Intersection of threaded discussions and live events: the Un-conference


It must have been the 1970s when the makers of 7-Up launched a campaign to brand the product as different from all of the popular, caramel-colored beverages of the day. They called theirs, “the Un-Cola.”. This blog entry talks about the Un-conference.

Professional academic conferences are formal learning events. A subject matter expert (SME) curates a set amount of information on a topic, and tries to relate that information to an audience for somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes without causing “death by powerpoint.”. Now, this is a traditional way of trying to convey contemporary information in the field of study to a group of folks who are most interested in being kept up to date (and network and party and hopefully lock in that post-doctoral fellowship or next consulting gig). Conference organizers do their level best to screen the presenters’ proposals for topics that will be relevant to thier peer constituency, and presenters do thier level best to inject humor, engaging A/V, and coached voices to keep the snoring to a minimum. In truth, most presenters I’ve seen go to extraordinary lengths to engage their audiences with interactivity, dialog, and whatever device the forum and venue permit.

Yet, we know – through replicated research – that formal learning events such as these (along with ILT and eLearning instances) provide only about 10% of what people need to know to do their jobs well. Also factor in the statistic that adult learners retain, on average, only 13% of what they’ve learned just 2 weeks after the formal event, and we’re providing less than 2% of what people need to know using formal learning devices like conference presentations. So why do we continue to do this?

Well, “it’s the way we’ve always done it,” is one answer; it’s the standard, default method of constructing a professional education program. Both presenters and participants have come to expect this paradigm when attending such events. Most of us have probably observed the difficulty which some presenters have faced when trying to break that undeclared format when they try to engage audiences in more than cursory participation. So, we all buy into the program.

Is there any hope for change? Gratefully, yes.

The TED conferences lean into a different paradigm. Shorter formats, sharing one or two ideas about which the presenter is passionate and knowledgeable, to an audience of peers, who take their turns at presenting as well. Truthfully, some TED conferences are starting to look a lot like traditional events; but the soul of TED is much less formal. Add to that, the phenomenon that the overwhelming portion of “participants” in a TED conference are those who view the videos on-line, in a flexible and timely manner. That dynamic is way informal.

Yet another format is the Un-conference. I am sorry to say that I do not recall when I first heard of this idea, so I cannot properly attribute credit; but it’s brilliant. Participants sign up for brief slots on the agenda – typically 15-20 minutes – and “present” a concept for 5 minutes or so, then facilitate a discussion among the other participants for the remaining time. The topic might be a recently-read article, book, or blog; some new method one is wanting to try out on a small group; a question, problem, or issue that one is facing at work and would like to get some ideas on how to address it. This highly-interactive forum promotes learning by engaging participants minds through questions, problem solving, and visceral engagement. Totally informal.

So, when will you plan your first (or next) Un-conference?

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