December 7, 2017 mgoudz

Why un-conference?

Image: M Goudzwaard

I’m in Whistler, British Columbia for the edX Global Forum this week. Starting in 2014, several edX partners organized a small un-conference at Boston University held a few hours before the opening reception. Each year the un-conference has grown: 12 people in Boston, 23 in Georgetown, 30 in Paris, and now 50+ in Whistler.

In each of these locations, there were much more tempting ways to spend an afternoon than hiding away from the sunlight in a windowless room with digital learning folks. I’m surprised each year that people choose to gather with colleagues rather than ski, sleep, visit a museum, or drink wine (Paris) for a couple of hours. Here is what participants have said about why they keep showing up and bringing colleagues early to participate in the un-conference.

There is a timely, participant-driven agenda. The topics chosen serve the actual people in the room, not a selection committee or an organizational agenda to give people stage time. Sages have their moments on stages, but allowing the people in the room to generate ideas that are burning for them at that moment makes the conversations relevant. It also gets everyone talking, not just one person, providing a more inclusive and diverse learning space.

A month or so before the meeting, we send out an invitation and ask people to register (at no cost), articulate their goals for attending, and identify any areas of expertise they are willing to share. This is then shared back with everyone planning to attend.

An hour before we start, facilitators write up themes which emerged from participant input on large sheets of paper. In the first portion of the un-conference, participants generate additional topics on very large post-its, and then we have a round of straw poll voting. This voting determines what topics will be included in the breakout conversations.

Disruption is not only tolerated, but encouraged. Un-conferences don’t have many rules, but one of my favorites is vote with your feet. Throughout the three hours people were coming and going to get lunch, to have quieter conversations, or to go to another meeting. When people were in the room, they were talking to each other.

One of the most commonly stated goals for attending the un-conference is to network and build relationships. If you have been part of the edX community for awhile, you probably have no problem finding someone you know to talk to or getting invited to a committee meeting. However, if you’re new here or an introvert, the un-conference can provide a space to meet a few people in small conversations around topics where you have knowledge or curiosity.

Finally, an un-conference provides a space that we work so hard to create in our digital learning spaces, a place where we are learning from each other. As we leave our mountain top meeting, we educators will need to continue to meet up in person and online so we can share practices, curiosities, and challenges.


I want to thank my co-facilitators over the years, Romy Ruukel, Josh Kim, Diana Marian, Ella Hamonic, Shelly Upton, and John Zornig. Erin Brown from edX has been instrumental in building participant-led sessions in and around the Global Forum.