What is this EdCamp thing anyway?

A few weeks ago my VP, Lino Degasperis, told me about an upcoming professional development (PD) event called EdCamp. It was to take place here in Ottawa, on a Saturday, free of charge. I had never heard of an EdCamp before, but I have since learned that the first one was hosted in Philadelphia in 2010 and their popularity is on the rise! I signed up, figuring it was bound to be a good event as it was being run, in part, by Erin Paynter who I’ve followed on Twitter for some time now and she posts great stuff that I like & use.

According to my pre-camp research, EdCamps are “un-conferences” designed for teachers by teachers. But that doesn’t quite tell the tale nor is it perfectly accurate.

My EdCampOttawa Experience:

First thing’s first: EdCamp is on a Saturday (or at least this one was) so the people attending are so engaged & interested in education that they’ve given up a precious day from their weekend to attend! That says something. It’s also free to attend (thanks to generous sponsors) so it’s accessible to anyone & everyone.

The schedule wall:

Upon arrival at Bell High School I signed in and got my name tag (which already had my twitter handle on it), some free goodies from the various sponsors (thank-you Evernote,  Starbucks, etc!), and settled in for the welcome speech from the organisers. Then it was time to decide what sessions to attend, and here is where EdCamps are truly different from your regular PD days & conferences for teachers. Usually a conference or PD Day has all their presenters lined up in advance, a schedule is handed out to participants & you attend sessions you’re interested in either on a first-come-first-served basis or by pre-registering for each workshop. EdCamp, however, is a very organic PD opportunity in that the schedule is blank until the participants arrive:

EdCampOttawa Schedule - before

Here is the EdCampOttawa schedule before any participants arrived.
Source: twitter.com/edcampottawa

As people arrive on the day, they stick up post-it notes of sessions that they might like to run because they have experience with that topic or of sessions they would like someone else to run (hoping that someone else attending has the expertise and will teach them). The post-its get placed in the various slots according to available session time & rooms:

EdCampOttawa Schedule - After

Here the schedule is filling up with sessions participants are not only interested but have generated the ideas for themselves.
Source: twitter.com/jbrigz & twitter.com/erinpaynter

Post-it notes get moved around and grouped & re-grouped according to themes throughout the day. Participants and presenters are one and the same! The EdCamp organisers used the phrase “let your feet do the talking”; at any time if a session you’re attending is not what you thought it would be or starts to veer away from what you need, you are welcome to leave that room & check out another!

On a side-note, that schedule also happens to look great with all the funky coloured post-it notes! A work of art unto itself.

So what did this wind up looking like throughout the day for me?

Different roles – different perspectives:

My 1st session was a discussion on the issue of “teaching the curriculum VS teaching the students what they need”. What struck me immediately was the variety of people in the room! We had VPs, teachers, student-teachers, tech consultants from the board and a high-school student. How awesome is that? Usually when I attend PD I meet teachers, sometimes I’ll meet admin members & consultants, but rarely are student-teachers and students in attendance themselves. What a rich conversation to be had with all these different perspectives on hand! There was no formal presentation; we each introduced ourselves, gave our opinions on the topic and asked probing questions of each other. Excellent discussions & ideas ensued.

No “sage on the stage”:

Next up I attended a session on Evernote. I walked in a bit late (which is OK at EdCamp because often the conversations you have with people in the hallways are equally as informative & engaging as the sessions) and sat down amidst a bunch of people working on laptops and iPads with this software/app that I have been hearing lots about lately. It became clear that nobody in the room had declared themselves as the formal leader; the topic had been put on the schedule board by a participant wanting to learn more about it. A little chatting revealed a few people in the room that had some or much experience with Evernote that they could share, others explained how they’d heard of colleagues using it, and most of us used the time to listen & get our hands dirty trying the program out on the spot!

Evernote Session

Various participants offered up their experience with Evernote & showed us how they use it on the projector. No “sage on the stage” here – everyone participates.
Source: Erin Paynter

A neat thing that happens, too, because no presenter is set on finishing a prepared workshop, conversations shift along the way. During the Evernote session, the topic of IdeaPaint came up and Richard Swandel told us about how he covered tables in the library at his school with IdeaPaint to create whiteboard surfaces on the tables, allowing students to draw, collaborate and problem-solve right on the tabletop itself! Others shared ways that showerboard can be used as mini portable white boards. And then via the back-channel on Twitter I heard that Rust-Oleum has a dry-erase paint available widely too! All in a session that had nothing to do with white boards!

The back-channel:

Speaking of the back-channel, it is so important for a conference or event to have a hashtag these days; one that is unique to the conference and clearly visible so that all attendees use the same one. I was able to follow the cool ideas being brought forward in sessions I wasn’t even attending by tracking the #EdCampOttawa hashtag on Twitter. In fact, folks that couldn’t make it out to the event were following it from home, out of town, or wherever they were in the world that day!

There were so many great topics being explored and I got something out of every session I attended through-out the day as well as great interactions and ideas popping up in conversations in the hallways and over break & lunch times.

The day finished off with a “smackdown”; a chance for everyone to share resources that they heard about throughout the day, putting them all into a google doc available to everyone. Oh and door prizes too; I won a 3-month premium subscription to Evernote! Who doesn’t love swag?

PD 2.0

This past year I’ve worked on forming a great PLN for myself on Twitter with educators from all over. I’ve offered a few workshops to get colleagues started using Twitter so that they can take control of their own PD as well. EdCamp strikes me as they same idea: teachers and interested parties taking control of their PD by seeking out & generating sessions in which they truly want to participate! No need to wait for your school or board’s PD days or conferences; EdCamp is one more way for me to connect with great teachers I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet and learn from.

A huge thank-you to the organisers of EdCampOttawa 2012. I’ll be back next time! To find an upcoming EdCamp near you check here!

A great article about EdCamps from the Harvard Education Letter: http://www.hepg.org/hel/article/549#home

Have you attended an EdCamp? Leave your thoughts about it in the comments below.

Update: EdCamp Ottawa 2014: http://edcampottawa.weebly.com

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)