O n Saturday, 30 May 2020, I organized my first 🌍🌎🌏 global virtual education unconference. It exceeded my wildest expectations as 30 participants joined from Johannesburg, Mauritius, Accra, Nairobi, Mochudi (Botswana), Medellín, London, Hong Kong, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston and DC. But don’t just take my word for it:
One participant during the debrief: Saturdays are inherently valuable. It’s so beautiful to see everyone investing this kind of time. Cross pollinating journeys. Collectively learning. Building insight together. Deep gratitude for the space 🙏.
Of the various events and conferences that I had attended online since COVID, there were ones that either skewed toward connecting with each other or toward learning from panelists and presenters (the ‘sage on the stage’ model of events and education ). But none that I had experienced did both well AND allowed participants to deeply engage and learn from each other.
I was craving a space to push forward my ideas and thinking, and since it didn’t exist, the entrepreneur and community builder in me figured why don’t I just create one myself. Will others want to join?
So, about a month ago, I emailed some of my favorite people who (had) worked in education across a range of capacities whose experiences, views and perspectives I respected. They seemed game for an unconference and (thankfully, like good early adopters) were quite willing to trust me without the full details. After getting folks to fill out a Google Form with availabilities, I picked a date based on the time most people were available, sent around an initial agenda, and we were off to the races!
Creating Spaces For Dialogue and Learning
People working in education already have a certain mindset around impact, but nonetheless creating spaces to have deep dialogue is still requires priming and norming. From the outset, during introductions I chose to have people share not their titles, but two superpowers and which value they most aligned with (borrowed from Transcend Education: diverse voices, long-term, love, perpetual beta, play big, results for kids). People commented that this immediately set the tone for authentic conversations and listening rather than focusing on what organizations or roles people represent.
It helps to enable people to warm up just as you would before a basketball game or a HIIT workout session and get in the right mindspace for ideating, sharing and building together. So in addition to introductions for building community, I primed people with:
- Reading: one powerful piece (~10 pages) that I asked every participant to read ahead of time (and still think is worth reading for ANYONE interested in education more generally, but especially those who have worked in it so they can compare against their experiences)
- Reflection: a question that I asked participants to think about before the unconference was the most transformational learning experience which they had designed, facilitated, observed and/or experienced. After introductions, I broke everyone into small groups (any Zoom group beyond 4 or 5 makes it REALLY hard to delve deeply into topics and give everyone room to share) so they could go deep on sharing examples and discussing underlying consistent principles that make them so. We brought everyone back afterward for a quick debrief before then diving into the ‘sessions’ of the unconference.
Creating An Agenda Based On Participant Goals
Normally in an offline unconference, participants would offer sessions on the day of, and participants would choose which to attend. I balanced this design feature with the desire to ensure powerful experiences during each concurrent session while running this unconference online.
As I reviewed the topics people had shared that they wanted to explore, I saw alignment between them and the questions I had generated from weeks of 1-on-1 converstaions. I found this similar to the startup concept of customer validation: designing the solution based on what problems people face rather than what solutions they (think that they) want. Thus, the questions that I felt were thought-provoking and would allow for deep engagement and dialogue and that became the core topics of the sessions:
- What are the skills we aim to develop, and how do they connect to each other? A chance to dive deeper from the main session into transformational learning experiences: what makes them so and are there consistent principles? How might we explore what it means to create online-first transformational learning experiences?
- How do we define principles of an education system that can evolve and adapt great ideas? Are there incentives or mechanisms we can use besides profit motive to enable this? Or otherwise how can we shift equilibrium and get education to work like a value chain?
- COVID — how might the world look 3 months, 3 years, 30 years from now, and what are the key levers that we should prioritize inside and outside the system to transform it the way we want? What should we keep? Get rid of?
- How do ideas go viral in education? Which ones have failed to do so and why? More broadly, how did the education system develop into what it is now? What are the functions education / school plays or should play? What works? What doesn’t? What are lessons from ideas that have gone viral outside of education?
Creating (Enough) Structure While Staying Flexible
From the participants, I identified ones who were really excited about specific questions and who I trusted as facilitators to help lead each session. Each facilitator (thank you again for agreeing to help!) brought a different approach, including one who designed a session to work asynchronously / without him — which itself was a meta experience for participants to engage with a new mode of digital learning. He used Google Slides that included space for people to design their ideas andLoom recorded video messages / instructions to provoke insights and guide people through a structured design process for digitizing transformational learning experiences. From this experience, we coined the term Minimum Viable Curriculum (MVC), which is important for designing powerful curriculum and transforming learning at scale given cost and access constraints.
During the week leading up to the unconference, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in what seemed undeniably a wrong act AND a representation of the chilling, persistent, deep and systemic challenges black lives face in the US. Thankfully, one of my facilitators raised this with me just before the unconference started, and we were able to adjust the conference on the fly to add an unplanned session to enable people to have safe space for dialogue. In fact, a participant raised this beautiful concept of brave vs. safe space during the unconference debrief which she applied overall to the entire experience:
Creating and Facilitating On The Fly
It was a blast for me to flex one of my superpowers — bringing together and building powerful communities. I’m proud to say that I think I managed to strike the right balance between structure and unstructured, and was very fortunate and found strong facilitators and topic questions.
We also finished on time (5 hours) which is amazing for a first run / first thing I’ve done like this in a while. This meant roughly following the schedule (again, great testament to the importance of initial time estimation skills, another important skill for educators and event organizers) but also making adjustments on the fly as a facilitator.
It was also a stretch in terms of overall project managing, allocating people to rooms, lead facilitating overall and facilitating 2 break out rooms within the larger session. It was tough to both a) listen intently, connect the dots of ideas, and facilitate the flow of the overall unconference and b) run sessions within the unconference and cover all the logistics.
I’m looking for a running partner to support on logistics for the next one if anyone’s interested, leave a comment below or DM me on Twitter (davidthefu).
Conclusion: Key Takeaways
It was such an honor to earn the trust of 29 other educationalists and kickstart this Meta Ed community by organizing 🌍🌎🌏 Virtual Education Unconference vol. 1.
Doing so required:
- curating participants,
- determing what they were excited to explore,
- priming them with pre-reads and questions,
- standardizing yet humanizing introductions (without titles)
- striking the right balance between structure and flexibility through design,
- partnering with and empowering facilitators to lead sessions on topics they cared deeply about and therefore thoughtfully designed,
- facilitating at a micro and macro level and making on-the-fly adjustments,
- a Google Doc to share/update the agenda and participant list and for session sign ups during the unconference,
- a Milanote Board for whiteboarding, ideating, note-taking, dot-connecting that left some amazing artifacts for the future
I’m thrilled that people surfaced and shared their best ideas, connected with new collaborators and and walked away inspired with ideas to apply in their work. Beyond the testimonials and quotes shared above, participants also said they left restored especially after the tough week that it was in the US.
Vol. 2 coming soon — tentatively scheduled for Thursday, 2 July 2020. Again, if anyone’s interested in joining, leave a comment in the Google Doc with your bio under the participant list — and include any questions that are top of mind and you’d want to explore in a community and experience like this!