How to Keynote an Unconference

A while back, I had the privilege of being the keynote speaker at the NERCOMP LMS Unconference. I had never attended an unconference before, nevermind keynoting one, and I found the prospect to be fascinating and exciting. And nerve-wracking. On the surface, a keynote appears to be the antithesis of the unconference spirit. I needed to do something different than the usual fare in order to make it work. I needed to do an unkeynote. And yet, Stephen Downes had warned me that he, Brian Lamb, and D’Arcy Norman had tried giving an unkeynote before and, in his words, “They almost lynched us. They were not happy to receive an unkeynote.” (D’Arcy’s post-mortem of their effort is definitely worthwhile reading.) So, what to do?

The approach I tried seemed to work, judging by the feedback I got from the attendees and, to a lesser degree, by the influence of the presentation that I was able to observe on the rest of the unconference. I had intended to blog about the experience a while ago but it fell off my to-do list. However, prompted by the good folks of the NERCOMP LMS SIG, I am now returning to the topic.

A Word About Unconferences

Let me start with my own observations about the role of the unconference in the wider world of conferences. For those who aren’t familiar with the idea, unconferences don’t have set agendas with pre-defined speakers. Instead, people come with ideas of topics that they want to discuss, the group votes on which topics people want to talk about, and the people who post the topics lead the discussion. At the NERCOMP event, people wrote their ideas for topics on index cards and posted them on a wall. The participants then put stickers on the cards that interested them the most. The top four or five topics became breakout sessions.

Some folks are attracted to the unconference format because they are allergic to the “sage on the stage” syndrome and have a commitment to democratize the conversation. That’s not such a big driver for me. I find that the traditional conference format can be very useful sometimes. For example, in a truly academic conference, where people are presenting their research, I often don’t have a whole lot to say. I want to hear about the research. Yes, we could “flip” the conference by having me read the paper beforehand and spend the entire session in discussion, but that has a number of disadvantages for me. First, I often don’t have time to read the paper beforehand. The presentation helps me decide if I want to invest that time in getting the details by reading it afterward. Second, I’m the kind of learner who absorbs more by hearing it than by reading it. And third, I like to be able to ask questions while I am absorbing the material and it is fresh in my mind. So I appreciate the traditional conference format when the content is truly new to me and the speakers know a lot more than I do.

That said, a lot of conferences aren’t primarily about presenting original research. Instead, they are about presenting what people have learned in the course of doing their work, which may be research but often is just best practices or lessons learned. These conferences are highly vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns for participants. The first year, the event is great and you learn a lot. The second year, you start seeing some repeats. By the third year, it all starts to seem like the same conference over and over again. The only people who learn are the inexperienced ones. The sessions do very little to advance the state of the art. Whenever you observe this kind of phenomenon, you probably have a good candidate for an unconference.

In an unconference, you get to harness the collective knowledge of the participants. If there’s a thorny problem that nobody has quite solved but that a lot of smart folks in the room have tricks for dealing with or thoughts about potential approaches, then having a discussion-focused brainstorming session is much more productive than having one presenter talk about one sliver of the expertise in the room that can be brought to bear on the problem. Also, if there is some collective action that can be taken to further research the problem or develop a solution afterward, then conversation may reveal potential coalitions for taking action. At the same time, because the sessions are democratic in nature, they seek their own level. For example, I ended up moderating a session at the NERCOMP event on the pros and cons of open source. But because there was only one other person in the group who had experience with open source, the session turned out to be more me answering questions and giving guidelines, so closer to a traditional presentation (although still very audience-driven in the sense that my presentation was 100% focused on questions asked in the moment).

The point I’m trying to make is that we get a lot of insight into what unconferences are good for when we think about them in pedagogical rather than ideological terms. I used the same lens when thinking about how a good unkeynote should work.

Priming the Pump

You have a certain advantage in an unconference that you often don’t have in classes in that the participants are attracted to the event specifically because it is participation-focused. Even so, you still face some form of the tyranny of the blank sheet of paper. Getting started can be hard. So the point of an unkeynote should be to prime the conversational pump. We want to generate a surfeit of potential topics so that the group can immediately begin the work of identifying the best ones and focusing on them.

If the point of an unconference is to generate productive, self-directed educational group work, then we are dealing with a pretty familiar pedagogical problem. In fact, it’s ubiquitous in any sort of creative work. And usually the solution to the problem involves two ingredients: stimulation and time to think. Creative writers go through exercises that are not necessarily focused on writing the story or novel or poem that they want to create but rather on generating ideas and opening up creativity. For example, Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way contains lots of exercises like this one:

Collage: Collect a stack of at least ten magazines, which you will allow yourself to freely dismember. Setting a twenty-minute time limit for yourself, tear (literally) through the magazines, collecting any images that reflect your life or interests. Think of this collage as a form of pictorial autobiography. Include your past, present, future, and your dreams. It is okey to include images you simply like. Keep pulling until you have a good stack of images (at least twenty). Now take a sheet of newspaper, a stapler, or some tape or glue, and arrange your images in a way that pleases you. (This is one of my students’ favorite exercises.)

