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Volume 28, Number 5
September/October 2012

Tired of PD? Try an Edcamp


Teachers design their own conference sessions at Edcamp Keene (N.H.).

Point of ViewTeachers have long since tired of the traditionally ineffective professional development (PD) models that have been forced upon them. For most teachers, PD looks something like this: teachers show up in the morning, are told exactly what they’re going to learn that day (whether it’s relevant to their practice or not), and then sit and listen to an administrator or high-priced consultant from far away tell them all about how they need to change their teaching. These presentations are usually one-off events, without continuity across the semesters and years. All too often they have no impact on teacher practice.

Now imagine the very opposite: the teacher-led “unconference”—designed by teachers, with teachers, and for teachers. Social networking tools are, in fact, enabling classroom educators to create an entirely new template for professional learning to directly address their needs and interests. These unconferences have many names: TeachMeet started in the United Kingdom, EduCamp has been very popular in New Zealand, and EduBloggerCon (now called SocialEdCon) has been a popular kickoff to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference since 2007. The most popular and fastest-growing of these unconference formats is the Edcamp.

The core principles of Edcamp were enshrined three years ago at Edcamp Philly, the launch of a new movement in the teaching profession. Edcamps are responsive to the needs of participating teachers, free to attend, inexpensive to host, free of vendor presence, and organized around the belief that attendees each have knowledge worth sharing. In the two years since Edcamp started in Philadelphia, there have been over 150 similar free, local events for teachers to attend in cities across the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia. Dozens more are scheduled around the world for the coming year.

Every Edcamp’s focus on meeting the needs of teachers begins from the start of the event-planning process. All Edcamps have been organized by local teams of practicing educators from public, charter, and independent school settings. These teams know what issues face their local communities and work on planning a day that will help participants address them. They find a location and date for the event, and, if they choose, find sponsors that help them provide food and prizes to the participants.

Edcamp organizers spread the word about the event through traditional networks in their schools and emerging social networks on Twitter. Many Edcamps provide opportunities for networked educators across a region to meet people in a face-to-face setting whom they have met and worked with only online. Depending on the location and date, Edcamps have ranged in size from 20 to 240 participants.

The signature moment of every Edcamp is the first hour of the day, in which participants arrive to be confronted by a blank schedule board. Each day’s schedule is designed on the spot by the attendees. Over the course of the first hour, participants populate a schedule with sessions based on their interests, passions, and questions. Those who volunteer to facilitate are strongly encouraged to make their sessions interactive, either through hands-on learning or participant discussion. These practices provide a stark contrast to sessions at traditional conferences, which are often stand-and-deliver presentations. Those sessions are often proposed as much as a year before the actual event, which means that they may not incorporate new information and tools. The first Edcamp Philly had a session on using iPads in education just one month after the release of the original iPad.

The focus on learning at an Edcamp continues throughout the day thanks to the flexible schedule, which shifts and adapts according to the Rule of Two Feet. In most school-based PD, teachers have to sit through a day of presentations regardless of whether it is relevant to their needs. By contrast, the Rule of Two Feet states that any time learners aren’t maximizing their learning, they should get up on their two feet—and move. At Edcamp, people are actively encouraged to move between sessions or even in the middle of one in order to make the most of their time and experience. This might also lead to a “hallway session” in which participants end up in an unscheduled discussion.
So what kinds of things do teachers want to share and learn about at Edcamps? Based on the schedule devised for the third annual Edcamp Philly, it should be no surprise that technology use is a major topic of conversation. Philly teachers discussed iPads, Skype, Twitter, Google Hangouts, Web 2.0 tools, WordPress, QR codes, and Google Apps. Students at the most recent Edcamp Philly discussed their use of Minecraft and Augmented Reality Gaming in the classroom. Not every Edcamp session is about technology, though. Sessions were also held on school reform, student-centered learning, STEM, questioning techniques, assessment, teacher productivity, gifted students, senior class research projects, standards-based grading, and teaching sixth graders quantum physics with dance. Most importantly, sessions met the needs and interests of the professional educators assembled in that place on that day.

The Edcamp community is open and welcoming to new attendees and first time hosts. The Edcamp wiki has the most up-to-date schedule of upcoming events as well as information about how to create your own Edcamp. The recently established Edcamp Foundation exists to share information, assist with logistics, and help with fundraising for local events. Models are also emerging from places like Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts and Regional School District 6 in Connecticut to incorporate Edcamp formats into school and district PD calendars.

In an era of standardization, test preparation, and a narrowing of the curriculum and the purpose of education, the Edcamp movement offers a space for teacher creativity and innovation. In a time when the public narrative about teaching is dominated by portrayals of “lazy teachers” and “greedy unions,” Edcamps provide a counter narrative of committed professionals using their own time and resources to advance their own learning. At a moment when teacher job satisfaction is precipitously waning, Edcamps are proving to be an invigorating and rejuvenating space for teachers to pursue their own professional learning. In the future, perhaps more PD opportunities will be called “inspiring,” the word a first-time participant used to describe Edcamp Connecticut when thanking the organizers for “providing an engaging arena for like-minded educators to share, reflect, and collaborate.”
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Justin Reich is the founder of EdTechResearcher, a professional learning consultancy, and he blogs for Education Week at EdTechTeacher. Dan Callahan is chairman of the Edcamp Foundation and a K–5 instructional technology specialist for the Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts. 

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