“I totally get it now, this whole ‘UnConference’ thing! It was awesome!”

Last Friday, the inaugural Student Affairs Technology UnConference (#satechBOS) took place at Boston University, hosted by @SportsGirlKat, @DeanElmore, and yours truly.  The event went off without a hitch and by all accounts, was a complete success.  In all honesty, I was extremely nervous leading up to the event.  I wasn’t sure how my colleagues in Student Affairs would react to a different format of conference education.  But to their credit, all 75 participants were excited, engaged, and took full advantage of the day’s conversation.

The day began at 11:00am with introductions, explanation of the format, and voting on our initial topic of conversation.  Two days prior to the event, I sent out a Twtpoll asking everyone to vote on which topics they wanted to hear about most and by the start of the event, the results were in.  This didn’t mean that we couldn’t deviate and pick other topics, it just helped the group decide which one to start with.  We began with “Social Media Best Practices” and each of the participants were invited to share their perspectives and ideas.  My role that day was to help moderate and move the conversation along, switching to a new topic when the current one had been exhausted.  Mix in a break for lunch, a break for cookies and coffee, and some inspirational words from @DeanElmore, and our six hours together FLEW by.  An impromptu request to “live stream” the event was also executed by @JennaMagnuski, which added another layer of fun to our already rich conversation.

After the event was over, I spoke to a number of individuals who were completely satisfied with the format and conversation.  A few even cited being “pleasantly surprised” at how well the event went.  Some of us also then joined our friends from the Higher Ed Web communities at McGreevy’s for the #eduTweetup, hosted by my friends @MikePetroff and @SethOdell, which was a huge success.  Friday, July 29, 2011 was an amazing day of learning and networking among Higher Education colleagues in Student Affairs, Higher Education Web, Marketing, and Information Tech.

This past weekend, I’ve had some time to really reflect on what happened in Boston, and I believe we proved people that this format can work in Higher Education circles.  As I travel and talk to more and more of my colleagues, the sentiment is the same: “I learn more in the hallways after a educational session / over a meal / at the bar than I do during the actual ‘formal’ learning.”  As Student Affairs practitioners, haven’t we found ourselves promoting that “out of class” learning is just as important as “in-class” learning?  Frankly, we should be pushing to do more peer to peer learning at our association’s regional and national conferences.  The UnConference model worked for us and it may work for you and your colleagues should you choose to implement it.


If you are interested, inspired, or at all curious about the UnConference educational experience, here’s how I would recommend pulling it together:

1.  Venue: Choose a location that can hold up to 100 people in one space comfortably, preferably in a half moon / horseshoe setup (so everyone can see each other), with enough power outlets and wifi bandwith to support that many users at one time.  At minimum, make sure the room gets good cell phone service in case people want to use their mobile devices to tweet, take notes, etc.  Also, make sure you have access to a LCD projector and screen to allow for folks who want to share slides, websites, and/or videos the opportunity to do so.  Oh, and if the room has access to amplified sound, play some upbeat tunes during the breaks!

2.  Information Management: Use Eventbrite to distribute tickets.  Thanks to the generous donation by Boston Univeristy and Dean Elmore’s office, we were able to offer tickets for free, but if you need to charge, keep it low to cover your operation costs.  Also use Eventbrite’s internal email system to send group messages out to your participants.  You can even schedule emails in advance if that is helpful.   Use Wikispaces.com to centralize all your information regarding the event (e.g. registration and travel info, participant information, suggested topics, etc.)  Use Twtpoll.com to send out your suggested topics so participants can vote early about what they want to learn that day(s).  Finally, used individualized QR codes for each of the participant’s name tags that point to a downloadable contact file, a URL they list at registration, or their LinkedIn or About.me address.

3.  Schedule: Structure your schedule to be flexible with breaks every few hours or so, but understand that the participants can call for a break at anytime they feel it is necessary.

4.  MOD: Find a person who can handle moderating a conversation with a large group of people.  As the MOD for this event, I did the best I could to give as many people the chance to contribute and keep the conversation moving.

5.  Live Streaming: If you choose to do this, make sure that you have access to a ethernet connection to broadcast the video stream and have enough microphones around the room so those watching at home can hear the conversation clearly.  @JennaMagnuski did a great job with what she had, but I just wished I would have thought of this ahead of time so I could have given her more to work with!

6.  The UnConference Process: Just let it happen.  When the day started, I wasn’t so sure how the conversation would get started or be sustained, but after we agreed on the initial topic and a few people contributed thoughts, it just took off.  I would also invite anyone interested to have a few slides prepared on their favorite idea related to the topic at hand, just in case things got quiet.  We didn’t have to do that for our UnConference, but if you have a group not taking to the format initially, invite someone up to the front to share their quick 10 minute idea.  This should get the conversation moving. Finally, open up a Google Doc and have your participants share their favorite ideas from the day in one central place.

Below is a great info-graphic from @LauraPasquini about the number of tweets generated from Friday’s event.  It was so great to read all the tweets from folks at the event and those across the country participating from home or work or both!

Overall, I hope this inspires some of you to do your own UnConference on any topic you’re passionate about.  @DeanElmore and I are already talking about doing this again next summer and hope when we get the date, you’ll mark it down and join us for what we both hope is an annual event!  Thanks again to everyone who attended, especially those who traveled from outside of New England to be a part of it!  It is an experience I won’t forget.

What did you think of the UnConference Format? Could this replace our formal education at our annual conferences, both regionally and nationally?


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