Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The "Unconference" Conference Concept

I have been intrigued about the concept of an "unconference" since I first learned about #THATcamp last spring on Twitter. The term "unconference" is not entirely accurate as conferences that follow these concepts are still a conference. However, it is a large departure from traditional conference experiences we are all used to attending in that the topics and schedule are largely participant-generated. The concept is explained in this article from Academe Today: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Unconference-Technology/65651/?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

So while I have been interested in this concept, I had not had the opportunity to participate in such an event until I was able to experience a similar approach in a meeting last week. At the end of our academic year, our school hosts a Faculty Development Day. This had been planned similar to a workshop with some featured speakers, maybe some small group discussions, and perhaps some faculty presentations. While it could be an informative day, the schedule was set by the planning committee and led to a fairly structured day.

This year, a consultant was hired to facilitate our Faculty Development Day and she utilized the Open Space Technology method. http://www.openspaceworld.org/cgi/wiki.cgi?AboutOpenSpace

As soon as I understood this approach, I thought it was very similar to the unconference approach. Essentially, the day began with a large board that was divided into six columns for separate groups and rows of one-hour blocks for the day, with time provided for lunch and wrap-up. The group (about 50 faculty and department chairs) was instructed to place on the board any topic they wanted to discuss as part of the day. Participants quickly began generating ideas and announcing their topic as they placed a sheet of paper with the topic on the board. Another group column was added to accommodate all of the ideas, but the 28 slots (7 discussion groups, one-hour blocks of time) filled rather quickly.

Discussion topics reflected the wide variety of interest and expertise of the group and included areas such as collaborative research efforts, interprofessional courses, managing with ongoing budget changes, utilization of staff for increased efficiency, and managing expectations of students. As participants, we were free to attend any of the group sessions that appealed to us, and were given permission to leave and move to another group if a discussion did not appeal to us. The "convener" of the discussion was responsible for starting off the discussion, but then it was the group's responsibility to carry out the discussion. A note-taker captured the main points of each discussion and the notes were submitted to a staff person at the end of each discussion. The staff person typed the notes and organizational plans will be developed from the notes of each discussion.

By the end of the day, all of the participants verbalized an appreciation for the process and genuine surprise and how well it worked. Many even commented that it was the best Faculty Development Day we had ever experienced.

All of this makes me wonder how this approach would apply to occupational therapy conferences. Group size would be an important consideration. THATCamp limits its participants to 100 people. Open Space Technology says the approach can accommodate over 2000 participants. Otherwise, the idea of this organic approach to conference planning is very interesting. Participant-generated topics and discussion should naturally lead to important connections and innovative discussions.

But what happens if no topics are suggested, or if the meeting or conference heads in a direction that planners aren't intending? Proponents of this approach are confident that topics will always be provided as this approach taps into participants' true interests and the things they are passionate about discussing. As far as heading in unplanned directions, it seems that the very foundation of this approach is that the ideas and activities will head only in the direction the participants want it to, so how could it ever be a wrong direction?

Undoubtedly, success of this approach relies on planners willingness to implement a much less "structured" approach to conferences. Furthermore, it places a greater responsibility on the participants. Participants may claim to dislike sitting through hours of sessions listening to a multitude of presenters, but it is easy on the participants. No engagement in the process is usually required. This alternative approach demands that participants be fully engaged in the process and that does take more effort and resonsibility for the process.

So, do you see this approach being an viable alternative to any OT conferences you attend? Why or why not?

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