Bringing participant-driven professional development to Edcamp Online

In October 2014, the Learning Over Education Initiative at the Media Lab hosted Edcamp Online in collaboration with the Edcamp Foundation for teachers. This event spawned a lot of interest for future events, and many participants went on to organize Edcamp events in their respective communities.

On March 16th, 2015, we organized an in-district virtual Edcamp with Kristen Swanson (founder of the Edcamp Foundation) and Meg Rao (an administrator from Volusia County Schools who participated in the October event) using the Unhangout platform. More than 35 people including teachers, district professional development specialists, and parents joined us live.

In a traditional conference, the event agenda is planned way in advance, and there is a little flexibility to allow participants to choose topics of their own interest. What makes an unconference different is the fact that the schedule building takes place within the event, allowing the input of participants. At the beginning of the event, participants can present an idea for discussion and get a sense of others who might be interested in discussing the same topic.

Unhangout was built so that only administrators were allowed create sessions. To better understand how a participant proposed session feature would work, in October 2014 we used the Question Tool, directing participants to propose and vote on topics on the Question Tool website. The results indicated that such a feature was very useful, so we decided to integrate it within the Unhangout platform.

Screenshot of proposed sessions during the event

On March 16th, “Edcamp Volusia” event began with a kick-off webinar lead by Meg and Kristen. Meg gave a short tour of the new feature to participants and then participants began building the day’s schedule. People began voting on sessions as soon as they were proposed, and the top-voted sessions were approved by Kristen and Meg.

Although the event was supposed to be an hour long, participants seemed deeply engaged in their breakout conversations, and the event ran for an additional half hour.

Surprising observations drawn from our survey:

1. Integrating the feature into the platform increased its use and appeal

Although this event was the first Edcamp for 86% in the room, 28.6% of participants proposed a session and 71.4% participated in the voting. This is a significant increase (by 14% and 20%, respectively) from the last edcamp event, where we used the Question Tool outside the platform for proposing sessions. Comments ranging from “Choosing the session was easy. “I chose the one I proposed :) ” to “Since I’d never done it, it took a minute, but it became visually clear.” conveyed that the feature was easier to use.

2. Learners took ownership of the event

A great example for the way that this feature changes the dynamics of a conference, was Melanie K’s session. She proposed a topic entitled “Volusia Blogs”, drew a few others participants into her breakout discussion, and came up with an action plan which they wanted to execute right after the event. In the end, the event organizer (Meg R) asked for more information about the plan, catching up with the participants who had already taken things into their own hands. That is exactly the kind of agency we were hoping to see from participants.

3. Making learning relevant for participants brought active participation

The feature enabled participants to play a more active role in shaping the event than a traditional conference allows. Giving people the autonomy to pitch topics relevant to their learning not only kept them actively engaged but also motivated them throughout the event to suggest topics of their interest. A learner wrote: “I saw people were interested in discussing Lesson Study but the other session was filled; therefore I proposed it for the second breakout room on that topic.” Other comments included:

“I loved that the participants drove the PD. Everyone was there to learn something that was relevant to them, which is so important!”
“I liked the ability for participants to propose and choose their own topics as it makes the learning relevant for the individual. The feature where participants typed in their topic was AWESOME! They didn’t have to leave platform to propose and admins didn’t have to do all of the typing.”

4. Participants find others with similar interests

One of the main objectives of this feature is to give participants a better sense of who they might want to connect with and help them find others with similar interests. 46% said that in the process of proposing or voting they identified other participants who had similar interests as them. One of the event participants wrote: “I could tell by the pictures of folks I knew and it impacted my choices of sessions if I had a good working knowledge of their work already, I choose another session.”

These results do not completely justify the initial hypothesis. The lower rating may be due to the following reasons:

a) 50% already knew each other before coming to the event

b) Schedule building process took place for a very short duration (about 5 minutes), and there wasn’t sufficient time for everyone to participate in this process.

c) Quite a few were using iPads and Unhangout does not work best with the tablet technologies. Due to this, they faced a lot of technical challenges.

That being said, 78.6%of people said that they were planning to follow up with participants after the event (There has been an increase by 29.8% since the last Edcamp). In addition, the percentage of people who said were likely or very likely to organize a local Edcamp changed from 35.8% beforehand to 71.5% after the Unhangout event (answer was on 1–5 scale).


With the introduction of this feature, the hypothesis was that it will not only help participants of an online event announce their personal areas of interest, but also contribute in the agenda setup. The tool does seem to help participants actively engage in the session proposing phase, find others with similar interests, and spark interesting conversations that people want to continue after the event.

A week after the event, we received an email from Kristen sharing the great news that the Department of Instruction in Wisconsin wants to do the virtual Edcamp across the entire district. Cool :)

Originally published at