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The Future of Learning In a Networked World – Professional Development for the Knowledge Era

The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.”(1)

In September 2006 a group of people were invited to NZ to take part in the Future of Learning in a Networked World (FLNW). Sponsored by Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, FLNW was variously referred to as an unconference, an open space conference, a bar camp, or even a travelling elearning circus or roadshow. Invited participants mostly referred to it as an unconference - the prefix ‘un’ denoted a definitive contrast from the typical style of ‘stand and deliver’ professional development event that we were all familiar with.

Was it a plane? Was it a bird? No it was .....

What transpired in this 10 day event was actually a combination of unconference, open space, and bar camp. The notion of bar camp or unconference seems to have stemmed from a technological imperative. From Wikipedia: BarCamp is an international network of unconferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants — focusing on early-stage web applications, and related open source technologies and social protocols.”

The unconference: “An unconference is a conference where the content of the sessions is driven and created by the participants, generally day-by-day during the course of the event, rather than by a single organizer, or small group of organizers, in advance. FLNW was an ‘open, participatory workshop event, where ‘the content of the sessions (was) driven and created by participants’. It employed Open Space Technology (OST), a term that describes a process rather than the use of any particular technology:

“OST is a meeting methodology…. Its essential core is the invitation to take responsibility for what you have passion for. The remarkable outcome of this simple idea is that when participants do so, the needs of both the individual and the collective are met.”

So was FLNW a barcamp, unconference, or an open space conference? It had elements of all three. This paper will refer to it as an unconference that employed open space processes. It was therefore

· open – it was free and all interested parties were invited
· fluid and negotiated – there was no set agenda

In the lead-up to the event sponsors and location hosts did express a desire for more structure up-front so they could more effectively promote the event. This created some tension in the group as some were very definite about the fact that there would be no pre-planning or prepared agenda. From the sponsors' point of view one can appreciate their dilemma. They were unsure about promoting the event as merely 'a group of visiting elearning experts will be here to talk about the futue of learning', with no timetable or session titles. This highlights a subtle difference between a conference and an unconference. One promotes a conference; one should invite people to an unconference. It needs to be explicit that all-comers have equal rights of participation, and that everyone will help create the topics and organise sessions. They will be part of the show. It will in fact be their show - it's owned by those who attend.

For the most part those who favoured minimal planning had their way. However, the group may have erred in its reluctance to impose any structure on the process used to generate discussion topics. I think an agreed process would have been more effective in generating the foci of sessions, and may have resulted in more options for participants. Having to negotiate process and the range topics at the start of group sessions was a little confounding, but this path was taken in a kind of pioneering spirit. Like, 'let's see what happens if we leave it completely open?' And the group sessions were successful. It is only in retrospect that it is clear that there is twenty years of open space theory and practice that may have enabled FLNW to be more efficient in its use of planning time. Or unplanning time so to speak. One can devote a lot of time to debating why one should not plan!

Over the course of 10 days FLNW travelled to 6 separate locations in NZ and took place on campuses, in museums, community centres, private homes, schools, trains, boats, planes, bars and restaurants. Most scheduled events were located in advertised venues like campuses and community spaces that could cater for up to 100 participants per session.

What happened in these sessions?
Initially a location facilitator would welcome everyone and introduce the international speakers, who in turn spoke briefly (mostly) about their areas of interest and expertise. The invited speakers were seated around the room, each with a laptop and data projector, and after these initial introductions participants were free to join any of the invited guests for an open discussion within their broad area of knowledge and expertise.

These sessions went very smoothly. Participants self-selected their chosen focus group and floated between groups as desired. There was no compulsion to stay with any one group for any length of time – in accordance with a core component of open space process: the Law of Two Feet. The Law of Two Feet - a foot of passion and a foot of responsibility -- expresses the core idea of taking responsibility for what you love. In practical terms, the law says that if you're neither contributing nor getting value where you are, use your two feet (or available form of mobility) and go somewhere where you can. (1)

“The phenomenon of self-organization lies at the heart of Open Space.”

Owen compares this self-organization phenomenon with what Kaufmann suggests happens in the natural world. Kaufmann suggests that “self-organization will only occur if there are few prior connections between the elements, indeed he says no more than two. In retrospect, it seems to make sense. If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self organize?” How many of us at professional development events will automatically home in on people we know and sit with them in any group activity, rather than let the topic of the activity determine which group we should join?

Other types of events included a train ride of several hours duration where interested parties joined the touring guests for small group discussions on board, link-ups with international participants via virtual classroom tools, visits to schools and colleges, and a working breakfast.

The Process – An Evaluation
An event of this nature cannot help but have a profound effect on those involved. Its daring format with no set agendas or program other than a series of chosen locations geographically disparate on set days meant that the touring party were effectively together for several days at a time without a break.Many of the party had only met virtually before this event and as happens when any group of people is thrust together for days on end there were a range of interpersonal issues that arose that needed addressing. On the plus side of this forced continual companionship was the fact that this meant that the unconference became a 24/7 affair where issues raised in the sessions of the day could be discussed after hours over dinner or during transport to the next port of call.

