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May 2014 | Volume 71 | Number 8
Professional Learning: Reimagined
How can participant-led, one-day events open up new possibilities for professional learning?
"I have heard more positive feedback on this day than any other professional development I have ever been a part of. I keep wondering why we didn't take our professional development in this direction a lot earlier. If we want classrooms where we are teaching students to be collaborative and more proactive in their learning, don't we have to set up a culture where we trust teachers to do the same?"
—Patrick Larkin (2010), assistant superintendent
—Patrick Larkin (2010), assistant superintendent
Hundreds of quotes like this one have been circulating within the Twittersphere and Blogosphere since May 2010. What's all the buzz about? Edcamp.
Edcamps are free, participatory events organized by educators for educators. Attendees collaboratively determine the schedule of sessions on the morning of the event. The first Edcamp was organized by a group of educators (including me) after we met in September 2009 at BarCamp Philly, an unconference focused on technology. After experiencing the passion, sharing, and excitement that surrounded that event, we wanted to develop a similar learning model for teachers and administrators. We exchanged contact information, and over the next few months, communicating through virtual dialogue and several Skype meetings, we hammered out a vision of Edcamps. Operating on a shoestring budget, we advertised our first Edcamp event through Twitter, Facebook, word of mouth, and blogs. Within a few months, more than 100 people had signed up to attend.
On an unseasonably cool morning in May 2010, lots of educators arrived at the Philadelphia location, collaboratively built a schedule of sessions related to their interests, and talked. And talked. And talked. Several of the sessions focused on best practices, a few shared successful lessons, and others explored Web 2.0 tools. Overall, it was a positive, interactive day. Personally, I couldn't recall another professional learning experience where I got to do so much discussing and sharing.
Exhausted and elated, the organizing team met that night to debrief. Almost as an afterthought, Dan Callahan suggested creating a free Wikispace to document the experience online.
And so it began. As people who had attended the first Edcamp started to share their experience online via blogs and Twitter, interest grew. Slowly, e-mails and tweets began to arrive asking how to do what we had done. One of the original organizers, Mary Beth Hertz (2010), published a four-part blog series on our experiences. Soon new Edcamp events started popping up. In the last four years, more than 400 Edcamps have been held all over the United States and in other countries.
It's difficult to capture the Edcamp experience. That's because a "typical" day of learning at an Edcamp doesn't really exist. Each Edcamp is based on the needs of its participants.
When you arrive at the location (usually a school or university), there is no preset schedule of sessions or presenters. Instead, there's just a big, blank sheet of paper with a grid on it.
From that blank slate, everyone builds the schedule together. As people mingle and chat over coffee and doughnuts, they put up potential discussion topics on a board. The entire process is positive and organic. Occasionally, people who don't even know each other realize they have similar interests and end up running a session together. Other folks come with an idea, throw it out to the group, revise it, and post it with a refined focus. Because anyone who attends an Edcamp event can be a presenter, it's an empowering experience for everyone.
Given the spontaneity of the schedule creation, you may wonder about the content of the sessions that typically occur at an Edcamp. It's certainly hard to generalize, but here is a sampling of topics presented at recent Edcamp events:
Sessions at Edcamp are diverse and eclectic because they grow out of the interests and expertise of the participants. However, the participants themselves also actively control the quality of each session via the "law of two feet" (Boule, 2011), which states that participants in an Edcamp session can leave the room at any time for any reason. Because leaving midstream is actually encouraged, sessions with weak content or too much presenter talk often end up sparsely populated, whereas high-quality, interactive sessions are often bursting at the seams.
Most sessions are informal conversations or demonstrations. It's common for many different people to take the floor during an event to share an idea, show student work on their laptop, or ask questions. In short, the experience is closer to a vibrant summer camp than a routine day of conference sessions.
The Edcamp day ends with a "Smackdown," during which any willing participant takes the floor for 30 seconds to share an idea, tool, or tip with the crowd. There's typically music, laughing, and cheering as folks try to condense their learning into such a small time frame.
Although Edcamps are not specifically about technology, many teachers who run and attend Edcamps are comfortable with it. Edcamps also run back channels on Twitter during the event to encourage participants to chat virtually while the live discussions happen. For example, Edcamp LA had 1,587 tweets during the daylong event. (You can see the entire archive.) People use the back channel to communicate, share links, and draw people who aren't physically present into the conversation. So although technology is not a required part of the model, it certainly helps spread and capture the learning of the day.
If you're interested in attending an Edcamp event, check the Edcamp wiki for the complete calendar of events. Visit the page of the event you wish to attend and register for a free ticket. Most attendees bring a laptop or tablet to the event so they can share resources and ideas in the back channel. Go to the event with ideas and expertise to share!
