Although 2012 marks my third trip to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) annual convention, I've never made a point to come to SocialEdCon. This year, however, with ISTE a mere 90-minute drive from my home, I had no excuse but to come.
SocialEdCon is the unofficial all-day unconference held the Saturday before ISTE. There are no formal presentations; just conversations that you or others facilitate.
Six years ago, the precursor to SocialEdCon, then called EduBloggerCon, stemmed from an idea David Warlick put on an ISTE wiki to have an informal gathering of educational bloggers — most of whom had never met each other physically! Steve Hargadon set up a wiki and made arrangements with ISTE for a room and free wireless (to ISTE's great credit!) and the first ever meeting was in 2007 in Atlanta.
To say it was a party only partly captures the excitement of everyone gathering together. The list of those who attended reads like a who's-who in the blogging — which was practically the entire social media world — in education. Many folks found their voice or got their speaking start at these events at ISTE over the years.
Since its first year, and every year since, Steve Hargadon, together with a dedicated group of volunteers make all the necessary arrangements for the annual event. SocialEdCon continues to attract both the well-known and the newbies, by design. Motivated by volunteerism and a sense of their own personal shifts in notoriety and visibility, the well-known welcome the newbies and work to help all to feel comfortable and to participate actively.
EduBloggerCon was the impetus for the terrific Educon event each year at Science Leadership Academy (more structured and with a cost, but equally fun), and varieties of the unconference have been held at several other conferences since Atlanta and organized by Hargadon and other volunteers. The Edcamp movement employs a similar fomat and has also enjoyed great success.
So why is SocialEdCon so great? Here are five compelling reasons:
Whether you have 35-plus years in education or it's your first year in the classroom, there is something for everyone at SocialEdCon. I enjoyed so many great discussions with a wide range of teachers, administrators and IT professionals. SocialEdCon is a terrific way to kick off ISTE.
After an hour of socializing with a few familiar faces and meeting a few new ones, Hargadon, the coordinator, announced that it was finally time to build the agenda. He proceeded to lay out about 25 blank poster boards and markers on about six tables, and invited the group to write down a topic on a poster they would be willing to facilitate.
Over the course of about half an hour, we had all read the posters and put check marks on any topics we would be interested in discussing. The topics were then prioritized and "discussion locations" were established based on each topic's popularity. The agenda was then posted on a wiki, and the Unconference was officially under way.
Hargadon said, "If you start off in one discussion group, and realize you are not getting anything out of it, find one that is more compelling. Vote with your feet!" This was, perhaps, my greatest takeaway. Why can't more professional development opportunities be like this? It's actually a lot like life: When you are on a website and you receive the information you went there for, you leave.
And if you choose to leave a comment at the bottom of a blog post, you go. Who, in their right mind, stays on a website that is of no interest to them? Yet, in real life, there seems to be some cultural norm at play that won't let us walk out of a boring session.
Don't be an island unto yourself: share. And remember, you're not alone. Many other similar-minded individuals wrestle with the same questions you do. As I explained to a colleague about the collaborative nature of the event: "Someone you are sitting next to may have the answer to a burning question you have, or you might have the answer to one of theirs." Participation is highly encouraged. More conferences and professional development models need to be like this.
If you're used to highly regimented and structured meetings, and hold fast to a rigid agenda, prepare yourself for a few moments of cognitive disequilibrium. When we broke for lunch, one woman shared with me that this was her first trip to ISTE. I asked her what she thought of it so far. She said, "It's different." I wasn't sure if that was good or bad, so I asked her what she meant. She said, "I have OCD!" The good news for her and people that value a more structured environment is that they have the rest of the conference for that.