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Personalizing and Democratizing Professional Learning: The Edcamp Model

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The dialogue, tweets, and sharing of ideas were plentiful at Edcamp L.A. on Saturday, January 17, where roughly 165 educators from northern California to Arizona gathered on the campus of Windward School to participate in an innovative and promising professional learning experience called Edcamp.

What is an Edcamp?

Based on the un-conference model where participants decide on the topics to be covered, choose which sessions they will attend, and have opportunities to contribute to the dialogue, Edcamp is highly participatory in nature, unlike traditional forms of professional development that educators often experience in which there is little choice and low levels of satisfaction. (See the recent report from the Gates Foundation) As Hadley Ferguson, Executive Director of the Edcamp Foundation, explains, "there are no Outside Experts; the teachers who show up, working together, are the experts. Every teacher's voice can be heard." In addition, Edcamps are free and non-commercial, and are supported by the efforts of volunteer organizers and sponsors who provide door prizes, food, and other donations.

There were over 255 Edcamps last year. From May 2010, when Edcamps began, through December 2014, there have been more than 630 Edcamps. Originating in the Philadelphia area in 2010, Edcamps have spread across the U.S. and Canada and are spreading to new countries, with an upcoming Edcamp scheduled in Tokyo. Although most Edcamps are general in nature with topics from all disciplines of the K-12 spectrum, there have also been discipline specific Edcamps like the recent Edcamp Social Studies.

What does an Edcamp look like?

When I arrived to Edcamp L.A. I saw an old friend and colleague, Carrie Usui Johnson, from Center X of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. We walked across the gym, where teachers were conversing and eating breakfast, over to the session board where we saw a grid with locations and topics that local organizers Jamie Gravell, Moss Pike, and Nicol Howard worked to assemble, based on the participants' blue (Leader) and yellow (Learner) Post-Its filled with topics of interest. About two thirds of the topics selected involved technology to some degree, reflecting current interests of participants and the state of education in general. I was fully intending just to be a participant/observer, but worried that two topics I was interested in talking about would not make the cut, so I offered to lead two sessions.

After that Carrie and I connected with two teachers from the STEMM Academy at Venice High School, Hazel Kight Witham and Jessica Gutierrez, and we talked about the value of Twitter to educators. Jessica indicated that she had a Twitter account but did not really use it. I proceeded to help her find a weekly chat called #ISNchat focusing on Interactive Science Notebooks, something she uses in her classroom. Looking at a few of the Tweets there she recognized that there may be some value in Twitter after all, and that potentially she could follow some of the other educators involved with that chat. While this was not something that was on our personal agendas for the day (there was an actual Twitter 101 session), the sharing and collaborating nature of Edcamps enabled this to happen. This was just one of many such informal learning experiences for the participants of Edcamp L.A.

Jessica and Hazel explore the value of Twitter for educators
Jessica and Hazel explore the value of Twitter for educators.

After some short introductions and an overview from the Edcamp L.A. organizers, we were off to Session 1. Initially I chose to go to the STEAM in MS/HS session, but when I saw that there were only three people there I applied the Edcamp "rule of two feet" and walked next door to the "Speed Dating: Get to Know Each Other!" session. I recognized a few "Twitter friends" (people I had never met in person) there so I decided to stay for a while even though I wasn't so sure of the topic. When I learned that we would be talking about using the "speed dating" conversational approach to gathering ideas for problem solving, I was intrigued. In a free-ranging session led by Urbie Delgado, an Instructional Designer from Arizona, I had the opportunity to interact with a high school English teacher, a leader of after-school programs, a pre-service teacher, a few college ESL teachers, and a Director of Innovative Learning. The breadth of learners and the open dialogue approach made for a rich learning experience full of reflection, stretching, and refining of thinking. In other words, Edcamp as advertised. (See the notes taken by David Theriault for a snapshot of the conversation and learning).

Sessions 2 and 3 were a totally different learning experience for me, as I was now a "leader" instead of a "learner." On reflecting, I feel that everyone should be a "learner" and that the designation of "leader" caused me to fall back into old models of facilitating learning, and upped my anxiety as I wanted to make sure everyone was "learning" and finding value in the dialogue. While I eventually got my Edcamp sea legs, as it were, and went with the flow by using the Norms of Collaboration to pause, paraphrase, pose questions, put ideas on the table, and trust that someone would eventually "say something," there were a few bumpy moments where I thought to myself, "What am I doing?" That uncertainty however, was also a learning experience as it helped me to trust in the contributions of the group more than what I had planned or expected.

EdCamp Workshop Board
EdCamp Workshop Board

In session 3 the conversation focused on technology integration, an issue that a lot of people are trying to figure out. This topic ranges from how teachers can use technology in meaningful ways with appropriate tools and apps, to how might we provide students with opportunities to problem solve and create using the power of technology. A high school math teacher from Irvine shared that she has benefited from having a digital coach who shows her new things and gets her to try them in her classroom and to share them with others. Kevin Fairchild, a teacher on special assignment from the San Dieguito Union High School District, talked about an "App Speed Dating" workshop in which teachers are introduced to a variety of apps and then given the opportunity to choose a few that they will delve deeper into. Ryan Bradford, a coordinator of instruction from a school in the San Fernando Valley, shared that as much as it pains his ego (since he is a tech expert), he tries to get other teachers to demo tools and share ideas as a way to spread the learning and help others that they too can do things with technology. This breadth of ideas and experiences helped to confirm practices that are being done, as well as to open up new vistas of possibility in the participants.

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While we did not leave with a silver bullet, we left with a few new ideas for things we might try in our given contexts. We left with a greater sense of purpose and encouragement to continue experimenting and learning around the work we are all trying to do. As Kristen Swanson, one of the founders of Edcamp, writes, "Professional learning needs to help us become better learners -- not necessarily teach us all the facts we need to know. An orientation towards learning is especially helpful with instructional technology." It is that orientation to learning and the collaboration that facilitates it, both for educators and for the students they serve, that is the true power of the Edcamp model.

Implications of the Edcamp Model

Every Edtech session I attended brought out different apps and tech tools, but the focus was more on inquiry, problem solving, building community, and fostering a spirit of mutual learning and collaboration -- things that are ultimately of more value than a given app. I have personally been experimenting with this approach with groups of teachers from various districts in Santa Barbara County, focusing on tech integration topics. So far it has been very well received with teachers having opportunities to learn from each other about topics such as Google Apps, Twitter, Computer Science, Collaborative Writing, and others that strongly connect to technology, but in their contexts of teaching and learning. The organic nature of the process with a lack of an agenda/script and formal presentation, and the opportunity to ask questions and go in many directions seems to be a critical factor in the effectiveness of this model. I would definitely recommend this approach for schools as they look to solving the professional learning challenge around technology integration.

I am intrigued about how this might play out in other contexts like classrooms, school meetings, district trainings, businesses, and other teams, where participants have a voice and a choice to learn about the issues and ideas that matter to them in a dialogue based approach of mutual learning. As the Tweets that emerged from Edcamp L.A. revealed this is a powerful approach to producing inspired, energized, reflective teacher learners. Collaboration, community, dialogue, and learning drives everything.

 

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