-credit courses fill up. They're not offered through my department so I can't even try and stop it. It's not so much idiot proofing as it is trying to ensure that people who likely have credibility (e.g., my university or a school administrator who chooses PD topics) are using research-based practices instead of bandwagon practices. Teachers shouldn't have to spend much effort to figure out "good practice" versus "bandwagon practice" when the source is supposedly credible; though, blind faith is not good in any situation.

    But I do think your point about the people going to EdCamp is valid. These are the people who are likely a cut above the norm and who are striving to get better. The challenge is to change the dispositions of everyone in education to have this same kind of drive and passion whether they're k-12 or higher ed or other.