Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An unconference runs on love - The Great Lakes THAT Camp

I’m not the type of person to live-tweet bon mots during conferences and other get-togethers . I need the time to ruminate my experiences. It’s been over 72 hours since the end of The Great Lakes THAT Camp and it’s only now that the impact of what just happened has hit me with full force.

This was my first unconference I’ve attended and I tried to pay special attention to how the event was set up because I’ll be organizing my first unconference in a little more than a month. And I have to say that this experience with the format has only confirmed how powerful such an event can be.

I think a large part of this power came from the fact that a THAT Camp is an embodiment of gift-culture. Attendance is voluntary. The registration fee is voluntary. Your session attendance is voluntary. Your contribution to the conversation is voluntary. Consequently, every exchange and every conversation feels like a gift. Furthermore, when I arrived at the Great Lakes THAT Camp, I felt I was showered with gifts: a t-shirt, personalized QR codes, stickers, papercraft, lunch tickets, and the all-important drink ticket. The internet runs on love. So does an unconference.

Here are some of the design decision I noticed that I think help make the event such a success.

First, by asking individuals to tell about themselves and to write a session description before they attended, campers were given an opportunity to start the process of getting to know each other and to start to see connections between their work and their interests with those of other people. If you look through the profiles of the Great Lake campers, you can see some of the common threads: oral history, maps museums, text mining, archaeology, games libraries, and educational technology.

Future campers beware! There is an inherent desire for participants to ask for broad-based sessions and even streams of sessions around such threads. At least, there were such desires at the Great Lakes THAT camp. But if you can, resist this temptation. It’s not that these broad-termed sessions were poor - far from it. But I make the recommendation based on my personal observation that, as counter-intuitive as it seems, narrow topics tended to bring out wide themes while broad themed discussions forced participants to address a series of narrow ideas. My gut feeling is this is because there broader topics are too closely aligned with allegiances of scholarly disciplines. A session on “educational technology” will tend to fill a room with people who teach.

One of my favourite sessions was one dedicated to “material culture.” Stated as such, it brought together museum folk, archaeologists, historians, teachers, and librarians, among others and this mixture fermented a heady brew of ideas. And if you ever find yourself in such a room with so many different experiences and points of view at the table, try to take advantage of it and ask the room a really hard question like, “How would you digitize a steam engine?”

Understand that there’s a bait and switch going on. You are asked to submit a session and describe yourself and your work, but at a THAT Camp you are expected to use that work as a starting point for discussion. To curb constant self-promotion in conversations, an outlet is provided to allow campers to concentrate on conversation and collaboration: the unfortunately named, Dork Shorts. At Great Lakes THAT Camp, these 2 minute elevator pitches were held at the end of the two day event but I’ve heard that at other camps, they are held earlier on in the schedule.

Another unconference design feature that I thought well of was the “Room of Requirement”. It was a room were you could sit down with your own thoughts or a place where you could converse with others outside of the formal informal conversations being taken place elsewhere. Every conference should have such a space.

I also appreciated that this THAT Camp (I love saying “this THAT Camp”) opted not to post a live “twitterfall” of ongoing tweets inside of each discussion room. Erik Marshall told us that his experience has been that such a set up tended to continually distract the speaker. But that being said I found that having access to a live Twitter feed was invaluable. Those campers who were live-tweeting the event informed others on what subjects were being spoken to in real time. So, when I learned that a conversation about coffee shops and libraries was gearing up in the room next door, (while the conversation in the my room as gearing down) I exercised the law of two feet.

Today I learned that there is to be a Toronto THAT Camp but it’s restricted to only members of the University of Toronto “community.” I find this very disappointing and I hope they reconsider their decision because it seems to be not not in the spirit of a gift culture. And I hope they do it for their own sake because otherwise they are going to deny themselves joy.


Jon Voss said...

Great post Mita. Speaking of gift culture, it was truly a gift to be able to spend a little bit of time with you in a few sessions last weekend. I deeply appreciated your contributions and insights, which are many, as evidenced by your writing.

I like how the Law of Two Feet is addressed here: Bumblebees and butterflies. It's a good idea and one that was fostered in the GL THATCamp for sure.

I'll look forward to your insights and experience to see how you might do things with your own unconference!

Thanks again, Jon

emarsh said...

Thanks for the shout. It was nice to meet you and engage with you in so many of the sessions. I had an observation about the techie connectedness of this event: you know how in regular conferences there is usually applause at the end of each session? I felt like the sound of closing laptops at the end of each unsession was a fitting replacement for that.


Mita said...

Thanks for the kind words.

My one regret with the post is that I didn't use the opportunity properly thank Ethan and the other co-organizers again for their sweat and toil which (along with love) made the weekend such a great event.