Anyone can run an Edcamp event. Here are seven recommended steps for success.
The Edcamp model has spread rapidly since our first event in 2010, not only throughout the United States (41 states are now represented) but also internationally to Sweden, Ontario, British Columbia, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, Belgium, Abu Dhabi, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ukraine, and Chile. Fifty-one Edcamp events were held in 2011, 127 were held in 2012, and 190 were held in 2013. Some events focused on specific topics, such as leadership or new teacher induction. One Edcamp event was even organized by high school students for local educators.
The Edcamp wikispace currently has more than 1,200 organizing members, and hundreds of thousands of tweets have been written with the #edcamp hashtag. In an effort to address the growing number of educators with questions and requests for support, the original organizing team created the Edcamp Foundation in December 2011. This nonprofit organization has provided support to more than 125 Edcamps in places as near as Ohio and as far away as Hong Kong.
When we organized the original Edcamp in 2010, we never dreamed that this type of explosion would happen. That is the power of technology in education. It's not about the shiny production tools or neat gadgets. Instead, it's about connecting people with purpose and finding new ways to learn. Ideas can spread quickly, efficiently, and with fervor.
This shift could not have come at a better time. Mass media has not been kind to educators lately, and many teachers have lost their direction in a sea of mounting mandates and requirements. The relationships participants form at an Edcamp provide needed support and spark important new learning as these educators continue to dialogue long after the event is over. Most powerfully, lots of educators try new strategies they've learned at Edcamp and then report back to the Edcamp community on their blogs to get feedback and share progress.
For example, Craig Yen is an educator from California who has attended multiple Edcamps. At one, he learned about Mystery Skypes, in which students from two classrooms in different geographic locations exchange a series of questions through Skype, and each classroom tries to figure out where the other classroom (the "mystery callers") is located. This strategy can encourage global collaboration, widen students' perspectives, and hone their speaking and listening skills.
After returning to his classroom and trying Mystery Skypes with his 5th graders, Craig blogged about the experience and noted some technical problems he encountered and fixed. Overall, he deemed the experiment a success, writing, "We had some good questions from our side, for instance, 'Are you landlocked?' This made the kids think more about the different regions and geographical terms."
This extension of learning is what most participants cite as the most satisfying aspect of participant-led learning events. Andrea Keller (2012) writes, "The reason I am super excited about this is the connections that I make. They might be in person during the day, but they tend to be virtual after that."
Edcamps are also feeding the new need for instant information. In today's climate, pedagogies and tools change quickly. Edcamps have the flexibility to respond to these trends, giving educators the skills they need. For example, iBooks Author (an Apple publishing tool) came out just days before Edcamp OCLA in January 2012. Sure enough, teachers posted sessions about the tool, helping lots of educators stay abreast of its potential uses and pitfalls.
In spite of the widespread growth of Edcamps, some educators remain skeptical about the format. People often ask me how "quality content" can be guaranteed. They're often surprised when I tell them, You can't guarantee anything at an Edcamp.
We have to trust that teachers are professionals who use their classrooms as innovative laboratories and who are motivated to engage in authentic learning. Although the "law of two feet" encourages participants to immediately abandon sessions that appear biased, of low quality, or less than useful, it's certainly not foolproof. Further, Edcamp events are only one component of a balanced professional learning diet. Teachers should also engage in rigorous reading, action research, and collaborative curriculum writing, among other things. However, when included as part of a balanced learning plan, Edcamps can empower and motivate teachers to learn and share powerful practices.
For me, attending an Edcamp reminds me that I'm part of something bigger. Education is greater than my classroom, school, or district. It's a powerful force that can bring equity and empowerment to our world.
Boule, M. (2011). Mob rule learning: Camps, unconferences, and trashing the talking head. New York: Information Today.
Hertz, M. (2010). Introduction to Edcamp: A new conference model built on collaboration [blog post]. Retrieved from Edutopia at www.edutopia.org/blog/about-edcamp-unconference-history
Keller, A. (2012, March 16). Energize … find a padcamp or edcamp [blog post]. Retrieved from Discovery Educator Network at http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/blog/2012/03/16/energize-find-an-padcamp-or-edcamp
Larkin, P. (2010, September 29). A professional development day that worked: A recap [blog post]. Retrieved from Burlington High School Principal's Blog at www.markjsullivan.org/2010/09/professional-development-day-that.html
Kristen Swanson is senior educational research leader at BrightBytes, San Francisco, California. She is the author of Professional Learning in the Digital Age (Routledge, 2012) and Teaching the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards: Strategies and Digital Tools (Routledge, 2013).
Copyright © 2014 by ASCD
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