During the weekend, I attended my fourth #EdcampNYC. I have attended or participated in about a dozen Edcamps nationwide. I think that puts me in a solid position to make a few considered observations on the subject. In the interest of full disclosure, SmartBrief and SmartBlog on Education have supported the Edcamp Foundation during the past year.
The Edcamp movement has been around for a few years. It is a widely known professional-development format that was spawned from social media educator connections. Most connected educators are familiar with it, but most educators are not connected — hence a need for explanation and definition. I know that the model is based on BarCamp in Philadelphia. I have no idea about BarCamp. I know the image I have in my head, but that has nothing to do with education.
I am familiar with the unconference aspect, which is the driving organizing premise of Edcamp. There is no set schedule of sessions provided to participants as they arrive at the venue. There is usually a breakfast spread and a huge amount of coffee in a gathering area to start the day. Participants see a blank schedule displayed for sessions. Session times and rooms are clearly seen, with no descriptions. Session descriptions are created right then, by participants. All sessions are discussion driven. Although some people come with prepared materials to share, those materials might or might not be the focus of a session. Blank cards are available to participants who have a specific topic they want addressed. Each person writes that topic on a card to establish it as a session. Usually, the person proposing the session heads up the discussion. It is amazing how the establishment of one topic spurs the establishment of a related topic, or something on the other side of the education spectrum. The establishment of topics gets people talking about and exploring subjects that they might not have heard of before Edcamp.
The selection of topics stimulates discussion and questioning amid participants to determine where they will go, what they will attend and what they should expect. There is another element to the Edcamp model that is often not seen in other PD formats. Participants are encouraged to quickly assess the relevance of a session. If they do not find personal value in a particular session, they are encouraged to move on to another. When selecting a session to attend, participants need to consider backup alternatives. That is called “The Rule of Two Feet.” My best description of this is that it is a face-to-face, real-time, social media discussion. It is the application of a digital culture in a real-world situation. All sessions are open discussions that are patient with, and respectful of, all participants.
Edcamps are free to participants, but it takes a Saturday commitment to participate. That means educators in attendance are there because they want to be there. We must ask: If this is so popular and inspiring, why aren’t all schools employing this PD model? To answer that, I have to go back to a session for administrators at the last annual ISTE conference. Some founders of Edcamp presented a great session to educate administrators who might not be connected educators. The intent was to explore the possibility of using Edcamp as a source for PD from within the system. Edcamp is almost solely organized by passionate educators working outside the system. There was one question coming from admins repeatedly: “How do we control it?” The answer was clear. You don’t control it! Edcamp’s success is based on trust and respect, as well as a personal drive for professional development. It is the educator’s personalization that some of these administrators did not seem to get. Their questions seemed to indicate that they did not trust the ability of educators to properly determine what they needed in PD.
The Edcamp movement continues to advance with the passionate support of connected individuals. Hopefully, we will begin to hear from progressive-thinking administrators more interested in real education reform than in controlling what and how teachers are developed. Administrators’ control should be second to educators’ development. Edcamp should not be the sole method of PD, but it should be considered a serious addition to tools that develop educators. In our fast-changing, technology-driven culture, we need educators to be continually learning so they provide a relevant education to students. To be better educators, we need to be better learners.
Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) is an adjunct professor of education at St. Joseph’s College in New York. He came to that position after 34 years as a secondary English teacher in the public school system. He was recognized with an Edublog Award for the Most Influential Educational Twitter Series, #Edchat, which he co-founded. Whitby also created The Educator’s PLN and two LinkedIn groups, Technology-Using Professors and Twitter-Using Educators.