The nature of the content under review and the wired ‘always-on’ (4) nature of the touring guests meant that there was an extraordinary amount of data recorded and posted on the Web. Discrete sets of this data can be accessed via RSS feed , and in the recently released ebook and dvd.

Though these interpersonal dynamics and the nature and volume of content produced are worth articles in their own right, it is the intention of this paper to focus more on the process of teaching and learning that occurred, evaluate its effectiveness, and assess the potential relevance of this type of professional development for the education sector.It should be said here that the sheer impracticality of the logistics of this kind of event make it unlikely that this model would be adopted by many organisations, but there is much that can be adopted for one or two day conferences. There was general consensus among the invited group that ten days was too long and that five days seemed an optimal amount of time. The length of the event clearly depends on the goals of the exercise. If one of the goals is to build individual capacity and confidence by drawing on group dynamics then an event of around five days may be necessary.

One of the intriguing aspects of FLNW was that it did require individual resolve to function effectively in the larger group, but this was not a stated goal of the event. It did however highlight the fact that working effectively in groups is not a given. It is a skill that needs to be learned. And not all members of the group saw working in groups as implicitly of value. Whether one sees value in working in groups, or is able to do it effectively has enormous implications for a group of educators ordaining collective, collaborative learning as a core requirement of learning in a connected world. There was vociferous debate on the nature and worth of groups and networks during FLNW, and for several weeks online after the physical event was over.

Group Sessions
The group sessions were surprisingly efficient and free of awkward pauses or leave-taking. Participants understood that they were free to change groups whenever they wished, and could join other discussions mid-stream in a free- flowing movement around the room as group sizes fluctuated between small gatherings of just a few people to groups of twenty or so. See Occasionally people in the shared space became aware of a particularly important or engaging discussion in one corner of the room and people would drift over to that part of the room to listen to the debate. This short movie from Derek Chirnside, our host in Christchurch from the then Christchurch College of Education (now part of the University of Canterbury), gives a glimpse of what typically happened during these concurrent smaller group sessions. This short movie from Steven Parker asks the questions Does the Unconference model work? and interestingly, how can the unconference format be used with students in a classroom environment?

'I think it's really important to keep in mind that you can get students to do group work and sharing and talking together but giving them the option to move out and get on with their own work, that's really empowering and motiviating, they might take snippets from the discussion and then say, yes this is what I need and get on with their own work. It's more about enabling them to learn the material in their own way.'
Yvonne Wood

On other occasions small groups would splinter off to work on a specific task. Sometimes individuals would take photographs or movies or interview onlookers or other guests about proceedings using cameras, PC media recording devices, or phones. Samples of this ad hoc on the fly content can be seen on the unconference blog.

OST suggests that these sessions should be preceded by a listing of all interested topics up on a wall or similar so participants can see at a glance what topics were being covered in that session, but there is no prescriptive way of going about this. This group of staff in NSW approached the pre-discussion stage by encouraging staff to state whether they wanted to share, learn, or do something, and formed groups around that process.

There was recurrent comment on the empowering aspect of the unconference format for the classroom from many teachers and discussion on the types of physical open and closed spaces that could contribute to the success. This movie illustrates a potential classroom open space that can facilitate group discussion or where individuals can just go off into a corner and get on with their own thing, separate to the group activity.

The Role of ‘Experts’
FLNW had at its core a group of invited experts – some with an international profile – and their presence guaranteed a basic quorum of participants as these guests had pulling power. It also served as a bargaining chip when canvassing for funding for the event. Funding bodies, largely educational institutions, were more likely to fund an event that had significant profile due to the presence of international guests.

It was to be expected that at the start of the group sessions that it would be the work of these visiting guest experts that would serve as initial focal points for discussion. Although participants who turned up for the day’s proceedings were invited to contribute to the initial spruikings on topics that interested them, few did. The presence of the invited experts no doubt made this a daunting task, but OST is emphatic that this opportunity be given to all participants. This would enable all participants, not just those with a recognised profile, to pitch for discussions on things that interested them.

Having visiting experts meant that discussion topics tended to be formulated around their interests. Though the group discussions were sufficiently fluid to allow for addressing topics brought to bear by participants, it would have been preferable that sessions/discussions were formed around the expressed interests of participants rather than the invited experts. Given that the collective expertise of the invited speakers was very broad, it was likely that they could have led, or contributed significantly to, sessions on any topics suggested by participants anyway.

The Role of Media: Personal and Group Publishing

The nature of the people invited to FLNW, and its focus on education a networked world, meant that there was a proliferation of personal and group media created and published - that is after all how networked teachers and learners network - they publish. Every minute and every idea of every day was likely to be recorded, blogged, podcast, photographed or filmed and published to the web. It is not a criterion of OST, but for the unconference, with its origins in learning about technology via new approaches, it is a fair expectation that there be an electronic and public record.

