#L2BB2L Unconference: Epic Fail, Great Success, or Something in Between?


After months and months and months of planning, the Learning2Build/Building2Learn Unconference has just ended.  Reflective learner and practitioner that I am, I can’t help but immediately want to evaluate and assess to what extent we achieved our objectives as event organizers.  And, true to life, I find that in some ways it was a (and hear Borat in your head, please) Greeeeeeat success! and in other ways it was a complete and epic failure.  In order to address this question, we have to know what our objectives are.  In this case, we had several:

  • Create a space in which K-12 and college/ university educators can collaborate.
  • Gather change agents working in education, especially, but not exclusively, those in the Rochester area.
  • Empower learners to take ownership of their own learning.
  • Utilize a presentation method in which the medium is imperative to the message.

Our first and second objectives were absolutely met.  K-12 and college/ university educators did indeed gather at RIT on a frigid Saturday morning to discuss how we can help students create more content than they consume, the barriers that keep us from shifting the create/consume balance, and successful methods for tearing down those barriers.  There were scheduled sessions which included presentations, lectures, and demonstrations that were somehow related to this topic.  There is a Facebook group, a Google+ community, YouTube Videos and a flood of #l2bb2l tweets that allow this fledgling community to remain in touch.  It’s easy to see that the first two objectives were achieved.

The third and fourth objectives are much harder for me to evaluate.  In reality, the event was far more conference than un.

This was especially disappointing because I know that a few participants had specifically committed to supporting this local unconference event over a mere one-hour-away edcamp in Buffalo.  We had a total of 3 proposed sessions via Post-Its (one was my model) in a possible 12 time/location slots on the session board; to be entirely honest, I didn’t even take a picture of the board.  And, being no strangers to introducing a paradigm shift  in deeply entrenched institutions, the other founding organizers and I had planned ahead to try to support this change.  We recognized the local educational community’s inexperience with anything much like an unconference, despite RIT’s hosting hack-a-thons and BarCamps on the reg; so, we decided to offer both a traditional “anchor session” track and a “spontaneous session” track.  Baby steps, we figured, both for the participants and for the planning committee.  We provided materials (post-its and gold stars), created time and space (the first hour and a half, an edcamp-style session board, available rooms), and direct instruction (via introductory remarks) to try to facilitate break-out sessions.  Despite the direct instruction, the access to time and materials, and several invitations to move about, propose a session idea, and individuals or partners moving into nearby spaces in which they could converse, no sessions that were proposed actually ran.  I can now recognize that I had arbitrarily imposed the idea that success would manifest itself in a very narrow and particular manner.  I was expecting something like an edcamp to occur alongside a traditionally structured conference, and for individuals to join in a synchronous conversation via Google+ while we met in person in Rochester.  I had fallen into Teacher Trap #1: mistaking an activity – an edcamp-style track with a rich session board and thriving G+ chatter based on the live feed – for an objective.  

In writing this post, however, I recognize that we did have a couple of really interesting not-on-the-session-board breakout sessions that did seem to meet objectives 3-4.  For example, after Andy Phelps‘ excellent keynote, he hosted an open lab session in the MAGIC lab, which was in an adjoining room.  Basically, those who wanted to chat more with him about the ideas and frustrations his speech highlighted joined him while Dr. Ferat Sahim spoke about robotics and their use with kids in RIT’s summer programs.  My co-presenter and Padawan, Ellie, said she was going to Andy’s lab and, being both curious about the session and trusting Ellie’s instincts, I followed.  A very lively conversation took off with Andy; David – an articulate advocate of LARPing to learn and another faculty member of IGM; myself; John – an RIT student who last week won a business competition related to his educational iPad app; Ellie -a future music teacher, current high school junior and, former student in my fully flipped, paperlite language and literature class; Tony – an instructional technology coordinator at a very well-respected independent school in the area; Amy – an art teacher and future maker-space facilitator at the same school; Cara – a complete rockstar teacher in an excellent rural district with unfortunately shrinking enrollment; and several other individuals who came and went.  While we were chatting, several of the game design students showed up to use the space too: true to form for what Andy had been describing about the department’s culture, he waved at them, they nodded at us, and then clustered together at a computer to collaborate on their work.

Similarly as to what occurred after Andy’s keynote, after Dr. Sahim’s anchor session about robotics, he led a handful of people including my colleague and friend, Leslie, to his lab where I am sure equally engaging conversations with diverse audiences took place. While a huge list of content proposed on a session board and synchronous online conversations certainly did not occur; learner-directed conversations did.  The activity I had thought the learners would want to use by which to achieve the objectives was not utilized; the objective was met.

Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t immediately want to discuss why loosely structured sessions (follow me to the lab) ran while fully spontaneous sessions did not occur. Reflecting with Tony and Amy and Jeremiah after the event was really helpful to me in considering what we could have done differently to encourage more participants to propose to facilitate a session and/or to actually employ the rule of two feet to move into a new space and strike up a conversation.  Plans are already in the works, now that we know at least 40 people in the area are of our ilk, to host a full unconference, format TBD, this summer at a K-12 venue in the area, also TBD.

