If you are like most educators, chances are you have been to a professional development conference where, at some point, you thought:

  • UnconferenceIt was expensive to attend, and in the end, of questionable value overall.
  • You had more experience with the topic being presented than the presenter.
  • You had difficulty finding sessions that appealed to you. Worse, some of the sessions you participated in were nothing like the description, or were presented by a vendor shilling a product. You wanted to go to another session, but didn’t feel comfortable leaving.
  • You met amazing colleagues--between sessions or maybe at lunch--and you learned more in your conversations with them than you did at many of the sessions you attended.

If these ring true for you, it is because that conference didn’t meet your individual needs. By their nature, traditional conferences focus on the presenters and their messages, not the participants.

Perhaps you shouldn’t spend your time looking for a great conference to attend, you should find an “unconference.”

An unconference is simply, “a participant-driven meeting.” This means:

  • The session schedule is determined by attendees, usually on the day of the event.
  • Anyone can propose--and lead--a session (which is more of a conversation than a presentation).
  • Participants obey the “law of two feet:” if a session isn’t meeting their needs, for any reason, they are encouraged to find another.

The result? Imagine a conference focused on you and your needs, where you are in charge of your own learning and where you are recognized for your expertise. And, not only is it free, it’s completely non-commercial. You will spend your day interacting with like-minded professionals, not salespeople. PadCamp, is one type of unconference.

The origins of PadCamp

A little over two years ago, a small group of educational technologists in the Atlantic County area discussed the unconference model for professional development. We all thought that it had a lot of potential and that the edcamp unconferences cropping up around the country (learn more at http://edcamp.org/) were extremely effective tools for professional development that are easy to produce and great fun. We decided to put together an unconference focusing on mobile devices (mainly tablets) and that day, PadCamp 2011 was born.

Planning, sponsors and advertising

Planning the event was fairly straightforward. We knew we needed to have a venue that was large enough for a sizeable group. Of course, it had to have the technological infrastructure to handle a lot of people holding one to three wireless devices in their hands. So a wireless network was a must. Fortunately, one of our committee members worked in a district school that was available, technologically capable, and had a superintendent who was willing.

To get the event organized, we had some in-person gatherings, but much was done via email and online meetings. Our planning focused on logistics since the actual schedule was going to be created that day. We just had to lay out a map of the rooms and set times for each block of sessions. The day before the event we set the space up so that as the schedule unfolded, we could accommodate every session’s participants.

 Unconference
Retired library/media specialist Alice Yucht offers to lead a sesion at PadCamp 2012 on using iPads in the school library.
One of the biggest challenges was to get sponsors so we could provide food and drinks, as well as some prizes. This was an interesting undertaking since we had some explaining to do. When we asked for product donations, vendors wondered why they couldn’t “peddle their wares” at PadCamp. We did promise advertising space on our website as well as mentions and thanks throughout the day. The response was good the first year and outstanding by year two. Between food and prizes, we had literally thousands of dollars worth of donations!

Advertising was done via word of mouth, a website and social media. We used Facebook, Twitter and email to get the word out and point people to our website (PadCamp.org) for more information and registration. Registering people was a breeze via a free tool called TicketLeap (ticketleap.com). We actually had to close registration because the numbers got so high!

At last summer’s PadCamp, over 300 educators and students, yes students, ran sessions and shared ideas and resources. It was a gorgeous day at the beach, yet all of those people chose PadCamp because they wanted to learn in a way that was productive and collaborative.

How an unconference is organized

The key to an edcamp is the schedule. Watching one come together is fascinating. We start with an empty grid that is the size of a standard chalkboard (or two). Along the left axis are the time slots for each session (usually one hour); across the right axis are room numbers. Over breakfast, people mill around and decide what they want to talk--and learn--about. Attendees fill out “session cards” with details such as the title of the session and their Twitter name (if available) and place the cards on the grid. As the grid fills up, the information is transferred to a Google Doc that participants access on their mobile devices. Approximately one hour of time is devoted to the registration/breakfast/agenda-building process. Edcamp topics can be anything relating to K-12 education but often have a particular focus, such as tablets and mobile learning devices in the case of PadCamp.

If you post a session card, you become the facilitator of that session. All that really means, however, is that you get the discussion started and allow the exchange of ideas to flow freely. On occasion, we have arranged for “virtual presenters” in advance to address a specific topic so we placed the card on the session grid. In those cases, we made sure to have the necessary technology in a designated room.

To be sure that we assign the most popular topics to the largest rooms, we give the attendees stickers and ask them to place their stickers on the session cards they plan to attend. After that, our work is mostly done as the wisdom of the participants is shared in every room. To keep the collaborative energy moving, at lunchtime we hold an “App Smackdown.” Since just about everyone has a resource to share, we provide an open microphone and a timer so folks can talk about their favorite app for a minute or two.

The future of the edcamp movement

The edcamp movement has grown dramatically over the past several years. The map at http://edcamp.wikispaces.com/ says it all.

PadCamp has grown as well. In year one, we had about 150 people in attendance from all over the country. In year two the event doubled in size, a trend we hope will continue. It is truly amazing to see how people are willing to travel from such long distances for a free professional development opportunity in the middle of the summer. Join the edcamp unconference movement and join us for PadCamp 2013, Thursday, Aug. 8, at Galloway Township Middle School in Galloway.

Frank Pileiro is the district technology coordinator for Linwood Public Schools. Learn more about Pieliro on his ed tech blog.

A Google-certified teacher, Kevin Jarrett is a teacher of computer education (K-4) for Northfield Community Schools. Learn more about Jarrett at http://about.me/kjarrett.