Conference as Learning Community
I have just returned from the annual meeting of the National Association for Research on Science Teaching (NARST) in New Orleans, LA. What struck me clearly this time was the completely outmoded way that conferences (not just NARST) are run. I have been reading about the concept of an un-conference recently in Fred Stutzman’s blog. The idea is based on Open Space Technology. Generally, the idea is that of a self organizing conference. People are invited and then create an agenda on the fly (sometimes in advance via Web 2.0 tools) including break-out sessions based on emergent issues of interest.
How would this work in an academic research conference? That is the question I have been wrestling with. One of the difficulties is that most universities tie reimbursement for conference travel to presenting, so no presentation means no reimbursement. This makes a conference without a fixed agenda very difficult to populate. One solution is to allow all participants to be named as presenters. The solution I think is strongest, is to sandwich the unconference between poster sessions. In the morning have a poster session with refreshments. People are official presenters so there is no issue with support. Then there is a large middle section that is unconference. Then in the evening there is a poster session again with wine and cheese refreshments. It seems to have potential for a really powerful microtime learning community.
I just found out today that one of my amazing colleagues here at PSU, James Nolan, has been using Open Space Technology in his work with teachers in PSU’s professional development school. I am hoping to see this in action and report back how it updates my thinking on the academic unconference.