In the end, the Open Space principle that whatever happened is the only thing that could have is another reminder that while the un- didn’t look exactly like I had predicted it would, today’s conference was a good introduction into taking ownership of learning.  It’s also worth remembering that whoever comes is the right people: we were successfully able to gather innovative educators so that we are now connected and able to continue collaborating into the future.  There was a palpable interest in joining Jon Schull and the very active G+ Community with something like e-nable.  While I won’t characterize the event as a complete success, I do think it was successful in laying a groundwork for continued collaboration and an increased awareness of specific strategies we can use to help push students into the role of a creator more often than that of a consumer, and always then a critical consumer.


17 thoughts on “#L2BB2L Unconference: Epic Fail, Great Success, or Something in Between?

  1. jparryhill

    I mentioned Spark Camp briefly during our reflection — it’s a conference model that swings 180 degrees away from “un-,” over to the side of intentionality and a meticulously-selected, high-quality mix of people.

    I learned about the Spark Camp model in this interview with Debbie Millman on Design Matters: http://observermedia.designobserver.com/audio/amanda-michel–amy-webb-co-founders-of-spark-camp/38294/

    A quick visual overview of that interview appears at: http://www.thegraphicrecorder.com/2014/02/05/sketchnotes-of-debbie-millman-interview-with-spark-camp-founders-amy-webb-and-amanda-michel/

    This isn’t to say this is a One True Way. Just another data point to widen the spectrum of what’s possible.

    1. mspierceblogs Post author

      See, Jeremiah, your comments are further evidence that we are onto something. Today was a good product, but a draft of what can be, I think. I’m looking forward to working with you to design the next un-event.

      1. jparryhill

        Yup, I’m planning on Spring BarCamp, barring the unforeseen. I think this will be my third time — last time I was there, I talked about unpacking the various meanings of “design.”

    2. mspierceblogs Post author

      Comments the author of the Huff Post article hears at hackathons are not that different from the comments 7-12th grade girls often hear when pursuing the gendered content that is middle and high school technology classes. If we’re committed to getting more women to participate in hackathons and the like, I think the conversation needs to be about keeping girls interested in making through adolescence despite being bombarded with rhetoric like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V60GVk0-WH8

      1. Antonio Scordo

        It was disheartening to read that article. As a not only an educator, but a father of three, two being bright young girls, it makes me realize that there is a need for a systemic cultural shift.

        Schools should try to take a leading place in this shift. Schools need to bring in Engineering and Design principles into the youngest grades, so that ALL children grow up in an educational environment that shows all that everyone can create. Be it with “games” such as Robot Turtles (https://www.thinkfun.com/robotturtles/), Microsoft Kodu, Scratch, etc. Or with more hands on activities that you’d find at YoungMakers (http://youngmakers.org/finding-a-project-vision/), or that you might find in a book such as The Art of Tinkering. Schools could also provide suggested gift ideas to foster creativity instead of just another Barbie Doll or Easy Bake Oven. Never being exposed to patronizing commercials like the one you posted is yet another reason I’m glad that we ditched Cable and Network TV years ago.

        This can lead to conversations with parents about how to begin to confront the need for cultural change starting at home. Encourage parents to take their kids (especially girls) to a Maker Faire, or a Mini Maker Faire. My daughters loved the entire event, and my youngest was inspired between the Maker Faire, and the Art of Tinkering book to make an Artbot (a vibrabot with markers) for a recycling project at school.

        The Buffalo Science Museum just held a Mini Maker Faire back in March and plans on holding another in the Spring of 2014. Make sure to go and take your girls with you.

        For Rochester, NYSCATE.org hopes to be approved by MAKE to host a Mini Maker Faire on Saturday Nov 22, the day prior to the Annual NYSCATE Fall Conference held in Rochester. Hopefully the application will be approved and event planning can move forward.

      2. mspierceblogs Post author

        Thanks so much for reading, and for your eloquent response. I’ll be on the lookout for Buffalo’s next Maker Faire, and I’d absolutely love to participate in NYSCATE’s Mini Maker Faire next fall… something maker-centric is exactly what NYSCATE’s Annual Conference was missing this year.

        And I see your account links to Erie1 BOCES – what sort of work is your organization doing regarding making? Mine is just starting to dabble in it, and we could use a prototype to lean on.

      3. Antonio Scordo

        Hi Markette,

        I’d like to say that Erie 1 was out in front with this,but um, that is not the case. We are starting to dabble with it as well, and are not sure where/how that professional development would work for it (my department provides technology staff development). I stumbled upon the Maker Movement at last year’s NYSCATE conference when I found a book titled Invent to Learn by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager. I’ve met them before and read some of Gary’s other stuff about constructivism back years ago, but it never really took hold in my mind like it did after reading Invent to Learn. Now it’s covered with Post It’s and it lead me to further explore and in doing so I stumbled across MAKE and their iterations, Makezine, Maker Faire, etc.