"All conversations, whether to the entire room or one-to-one, unless otherwise stated, clearly and up front, are on the record and for attribution. You do not need to ask permission to quote something you hear at BloggerCon. Of course you may ask for permission to quote, and you may choose not to quote things you hear."(5)

Many conferences publish proceedings after the event, but these are subject to a peer review process. But in an unconference, publishing is occurring virtually as it happens without any editorial process. As Stephen Downes remarked during the Christchurch session, this is one of the factors that distinguishes the old from the new world of learning. In the new world, any peer review or assessment of content happens after publishing, and the network(s) decide its value.

However, the constant documentation of FLNW meant that inevitably there would be a whole raft of material that was not of much value - out of focus photographs, blurred video, poor audio quality, half-baked ideas - all there in the public domain. Some FLNW participants consequently suggested that not all the media documenting the event be made public, and that some editorial discretion be used before it was published.

All professional development activities should be documented. In the spirit of an unconference this should be done as it happens. One could choose the path of BloggerCon and state upfront that all activity may be “on the record and for attribution.” An alternative option may be to let participants know that if they don’t want their image, voice, or ideas on the public record it is incumbent upon them to make that request at any given time, but it would seem impractical to have participants evaluate their input into an activity as it’s happening and decide that they don’t want it on the record. It would be unfortunate too if any hesitation about the value of one’s contribution stymied one’s input. Another core component of OST is that ‘whoever comes are the right people’ and by inference then, whatever is said is the right thing to say at the time. Part of working in a networked world is accepting that your input is part of the eventual and continually evolving body of knowledge, and that it will be adopted, modified, or discarded. It is not what you say (or how you look or sound in that blurred video) that is of primary importance – it is what the network does with the information you provided that matters more.
It is asking a lot of some people though to expect them to happily accept that their thoughts and actions go on record. Some people are private personalities; some require time to assimilate ideas before they can respond eloquently. As the participant on the video at an unconference PD event trial inspired by FLNW says, “It's all about getting used to being visible.”

Relevance for You and Your Organisation
Imagine that you arrive at a one or two day conference and there is no set agenda or program. I posed this question to a group of TAFE staff at a staff development session soon after I returned from FLNW and the response from the approximately 20 people present was overwhelmingly positive. One person did comment that they would feel cheated, but others thought ‘it would be fantastic.’

If you take this approach the first hour or so of the day is taken up with a collaborative discussion designed to formulate the days program. The FLNW model showed that a more open approach to professional development can work. Professional Development events, even those of one to three days duration, do not need need invited experts or guest facilitators.

Participants knowing in advance that they are coming to address an advertised topic, or perhaps to solve a recognised problem, and knowing too that is the reason that people will come - not listen to experts or speakers on a pre-arranged agenda – is a strength based approach to professional development (4) that promotes greater buy-in and commitment. Knowing that the succcess of the FLNW event would rest on the input of all of us, a group of FLNW participants spent the day before it got underway in engaged and prolonged discussion: “The learning and discussion on the future of learning had begun in earnest without a single presentation!” (5) Such is the power of inviting people to attend an event and letting them know they will have significant input into the structure and outcome of the event, as it will build on what they know and bring to the table, and not what others deem they should know.

Workers for the Knowledge Era
If our educational institutions are to train their teachers to function effectively in the knowledge era, they need to offer training that reflects this new learning. Work in the Knowledge Era is characterised by

“…processes and structures that are more emergent than predictable
  • …tacit knowledge, which can only be shared through relationship, conversation, and interaction.”.
  • Networks: who and how you know is as important as what you know.” (6)
A knowledge worker needs to know how to collaborate.

The unconference with its open space approach to professional development is a model more likely to foster the kinds of skills and attitudes suitable for the knowledge era than the deficit model that may have outlived its usefulness as the primary means of staff development. The unconference allows for group commitment to a process that is negotiated in non-hierachical networked entities. It allows the opportunity to become familiar with the unpredictable and emergent through negotiating content as it evolves. It validates, and capitalises on, the knowledge that everyone brings to the event and assumes that the collective expertise of the rank and file is as valuable as the knowledge and opinions of experts or those in authority.


1) Dave Winer; What is an Unconference?

2) Harrison Owen; Opening Space for Emerging Order

3) as above

4) Diana and James Oblinger; Is It Age or It: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation

5) Dave Winer; BloggerCon for Newbies

6) Maret Staron, Robby Weatherley and Marie Jasinski; Life based learning – a new framework for capability development in vocational education and training (VET)

7) Michael Coghlan; Day 2 FLNW

8) Staron et al (as above)

9) Shen Zhang, Yvonne Wood, Steven Parker 'FLNW#10 - The FLNW Unconference format' http://blip.tv/file/80183/

10) 'FLNW06 - Professional Development Space of the Future' http://blip.tv/file/103243/