Unconferencing the University

Last week saw my second of two Edcamp/unconference events in as many months: first was Edcamp Leadership at the end of July, then came WilmU LeaderCamp on August 11.  WULC was hosted by the university at which I am a doctoral student, Wilmington University, and organized by four doctoral students: Chrissi Miles, Todd Hackett-Slimm (both also on the ECL team), Bill Marble, and my good self.

Organizing this experience for graduate (doctoral/Masters) students, alumni, and faculty presented some unique challenges.  Unlike the Edcamp model, which has spread by word of mouth across social networks over the last two years, this was a fairly new format to most of our attendees.  Although I had hyped up the event for weeks to my doctoral cohort’s Facebook group, they only represented 1/3 to 1/2 of the attendees (strong showing, Cohort 21!!).  That’s still quite a few folks who came not really knowing much about the unconference framework.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being quite nervous when, half an hour after people started arriving, there was only one session posted on the session board (mine!).  I knew that the organizers and maybe one or two attendees could be counted on to run sessions, but what about the rest?  We initially had four rooms and four time periods, so 16 possible slots for sessions – we (the organizers) couldn’t fill those by ourselves.

Fortunately, people started to gravitate toward the session board after we made an announcement, and soon people were debating what topics they wanted to discuss and signing up for sessions.  We had so many folks want to facilitate conversations that we ended up adding two more rooms to create 24 topic opportunities – by the end, only one slot was left unfilled!

There were so many sessions I wanted to attend, but with only so many sessions and hours in a day, I had to be very selective.  My day started off with a discussion of achievement gaps in all forms with Lanette, Robert, and Dr. Whitlock.  While we were a small group, it was probably one of the deepest and most powerful discussions I had all day.  From there, I ran a session on managing digital identity.  At lunch (which was graciously provided by the university, as was breakfast), Dr. Mike brought us all up to speed on some current events in the Ed.D. program, including its recent FULL accreditation by NCATE!  After raffling off some WilmU swag, I headed off to a session by Reshid on Digital PLCs using Yahoo Groups, and then did a rerun of my Edcamp Leadership session on flipping the faculty meeting, which took on a slightly different form in discussing with folks both involved and not involved in K-12 schools.

It was a whirlwind day, and 24 hours later I’m still reeling a bit from it all.  That said, here are my primary takeaways from the day:

  • We got over 60 students, faculty, and alumni to come out on a Saturday in mid-August – that’s pretty damn good!  I think we’d get more if we did it during the school year, and of course, the promise of internship hours for attending (and more for facilitating!) certainly didn’t hurt.  I’d like to do this in March or April next year, before the end of the school year.
  • Along those lines, we should also start advertising earlier in relation to the event date.  I’m actually a little surprised we got as many folks as we did; if we gave people some more advance notice, could we have broken 100?  Maybe that can be a goal for next year.
  • Chrissi set up a PollEverywhere poll to collect some exit data; 97% of respondents rated the day a 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5.  That tells me that they see value in the format, even if it was a little foreign to begin with, and we should do this again.
  • I think the session signup should go a little more smoothly next year, now that folks have gone through the process once.  I posted a makeshift Wordle with topics people indicated they wanted to discuss in a pre-conference survey.  The purpose was just to prime the mental pump, so to speak, and get people thinking about what they wanted to discuss, but most folks took it literally and started writing down topics verbatim off my poster instead of more focused titles.  I probably didn’t communicate my intention clearly enough, so I’ll make sure to do that better next time.
  • I am grateful to the university for their donation of food and facilities (which were excellent and gorgeous, respectively), but all our sessions were on the third floor, where heat rises (especially in August) and the temperature was a bit uncomfortable.  Hopefully, holding the event in the spring will alleviate that problem altogether.
  • The tech worked flawlessly – participants at WilmU LeaderCamp were a little less digitally connected throughout the day than folks at other Edcamps tend to be, but we experienced zero problems with Wi-Fi, projectors, audio, at least that I was aware of.
  • Rather than setting up a complete website with multiple pages based on WordPress or some similar platform, we used Smore to put together a brief, one-page online presence with the who, what, when, where, and why of the day (see link above).  This suited our purposes much better, and forced us to trim extraneous info to just focus on the important stuff.
  • Speaking of which, I heard some feedback to the effect that our registration link was a little buried on our Smore site, so some folks came without registering.  We’ll have to do a better job of making that link explicitly clear for next year.
It was an exhilarating day of learning, and I think (hope?) we laid the groundwork for an event that will continue in the coming years, even after Bill, Todd, Chrissi, and I have all graduated.



  • As an attendee to this “unconference” I want to say that it was everything Damian described AND so much more! This was my first experience at this type of event and I was unsure what to expect! Well it definitely exceeded my expectations! The event itself was well organized and ran smoothly! Not only did I learn so much, but the day flew by leaving me wanting more! The format was informal and conducive to allowing those participate as much or as little as they chose! It was wonderful not only networking with members of my Cohort but also from other Cohorts and graduate programs. Not having a background in education ( I work in the goverment sector) there was something for everyone of all backgrounds. Although I am not much of a public speaker I did facilitate a conversation on team building. This format of small groups with attendees picking their sessions based on what that wanted to discuss or learn about eased my anxiety on sparking and navigating the conversation [ and the extra internship hours were a motivating factor 🙂 ] As I reflect back on this experience I find myself pondering these two questions:
    Where can I attend another one? And
    How can I introduce this thought sharing/ prompting format at work with our Staff Education Dept?
    Kudos Damian, et al, on a job WELL DONE !!!

  • Thank you, Krys! I’m glad you had a good time, and more importantly, that it was professionally valuable to you.

    To answer your questions:

    1) There’s an Edcamp taking place in North Brunswick, NJ in December, but it’s specifically for K-12 educators (not that you wouldn’t be welcome!). Nothing’s to stop you from starting your own, however!

    2) If you’d like to kick ideas around about how to roll this out in your department, you know where to find me! It’s not just exclusive to education; the concept was borrowed from the tech world, and I think any field could benefit from the format.

  • Damian,

    This was a great ideal! I came not knowing what to expect and came away feeling really good about it. I loved the idea of sharing ideas with fellow students and stimulating the brain. I think that holding this before a semester starts was good because folks were not burned out from classes and were eager to discuss the various topics. I wouldn’t mind helping to organize the next session if you need it.

  • Thanks Mel! I’m sure we could use the help; I will put your name down in the “for next year” file and we will definitely be in touch.

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