So This is Democracy – Edcamp, the Unconference
It is easy for a middle-class, Washington outsider to become skeptical about our political system that, by some metrics, operates more like a polarized plutocracy than a socialistic democracy. However, in the same week, three members of a Russian girl punk band got two years in prison for playing protest songs in the face of the Russian Christian Orthodox Church, I attended a most democratic, egalitarian gathering of intellectual sharing of best practices.
Edcamp as a concept is in its infancy. Inspired by barcamp, a similar gathering for hackers to share best practices in their technical profession, teachers and educationists in Philadelphia organized the first edcamp less than three years ago. In that time, the edcamp concept has spread like Facebook. See edcamp foundation wiki, and an article about edcamp on edutopia.
For me, edcamp almost wasn’t. After a Thursday and Friday of sitting in highly structured, old-school professional development, followed by a late friday night of organizing applications for our imminent one to one rollout, seven a.m. came quicker than I would have liked.
When I arrived at Hillsdale High School, situated just north of the Silicon Valley on the San Francisco Peninsula, I thought I might have arrived at an underground dinner, or maybe a hash house harriers run. The organizing website for the event gave no specific directions other than the name of the high school. The signage was apropos of this grassroots event; a series of sharpie drawn arrows on 8 ½ x 11 pieces of printer paper, taped to the cement walkways of the school.
For an hour, the more than two hundred unconference attendees mingled while occasionally visiting the organically evolving, dare I say flash, event schedule. At an unconference, attendees set the agenda. Individuals propose discussions or hand-on sessions they would either be willing to facilitate or that they would simply like to learn more about. Others join in as leaders or followers, initially by dot-voting on session cards, and then once the sessions have started, by deciding in the moment whether or not to stay.
“Voting with your feet,” is a concept that I had heard in reference to the success or failure of a retail business. In the unconference setting it takes some getting used to. Session attendees are encouraged to feel free to leave a session if the focus is not interesting or appropriate for them. I have seen this at large conferences with sessions of two hundred or more, but when there are only ten people in the room, everyone notices when you leave. The unorganizers at edcampsfbay were adamant that this was a necessary structure to preserve the magic of the unconference. I took their word for it.
In my first session, a dozen of us gathered to discuss personalized learning. The session leader presented her ideas on where a more personalized k12 curriculum could live (in the spaces in between institutions), and how technology could facilitate this. Then, and this was where I thought I saw fairy dust enter the room through the ventilation, session attendees began sharing how they personalized learning for their own students in traditional and charter school settings (within the institution).
Two teachers had implemented their analog of Google’s twenty percent time into every Friday afternoon in their classes. Another teacher discussed, with great passion, a semester long research project on topics of student choice. I was impressed when he said that he tells them if they find themselves unmotivated, they should drop their current idea and pursue another.
If the Arab Spring was evidence of what was possible when web 2.0 was put in the hands of the oppressed who gather in opposition to their oppressors, then edcamp is evidence of what is possible when community-minded professionals in a free society use those same tools to gather together on a level playing field for the common purposes of improving their practice and improving upon the mechanism Horace Mann called “The Great Equalizer.”
In case you just skipped to the end and thought this was too long to read, listen to this song that summarizes it for you instead.