        I’ve begun trying to bring up the idea of MakerEd whenever I can At one of my last meetings for technology integrators from school districts in my area, out of 12 people, not one had heard of the Maker Movement, Makered, or Maker Faires. I had brought my 2nd grade daughter to do a presentation about the lesson her teacher gave, to discuss what other kids made, and to demonstrate her vibrabot. Her classroom teacher didn’t even realize that she had actually given the kids a YoungmakerEd type of assignment. My daughter talked their ears off about the project, her inspiration from the Maker Faire in buffalo,and even insisted on showing off the Coffeebot we built at home ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEmXP3O_7Hs ).

        So I guess it’s going to be awhile to raise awareness before full scale implementation will occur.

        As for the Mini Makerfaire that NYSCATE is hoping to be approved for November, I’m one of the co-chairs, the other is James Tiffin Jr, from the Harley School. We have the application in, and now we are trying to gather “letters” of support from Rochester Area Makers. MAKE has an official google form for supporters to complete. Once we gather enough of those, then we will find out if MAKE will approve our application and we can get an RFP for Makers out and begin the rest of the process.

  2. MrBDSci

    I really enjoyed being part of the unconference and agree with your assessment that it was successful in many ways. Thank you and Chandra for all your hard work and planning, there were many great and enjoyable ideas exchanged and conversations begun. For my part, I was hoping to address what ended up being your first two objectives. (I would love to see these posted as part of the conference description in the future for everyone to be aware of) I feel that they were met on an initial level and with more conversations to come. I took part in the open session with Andy and David after the keynote. That was exactly what I was hoping to find by going to the conference was others in Rochester to have conversations with as I tend to be a bit mad scientist-like with my planning at school, researching during every free period new tech, software, creative exercises and engagement for students. I am happy to have had the opportunity to meet people and hear that others are using the classroom as an experiment for students and learning along with every student. I am lucky to have the opportunity to not be held by common core and as of this coming school year all Regents will be eliminated from our assessments. I teach at the only remaining all girls middle/high school in Rochester and on the whole we are being given freedom to engage students. Now the question is what will the faculty do with that freedom. I believe freedom for teachers is a wonderful and scary proposition. Going from the elation of “We can cover material in much more depth!!!” And quickly moving to: “How do we create learning for more than material memorization and with student centered, Bloom’s level based assessments???” This unconference idea needs to be continued and you and Chandra did a wonderful job getting this started. I have some suggestions for making more Un involved. I am in no way an expert, but would love to see collaboration with universities in Rochester and all high schools grow; both among teachers and students. My biggest ideas for more Un in Unconference is to not have presenters continuously. I felt as if the conference piece crept in over the course of the day as the sessions grew more specific, it was harder to relate and after an hour of lecture, tough to connect specifics to my classroom. I would offer that speakers(that all brought amazing ideas and research to our attention) be shortened to 30 minutes followed by smaller audience optional sessions to follow, the audience be asked at registration or upon arrival of their personal learning objective for the day and categorize their areas of strength and weakness(like the board shown in Dr. Schull’s presentation as “I need help with” and “I can help with”) Unconferences could be organized into these attendee driven categories for all to see at the beginning with time to read and be aware of possible sessions. If not joining a speaker after a session, this is when an attendee driven session would be offered. Overall, making the Unconference more like the classrooms we are working to develop.

    1. mspierceblogs Post author

      Thanks so much for reading, and for your feedback, Barry. I really like the idea of explicitly encouraging participants to state their own learning objectives, and then using a “I need help with”/ “I can help with” planner instead of a traditional session board. In retrospect, I’ve realized that our attempt to soften the change to the Un simply didn’t push us out of our sit-n-git comfort zones enough so that we facilitated more spontaneous conversations. Would you like to be involved in the next Un-event planning?

      And thanks for your kind words for me and Chan. A lot of value happened for sure, and I’m encouraged that this could be the beginnings of something really innovative and collaborative.

      1. MrBDSci

        I am in! I would enjoy being able to contribute to this fantastic endeavor. Let me know in what ways and when!

      2. mspierceblogs Post author

        Absolutely will, Barry. This organizing team is going to meet after the spring holidays to debrief. I’ll bring up the fact that several of the participants are interested in continuing to iterate on this experience – several folks have suggested we alternate event sites from K-12 facilities, public and private, to collegiate sites: might Mercy be interested in hosting an event? Allendale definitely is.

  3. Andy

    Thanks for your kind remarks on the talk / aftersession. It was definitely a draft of what that experience could be, but I don’t think it was a failure – it was a first time. It needs iteration, as most things do to become excellent.

    I’d be in favor of doing that. A lot. And if I can help facilitate that, then I want to be doing this kind of work.

    1. mspierceblogs Post author

      Thanks for reading, Andy. In each of our encounters, your commitment to “doing this kind of work” has been readily apparent. I’m looking forward to iterating on this prototype of a K-20 educational unconference: it’s clear you’re an integral part of an assembling team.


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