From reading the latest blog posts, it sounds like many of us were quite intrigued with Dave Cormier’s concept of Rhizomatic Learning. It is always intriguing when someone asks the bigger questions like “why do we teach”. This bigger question set the context for the discussion of rhizomatic learning, which is associated with the ideas of knowledge negotiation, open-ended learning, student-driven learning, chaos, difficulty to assess and script, the role of creative “nomads”, becoming over memory, and the idea of life-long learning. If the main reason we teach is to transfer information, this probably doesn’t sound like a good idea. But if the goal is to help someone develop themselves to their fullest capacity, then this sounds pretty interesting.
I liked the sound of what Dave was talking about a lot, and it really fit into my own philosophical comfort level around adult education and my own reasons for teaching adults. As I continued to ponder it over the week, what kept coming back to me was, “where can you apply this?”, “when would it be appropriate (and inappropriate) to apply it?”, and “what would it look like?”.
By coincidence, I also participated in my first “unconference” this Sunday in Baltimore — on the topic of libraries and publishing (THATCamp Publishing). I’ve never been to an unconference before, but it really seems to embody many of the principles that Dave was talking about. In a traditional conference, authors submit proposals, the conference directors decide which to accept and which to decline, they put out a schedule, and participants register and later decide which sessions to attend. This sounds a lot like traditional education, with a separation between the teachers, who decide what and how to teach, and students, who just sign up and hope for the best. In an unconference, however, there is no pre-set schedule. Participants had been invited to submit open proposals to the unconference web site for several weeks, and they were all posted for everyone to view (kind of like an open syllabus). On the morning of the unconference, all participants (organizers, submitters, attendees) got together in the main room and decided which sessions were of most interest to the most people, and those chosen went ahead. Some sessions were dropped and some were combined with other sessions. One session that didn’t find a space proceeded as an informal lunch meeting. Live tweets were scrolling past on the projected screen throughout the process, which added to the discussion.
Once the group decided on which sessions should take place, everyone also worked together to decide on the placement of each session in the day’s schedule, which was available as a live Google Doc. Because there were only 3 sets of 4 concurrent sessions, it was only possible for anyone to participate in 3 of the 12 sessions. This required a certain amount of collective negotiation, but after about 15 minutes the group developed the plan for the day.
The sessions themselves were also unlike any conference session I’ve ever been to. The original proposers were tasked with facilitating their sessions, but not leading them. They operated essentially as seminar discussions rather than lectures — the idea being that no one person was the main expert, but that our collective expertise was going to be unleashed. There was little (if any) content delivered, but the connections made between people and the ideas and knowledge shared were extremely valuable. One of the action items from one session was to setup a Google Group as a new community of practice among the participants, to continue the discussions. I met many very smart, experienced people, connected with people I only knew online, and re-connected with others I’ve met in the past. The overall experience certainly reflected much of what Dave discussed in class.
While I think the day was a success, I don’t believe you could make just any conference into an unconference. This one worked because of the clear focus of the topic, the sense of community and common cause amongst the group, and the advanced warning about what was going to happen (if you didn’t like the idea, you wouldn’t have registered). I think the cultural expectations about how learning is supposed to happen are so deeply ingrained, however, that asking many traditional conference goers to accept this level of chaos, participation, interaction, and knowledge sharing (rather than knowledge receiving) wouldn’t fly. We haven’t really prepared ourselves to be very self-directed in our learning — starting from kindergarten and following right through to our post-secondary and work-related learning. One of the exciting things about what Dave is proposing for school teachers today is the opportunity to bring this expectation for self-direction, chaos, power, and interaction to the next generation, so that for them, the thought of passively sitting through another powerpoint presentation or lecture will seem absurd.
Has anyone else ever participated in an unconference? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Why?