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Edcamps are redefining professional learning

By Kristen Swanson 12/2/2014

From Portland to Pittsburgh, Seattle to Stockholm, Abu Dhabi to Atlanta, and in hundreds of towns and cities around the globe, authentic professional learning is energizing educators. Edcamps — participatory, teacher-driven professional learning events — are multiplying on a national and international scale, creating local and global communities of passionate educators.

The first Edcamp was organized by a group of teachers who came together in Philadelphia in May 2010 for BarCamp, a computer science unconference. At BarCamp, people create discussion sessions on the day of the event based on the interests in the room. The entire day is personalized and learner driven. It’s a place where everyone is a learner and everyone is a leader.

After experiencing the passion, sharing and excitement that surrounded the event, a handful of other educators and I decided it was too good to contain. We exchanged contact information and, on Skype calls over a period of months, tweaked the design and adjusted the BarCamp concept to accommodate teachers and administrators.

The rules
The team drafted commandments using the tenets of Open Space Technology and other unconference events as our guide. According to our new rules, Edcamps would be:

Free to all attendees. This helps ensure that different types of teachers and educational stakeholders can attend.

Noncommercial and have a vendor-free presence. It is, after all, about learning, not selling.

Hosted by anyone. School districts, educational stakeholders and teams of teachers can host Edcamps.

Participant driven. Sessions are determined the morning of the event, and there are no prescheduled presentations or keynotes. The goal is to keep sessions spontaneous, interactive and responsive to everyone’s needs.

Open to anyone who wants to present. All teachers and education stakeholders are professionals worthy of sharing their expertise in a collaborative setting.

Reliant on the law of two feet. Participants are encouraged to actively self-select the best content and sessions. Edcampers should leave sessions that do not meet their needs. This provides an effective way of “weeding out” sessions that are not based on appropriate research or not delivered in an engaging format.

Humble beginnings
Operating on a shoestring budget, the organizing team begged for donations from local universities, tech companies and restaurants. Signage consisted of printed flyers and sidewalk chalk. A high school student created the logo as part of his requirements for a drafting course. Given that the team was broke, traditional advertising was not an option. Instead, we used Twitter, Facebook, word-of-mouth and blogs to lure people to the event. Surprisingly, within a few months, over 100 people had signed up to attend.

On an unseasonably cool morning in May 2010, lots of educators arrived at the Philadelphia location, collaboratively built a schedule of sessions related to their interests, and talked. And talked. And talked. Several of the sessions focused on best practices, a few shared successful lessons and others explored web 2.0 tools.

It was a positive, interactive day. Personally, I couldn’t recall another professional learning experience where I got to do so much discussing and sharing. Exhausted and elated, the organizing team met that night to debrief the experience. Almost as an afterthought, Dan Callahan suggested creating a wiki to document the experience and share it on the web.

Connecting people and good ideas
And so it began. As people who attended the first Edcamp began to share their experiences online via blogs and Twitter, interest grew. Slowly, others were sending emails and tweets asking how they could do it too. By the end of 2010, there were eight Edcamps from New York to Florida.

Just as with Edcamp Philly, educators continued to document their experiences online after the new Edcamp events. Suddenly, we reached a “tipping point,” which Malcolm Gladwell describes as the point when an event or idea reaches enough critical mass to become mainstream. Here’s how Edcamp grew:

2010: 8 events
2011: 51 events
2012: 125 events
2013: 191 events
2014: 300 events and counting

The Edcamp wikispace now has hundreds of members, and thousands of tweets have carried the #Edcamp hashtag. Some events “sell out” of free tickets and generate long waiting lists. Others focus on specific topics, such as “leadership” or “STEAM.” One Edcamp event, the Iowa Student Learning Initiative, was even organized by high school students for local educators.

In short, social media and ubiquitous networks enabled a single local event to morph into a global movement. The original organizing team never dreamed that it would explode like this. That is the power of technology in education. It’s not about the shiny production tools or neat gadgets. It’s about connecting people with purpose and finding new ways to learn. Ideas can spread quickly, efficiently and with fervor.

DIY Edcamp
It’s easy to attend an Edcamp. Just follow these three easy steps:

  1. Check out the complete calendar of Edcamp events.
  2. Find an Edcamp near you.
  3. Register. It’s free!

Love the idea and want to run an Edcamp in your school, district or region? That’s easy too! Just follow these steps:

  1. Check out these resources and blogs on running an Edcamp.
  2. Connect with an experienced Edcamp organizer.
  3. Get the support you need and run your event!

For me, attending an Edcamp reminds me that I’m part of something bigger. Education is something greater than my classroom, school or district. It’s a powerful force that can bring equity and empowerment to educators and students throughout our nation and our world.

Kristen Swanson is the founder of the Edcamp movement and co-wrote the book The Edcamp Model: Powering Up Professional Learning with Kevin Jarrett and Dan Callahan. She has worked as a teacher, administrator and curriculum writer, and she speaks internationally about instructional design in both face-to-face and online spaces. She currently works for BrightBytes to help people learn better using technology.

Photo credit:edcampPDX | Lewis Elementary School, found on flickrcc.net

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