Notice that the task here involves no writing. This is about preparing to write. It is about harnessing both the conscious and unconscious mind to look for patterns and, more generally, to engage with something.

But the technique is not just important for the disciplines that are traditionally seen as creative. When I taught eighth grade science, I used a great curriculum out of the University of Hawaii called Foundational Approaches in Science Teaching (FAST). On the first day of class, I showed the kids a giant graduated cylinder. It was filled with two liquids of different colors, one of which was clearly heavier than the other because it sank to the bottom. Also within the cylinder were three vials filled with varying amounts of green liquid. The vial that was completely full floated at the top of the cylinder. The vial that was two-thirds full sank to the bottom. And the vial that was one-third full floated at the interface between the heavier and the lighter liquid in the cylinder. I would show them this and ask them, “Can you explain this?”

Rather than having them talk about it immediately, I had them write their ideas down and think about them. Then we discussed it. That session kicked off a series of experiments at the end of which the kids would tell me what buoyancy is and how to calculate it. The experiments were defined in the curriculum, but often the kids came up with ideas of their own that they wanted to test. I usually let them do that as long as it wasn’t dangerous. That, after all, is science. There was no textbook per se in the FAST curriculum. Students had no Source of Truth from which they read answers. However, it was very important for them to have experiments that were structured as generative touch points that pushed them to think about the problem from new angles. The point is, we need stimulation and time to think if we’re going to be creatively engaged.

That’s what an unkeynote should do. Rather than trying to push people into immediately taking charge of the conversation, I wanted to stimulate them to think of things that really excited them to talk about. Then all I would need to do, as one of my mentor teachers once put it to me, is get out of the way and let them learn. I wanted to do the equivalent of presenting that giant graduated cylinder. I wanted to find the participants’ zone of proximal curiosity. These folks came to talk about LMSs, starting with their experiences and their problems. I wanted to get them to reflect on those experiences and problems in fresh ways. So I gave a talk that didn’t demand immediate group participation, but it was all questions. I gave no answers. I wanted to start with some of the concerns that may have already been on their minds walking in the door and take them just a few steps further. “OK, you’ve all wasted months of your lives wrestling with bad LMS grade books, regardless of the particular brand of LMS you have. Why are LMS grade books all so bad? Are we trying to solve the wrong problem with them?” Or “Many of you have done LMS tool usage surveys and, regardless of which LMS you use, the usage patterns look roughly the same. Lots of use of announcements, file sharing and grade book. Some use of discussion boards and test engine. Everything else falls off the cliff. Why is that, and what does it tell us about what we need from an LMS?” These questions functioned similarly to the assignment bank in DS106: “Here are some ideas for discussion. If they don’t excite you, then find something that does. Maybe just looking at the list will give you inspiration for a better idea.”

My impression is that the approach worked (although I welcome unconference participants to comment with their own perspectives here). But the larger point is that, no matter how strong our commitment is to empowering people to participate (whether at a conference or in class), it’s important to focus on their learning process rather than on the instructor’s position in it. The question of “guide on the side” versus “sage on the stage” still makes the conversation all about the teacher rather than the learner. Sometimes it’s OK to be the “guide on the stage” if that helps the students/participants through the cognitive and creative processes that we call “learning.”

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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7 Responses to How to Keynote an Unconference

  1. EzraSF says:

    At our annual computing conference do several Birds of a Feather sessions. There will be a moderator. The general topic will be defined. Attendees to the session really discuss the topic with the moderator there to ask clarification or stop monologues. The BoF sessions are really popular.

    The ones for my project are invaluable for appreciating perspectives of the clients. Plus every once in a while, I am able to answer why something is the way that it is.

  2. Pingback: How to Keynote an Unconference | supercindy01

  3. Phil Hill says:

    Good post, and I like the lesson that unkeynotes don’t work at unconferences.

    More importantly, you’ve got into my zone of proximal curiosity, Archimedes. Care to explain the buoyancy problem in a pithy, memorable way?

  4. The trick is that the liquids in the different vials are different liquids dyed with the same food coloring. Once you realize that buoyancy is related to density, you have to conclude that the liquids in the vials must have different densities. Then the trick is to figure out the density of the liquid in each vial and therefore what each liquid might be….

  5. Phil Hill says:

    Thanks. I’m not sure if I’m happy to learn that I do remember Archimedes’ Principle, or depressed for not figuring out what your 8th graders knew :}

  6. Pingback: LMS unSIG News – Mark your calendar! 2013 Event

  7. norbert boruett says:

    A kin to problem solving- and makes teaching more interactive

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