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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My First Edu UnConference

I attended EdCamp BLC this past Monday at the Park Plaza Boston. It was set up to precede the official Building Learning Communities event starting later in the week. I think about 89 registrants were noted, but about 60 people seemed to be around most of the day.

We got to know one another by playing "musical chairs." We circulated around the large round tables until the music stopped, then we sat (or stood) at the closest table and introduced ourselves. After a few rounds you got a feel for who was there, even if you didn't actually meet everyone. I seemed to be the only geographer and the only college educator in attendance.

An unconference is organized by the attendees pretty much when they appear at the venue. Those who had topics they wanted to explore wrote titles and their Twitter handles on large sticky notes and stuck them to the wall in the main session room to form an agenda. You can see the empty grid here. We had one big room and two smaller rooms to use for the day. After about 15 minutes the grid was full of about 16 sessions (some rooms included two sessions at a time). We basically had two blocks of sessions in the morning and two blocks after lunch. At 10 am we promptly headed off to our first session.

The title "You have 60 minutes to change the world, go!" intrigued me, so I went into that room. The idea was that in 60 minutes we'd come up with a measurable way to change the world. We broke into groups to brainstorm. During that time I learned that some attendees had not heard of Khan Academy and others hadn't heard of Cain's Arcade. It was a good reminder that plenty of people who are passionate about education have their hands full in their local pursuits. We all came around to the idea of addressing not a first world problem, but a second or third world one. Then one participant remembered that new sign-ups to microlending website Kiva got $25 "free" to donate to any project that they wanted. What if we could capture energy to use as much of that "free" money, along with donations, to do some good?

We honed in on projects that were nearly fully funded that addressed kids and education. After a few more moments we had a name, Flashloan, got the URL Flashloan.org, set up a webpage and put our first project over the top! (The projects are real, but are basically already funded; we are essentially funding the next set. Still, this gave us a measure of our success.) Neighboring rooms wondered why they heard cheers from our room. We started tweeting about the effort and by noon Flashloan was trending on Twitter in Boston. Pretty cool. 

I confess to being a skeptic when the whole "do something in 60 minutes" idea came up. What got me involved was the belief of my fellow participants that this was possible. Moreover, if it took a little longer than an hour, so what? I'm proud to have contributed to Flashloan. I'm still sorting out how the exercise might transfer into the classroom. My biggest takeaway, I think, was the benefit (learning) I got by dropping my cynicism at the door and diving in. Educators need to remove cynicism daily!

The next session I attended was on digital workflows, that is, how you manage your digital assets, e-mails, tweets, bookmarks, pictures, etc. The biggest challenges for educators seemed to be around images. School libraries would love to host school pictures in the cloud, but privacy issues make that impossible. No one had found a good tool to tag images with ease, either. We had a number of librarians at the conference, which was just great! Among the tools cited in the session were If This Then That and Evernote.

After lunch I attended a session on "Bring your own tool," the idea that schools not assign devices to students, but rather have them use what they already own - iPad, phone, etc. The big takeaway here was about trust.

1) Schools and educators need to trust students to use the devices responsibly.
2) Schools and educators need to trust that they can manage the technology even if they are not experts in all the different devices and software packages.

A culture that prohibits (or even limits) the devices you use the rest of the day from their use in school really makes no sense. It also makes no sense in the workplace. (See Stopblocking.org) I always felt that way about software - that students should not use special edu software, but the real thing. I never made the link over to to hardware. Now I get it.

The final session I attended was on digital storytelling. We talked about storytelling tools and the lack of tools for storyboarding. There are plenty of tools for making the videos and such, but few to help craft the story. After a while we were asked to break into groups and make a video based on our own six word stories about what we'd learned at the event.

My group chose this story: "Must get iPad, Go Shopping Now." The author fleshed out the story by explaining that she'd  sat feverishly trying to use an old slow Android tablet while watching all the iPads in use around her. We used Videolicous for our two minute story - a mix of stills and video. It was truly fun and the leader of our session even played it at the closing session!

I found myself keeping my laptop closed much of the day. I learn better, especially in these interactive, engaging and high volume electronic communications type sessions (lots of tweets, URLs, Google docs, etc.), by paying attention to the conversation. I operate very differently when I'm in a lecture/PowerPoint presentation. My laptop will likely be open and I'll be multi-tasking. I do that at the Esri User Conference. I didn't do that at EdCamp. This observation brings me back to the idea of bring your own tool. While others brought a mobile device, paper and pencil, or whatever, I brought my brain.

We wrapped up with Smackdown, two minute "ads" by attendees for (mostly free) tech or ideas that folks wanted to share. The resources suggested are detailed here courtesy of Innovative Educator. I had a great day and was most pleased to have dropped my cynicism in the first session. Otherwise, I'd have missed out on quite a lot.