DAILY INSIGHT: Our first "unconference"

By Leigh Graves Wolf, CIO Advisor

In my previous post I discussed the idea of the "unconference." I would like to expand upon that idea, while still remaining in the realm of teacher professional development.

While our Master of Arts in Educational Technology program has worked very hard over the past few years to align our curriculum across delivery formats, there are inevitably going to be inherent differences between taking courses in an online, hybrid, or face-to-face format. Our professional development experience is rooted in the TPACK model. Our students (who are primarily K-12 teachers or administrators) range from tech newbies to super users. As a faculty, we were brainstorming ways to make sure all of our students walked away with meaningful experiences and I suggested experimenting with BarCamp (aka an unconference.) Just like Google engineers get 20% time to explore their passions and special projects, what would happen if our students were allotted a certain amount of "free time" to explore their passions outside of the set curriculum? (In our case 6 hours out of the 130 required contact hours.) There was quite a bit of confusion during our very first "unclass" in the summer of 2008 – after a week and a half of intense, structured, “edtech-ing,” to be let loose to explore and work on something without direction or scaffolding was quite a foreign and disorienting experience. I absolutely loved the chaos (from an instructor and mentor perspective.) One thing we always have to work hard to do when students come to our program is to school them out of asking “What do you (my teacher) want me to do?” We’re fighting against decades of schooling in a certain way where a teacher asks you a question and there is one right answer. Teaching with technology takes creativity, finesse, patience, ingenuity, skill, flexibility and quick thinking. We try very hard as a program to provide opportunities to allow our students to fail and succeed in this environment so they can work on each of these qualities and go back to their own classrooms armed with a mental model to foster similar situations and dilemmas. It has been truly exciting to watch this concept evolve in practice and to see our students make meaning and engage in serious self and peer learning experiences. If you are in charge of professional development, do you allow participants "unclass" time? What successes (or failures) have you experienced?

Leigh Graves Wolf is the co-director of the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University.