Education Trends

Why Edcamp Is the Future of PD

An Edcamp pioneer looks back at how the now-popular model remains free, noncommercial, spontaneous, organic, user-friendly, and open to all presenters and attendees.

April 15, 2016
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In 2010, I wrote a post for Edutopia called Introduction to Edcamp: A New Conference Model Built on Collaboration. Just three months earlier, myself and a team of fellow educators organized the first Edcamp unconference at Drexel University in Philadelphia. We had no idea back in May 2010, after Edcamp Philly came to a close, how the Edcamp model would change the landscape for professional development (PD) across the entire globe.

The Model Takes Off

Edcamp is the quintessential grassroots movement. In June 2010, only a month after the original Edcamp, educators in Charlottesville, Virginia organized Edcamp Cville inspired by what they experienced in Philly. As more events popped up, more were born. You can see how Edcamps have led to new Edcamps through the Edcamp Family Tree created by Chrissi Miles. Finally, the original organizers banded together to form the Edcamp Foundation, a 501c(3) dedicated to participant-driven professional development.

As more and more teachers attend Edcamps, it has become impossible to ignore the impact that this kind of professional development has on teaching and learning, and the empowering and reenergizing quality that it has for educators. Edcamp was even picked up by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 for Edcamp US DOED, which was held again in 2015. Large conferences like ASCD have incorporated Edcamp-style sessions, and Edcamp organizers have written both a white paper and a book about the model and its impact on educators and their classrooms. Administrators have incorporated the Edcamp model into their staff meetings, and Joe Mazza, principal of Knapp Elementary School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, connected families and teachers through Parent Camp. The model has even been adopted by students, most recently during Northfield (New Jersey) Community Middle School's Edcamp Period.

So why has this model grown so rapidly and garnered so much attention? For one, it is an outlet for educators who are hungry for new experiences and ways to explore their own practice with others. Most conferences are too expensive for the average educator, and many occur during school hours, so teachers have to take personal days to attend. Districts tend to send only administrators to conferences in the hopes that what leaders learn will trickle down to staff. In over a decade of teaching, I've never once had a school pay for me to attend a conference of my choosing. Edcamps, on the other hand, are free to attend and take place on Saturdays.

Not-So-Secrets of Success

In addition, the model itself offers what many teachers crave even when they do get the chance to attend conferences: choice and voice. Their peers are leading the sessions, and they can move between sessions rather than having to sit in one that they don't find useful or effective. People are eager to learn and listen rather than be a talking head. What teachers want are the things that we always say we want to give our students: choice and voice. As one of Northfield’s middle school students reflects, "It's cool that the ideas for what we will be working on came from us, and if we think of something else that we want to add to the list, we can just add it."

The most important elements of an Edcamp are:

  • It's free.
  • It's noncommercial (no vendor booths or sales pitches).
  • The session board is created and built by the participants on the day of the event
  • Attendees apply "the rule of two feet" when a session doesn't fit their needs.
  • Anyone can be a presenter.
  • Anyone can attend.

A successful Edcamp is not dependent on size. Whoever comes is meant to be there, and the outcomes will be meaningful because the people who were there were invested in the conversations. One piece of feedback that, as a veteran Edcamper, I take to heart comes from a fellow educator whom I respect and who is also a veteran Edcamper. Paul Bogush gave this feedback in a post last year: "I do think there are still issues Edcamps need to iron out. At some established Edcamps, too many people are coming with canned presentations they set up in advance, and those Edcamps are soon going to lose their 'organic' label." I agree with Paul. The best sessions that I've attended haven't necessarily been pre-planned. They're organic, led by the voices in the room, and don’t feel "workshop-y."

If you haven't yet checked out an Edcamp, there are events happening all over the U.S. and the world. For your convenience, the Edcamp Foundation offers a map and calendar to help you find and attend these events. And if you have been to one or more Edcamps, please share your experiences below in the comments section of this post.

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