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The future of learning: Un-learning

One quote that really struck me as I was transcribing my interview with Rhea Blanken last week was “That blank room is my canvas, and I can paint anything I want with it.” What if that blank room was your attendees’ canvas, and they could paint anything they wanted with it? One way to do that is to hold an unconference.

Michele Martin is a learning expert, as well as the author of the excellent Bamboo Project blog. She recently organized an unconference (using a format called Open Space) and was kind enough to speak with me about the experience.

What led up to the decision to use the open-space format for this particular conference?

This is part of a larger project that I’m doing with the Department of Human Services for the State of New Jersey. They had done what they’re calling the Discoverability New Jersey Plan for looking at how they’re helping individuals with disabilities find and keep employment.

I had done an open-space forum in December for some youth services practitioners in Pennsylvania, so I suggested that we think about doing something along those lines, to engage people in more of a problem-solving, best-practice-sharing kind of conversation, as opposed to the typical conference where you have people doing presentations.

How well did the open-space format work for the goals that they had for the conference?

It worked extremely well. We got great feedback.

The goals were to bring people together to have conversations and start talking about different ideas. For example, we had a session that was on myths and challenges—stories that people are telling themselves. So a group talked about what the general public thinks about people with disabilities, another group talked about what people with disabilities themselves think, parents and families and so forth.

It’s getting different perspectives and then [asking], how can you address some of those issues?

Several attendees had disabilities themselves. How did you make sure there were no barriers to their participation?

Some people had physical disabilities. We had to give a little extra time to make sure that they could get to the room [for each session] and also think about what rooms we were using and how accessible they were.

Some people had visual disabilities: Some people were completely blind, other people were partially blind. Obviously, since we were having conversations, they could participate in that, but we also had to make sure that we were always summarizing things, rather than just relying on flipcharts.

We are also putting stuff on a wiki. We’ve had some challenge with that, because we’re getting feedback that not all wiki platforms are accessible with JAWS [screen reading software for visually impaired users]. So we’re looking at ways to share the notes through PDF.

What else did you learn that you could apply to future Open Space events?

One is that it’s an incremental process. We actually used a modified Open Space. In real Open Space, you come together with a larger theme, like “individuals with disabilities seeking employment.” Then people take responsibility for coming up with subthemes, pulling people together into their own conversations, scheduling, all of that. It’s a much more participant-controlled process.

I didn’t think they were ready for that, so we used a modified version. I would always suggest doing that unless you know you’re dealing with a group that’s really willing to take charge.

Make sure that you give your facilitators good guidelines and information on how to facilitate, how to take notes. That is really critical, so that you get everything back in a good format, and so people know what their role is and what they’re supposed to do.

The other thing is making sure that you give people clear expectations before they get there. We advertised it as something that was different. We sent out the Open Space guidelines prior to the session and said, “Do not come here expecting PowerPoint because you will be sorely disappointed.”

Even with that, we did get some complaints. Now part of it is that some people are just not going to get a clear picture until they participate. But those multiple stages of prep were something that we found we needed to do.

What are some ways that you think associations can best take advantage of the Open Space concept?

One of the ways to make it work is to think: What are the big questions? What are the big issues of the day, and how can you frame that in a way that’s going to get people interested, engaged, and talking to each other? Present those questions in a provocative way, because that gets people talking. Working with a planning group to come up with good, engaging questions for the issues that are facing you is a good strategy for getting [an Open Space conference] going.

I think [Open Space is] a good way to share best practices and start moving on some things. Part of what we tried to do was pull that from people, so that when we then put it up on the wiki, people can follow up. Having that follow-up is a way to connect back to the workplace or back to their daily lives.

(Note: Michele has posted more reflections on the Open Space experience on her blog. Association blogger Ben Martin has also posted about planning a successful unconference.)



Great stuff Lisa. Two thoughts struck me in reading your post today:

1. How do we respond to the fact that for some attendees, a conference that is a blank canvas would be unappealing, terrifying, etc.? They want at minimum, a paint-by-numbers event, if not a completed masterpiece for them to look at and enjoy?

2. I've been noodling over the following copy from the Slow Home Movement web site:

"SIMPLE is about designing an effective way to inhabit the spaces in your home. This means thinking about how you want to live and then organizing your home to make these primary activities easier and more joyful to accomplish. Instead of thinking of your home as a series of room names on a floor plan think of it as a composition of places for entrance, cooking, eating, resting, reading, working and entertaining, bathing, and sleeping as well as any other specific activities you might have. Simple means designing the layout of your furniture and objects to articulate each of these places within the house you already have."

John Brown, Slow Home founder and professor of architecture at the University of Calgary


My noodling has me thinking about the primary activities we want to occur at a meeting; gaining tremendous clarity around those; and then beginning to look at options for form, time blocks, and the other considerations about how to make that happen. I love the possibilities that begin to unfold when we reframe meetings as a "composition of places" for compelling conversation, problem-solving, relationship renewal, breakthrough thinking, etc.

Great write-up of our conversation, Lisa--I really enjoyed discussing this topic with you. I like Jeffrey's comment above that we should think of meetings as a "composition of places" for compelling conversation, etc. I've increasingly moved away from a "training"mode when I do conference sessions, spending more time on engaging people in conversation around interesting ideas and problem-solving and that has seemed to really engage people.

In regard to Jefferey's question about what you do for people who are uncomfortable with the "blank canvas" approach, that's something I've encountered most of the times I've run Open Space events. First, I've tried to counter it by using the modified approach--coming in with prepared ideas/topics for discussion. That at least gives people a starting point for discussion. I've also found that setting people's expectations before they get there really helps--they know what they're walking into and therefore are more mentally prepared. I also would try to keep such an event to one day. The Open Space conference we did for the youth practitioners was two days and the feedback we got was that people would have liked to have one day that was Open Space and one that was more traditional. We thought that for the future we might start with prepared presentations that were related to a theme and then devote the second day to Open Space. The first day gives some fodder for discussion in the second day. Haven't done it yet, but I think it has possibilities.

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