Posted on by Brooke

The "Unconference"

Many of my readers will already be familiar with the "Unconference" model of the professional conference, especially through its use at THATCamps. Those who aren't familiar with THATCamp or the "unconference" can get a quick history in Episode 2 of the Gradhacker Podcast. Briefly, an "unconference" is an academic conference for which the sessions and agendas are, for the most part, established collaboratively on-site, at the outset of the conference.

I've been to one THATCamp, and was deeply impressed by how well the on-site collaborative planning went. The veteran supporters clearly had a lot of experience, and used that experience to empower newcomers to fully participate efficiently and successfully in the session planning. I wound up taking some notes on what made it work well.

  • Canvassing for provisional ideas before the event: in the days and weeks before the unconference, attendees can write tentative proposals into a comment section on the THATCamp's blog.
  • An intentional eye on "splitting and lumping": watching for opportunities to split a compound idea into separate sessions and to lump similar or related ideas into single sessions.
  • Fixed "Bootcamps": an anchor set of planned sessions, showing enough variety that many tentative proposals can be hooked into the Bootcamps rather than require a session of their own.
  • Asking attendees what sessions should not be held concurrently. Attendees loved this.

So, this got me thinking about what else I could "Un." This Spring, I took a shot at "un-ning" my Moodle training sessions for faculty and Ph.D. students.

The "Untraining"

Most of our faculty and Ph.D. students have had "basic training" and some experience with our Moodle learning management system, which we have used only since Summer 2011. I wanted to continue to offer "Moodle for Users" advanced training, but since this is an entirely optional training, I have to make it attractive to a lot of really busy academics who have other, more immediate, demands on their time.

So, I set it up as an Untraining, using the strategies listed above. I would canvass for ideas ahead of time, encourage splitting and lumping, and offer one or two fixed concepts to be taught. (At this time, I am the sole facilitator, so concurrent sessions is not an issue…though I'd love attendance to rise until it becomes an issue.)

Attendance was small, largely for institutional reasons; for example, many faculty tend to arrange their schedules to come onto campus for packed, marathon TWRs, while working from home on MF. And a lot of our Ph.D.'s commute a good ways. Nontheless, participants responded positively to the "Untraining" aspects of the advanced training, and remarked that they were relieved to find the session worth their while.

In 2012-13, I will look for ways to make attendance easier, and to fully "market" the advantages of the Untraining model in my invitations.

Have you "un-ned" anything besides a conference? What might you "un," and what sorts of challenges or promise do you think it has?

["Untraining" was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2012/06/14. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]