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Edcamps: The New Professional Development

Nicol R. Howard, PhD & Sarah Thomas

Assistant Professor & Regional Tech Coordinator
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By now, many educators are familiar with Edcamps, also known as unconferences. Hundreds of Edcamps have occurred on the ground and virtually in at least 18 countries since 2010. Kristen Swanson, an originator of the movement and board member of the organization, discussed its history and features in her Edutopia post Why Edcamp?

The Edcamp premise is unlike most forms of professional learning. Instead of traditional conferences, where organizers usually serve as gatekeepers and must approve which kind of knowledge can be provided by whom, Edcamps work differently. Conversations are the platform for the sharing of information.

The key to it all is that Edcamps cultivate a space filled with choice and voice. For years, teachers have been told what they need to learn, where the learning will take place, and how they will apply the new knowledge. By nature, Edamps are the complete opposite, which is why it is no surprise that teachers are leaning more toward this style of learning.

What the Numbers Say

Preliminary findings from a recent study on teachers' professional learning preferences indicate that teachers feel more supported in their work and better prepared to support their students' learning when they select their own professional learning (PL) opportunities (Howard, 2016). Out of the educators surveyed, 55.4 percent indicate that the PL sessions they are required to attend are not relevant to their work. Nearly 64 percent report that these required PL sessions do not support them in their work. When asked about PL opportunities that they choose, 98 percent indicate that they feel more supported in their jobs and better prepared to support their students' learning. As if it were a surprise that educators feel more supported and prepared when they choose their own learning experiences, approximately 79 percent indicated that unconference PL opportunities are effective in general (Howard, 2016).

What Edcampers Say

The numbers above tell us one thing, yet the actual voices of those who attended the Edcamps that we organized truly tell a story about why Edcamps are a new form of PL. In our post-conference survey, one Edcamper said, "I greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn from so many open-minded educators. I am glad to have new lifetime colleagues." Another said, "This was the best and most collaborative PD experience I have had in years, and I am a veteran teacher." The one comment that was repeated both on-site and in the survey was about how Edcamps are a "great experience and opportunity to gather educators together from all over to learn from and with each other." You are likely to hear similar comments at Edcamps around the world.

What You Can Do

For any educators who would like to attend an Edcamp, the following tips may be helpful:

  1. Visit The Edcamp Foundation to gain more information about Edcamps in general, including ways to organize and/or participate in the process.
  2. Visit Resources for Organizing an Edcamp to access Edutopia's curated roundup of helpful information.
  3. Find a directory of local Edcamps on The Edcamp Foundation's official wiki.
  4. Attend an Edcamp with educators around the world through virtual learning opportunities such as EdCamp Voxer, EdCamp Global, and EdCamp EduMatch.
  5. Bring a charged device and an open mind.

Although Edcamps are organic by nature and often organized by teacher-leaders, school districts can also support these in multiple ways. One of the hardest things about organizing an Edcamp is promotion; thus, a district can help to amplify the message among all of its teachers, administrators, coaches, and anyone else in the organization. In addition, some districts also partner with schools and/or teachers to co-organize these events. In these cases, it's important that all organizers are equal partners to stay true to the Edcamp mission.

Edcamps are a great equalizer, in that everyone in the room should have an equal voice regardless of position. This is one reason why it's important for all educational stakeholders to attend such events -- to open the lines of communication for the benefit of students. That being said, some Edcamps have invited students to attend. One such event had two middle school students facilitating a social media session, with participation from their peers, educators, and parents. Many in attendance reported that the experience was eye opening, offering them perspectives that they hadn't yet considered.

Whatever the case, whatever the structure, Edcamps will continue to redefine professional learning for educators around the world. If you haven't already, plan to attend an Edcamp near you, and perhaps organize one of your own. This model is so empowering, relevant, and effective that you may just get addicted!

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monkap's picture

Nicole & Sarah, thank you for posting this insightful article regarding Edcamps. Reflecting on my own experiences, many organized professional development days are a write-off for a majority of teachers, and little meaningful information can be taken away and used in context. I also find that with traditional professional development, very little conversation or collaboration takes place instead it seems more like a presentation on a topic which had been pre-determined. In my short teaching experiences, one PD that I attended had been regarding union and board clashes ( which is very important), and the other had been about setting up a online-teaching platform (which we already all had). Neither was very meaningful, and the only participation that was going on was just a short Q & A session which no one really made use of because everyone wanted to leave!

I think the idea of a school district promoting Edcamps is an excellent strategy, because that way teachers can address and collaborate on local issues. I think many teachers also don't know about EdCamps, and it's only know to researchers and individuals in academia. I am looking forward to sharing this idea with colleagues at school and perhaps even taking on the initiative to create a EdCamp. I am interested in learning more about ways to provide culturally-responsive learning opportunities and environments for Indigenous students in urban schools, and would love to hear what successes other experienced teachers have had!

tmayhueSEL's picture

Wonderful article! At tomorrow's CA Teacher's Summit (happening at locations throughout CA) the EdCamp model is included with Keynote speakers & Ted-Talk style presentations. I'm looking forward to connecting with others who'd like to co-host a SEL-themed EdCamp in Los Angeles. Equalizing voice and equal participant partnership are part of what makes the communication so vibrant & interactive. Thank you for the ideas & inspiration- and now thinking of how to create an EdCamp model in the classroom.

Jody Montoya's picture

I did not know what an EdCamp was until just recently. After reading this article, I can see how valuable this is to educators and it has peaked my interest. My experience with Professional Development is just as the article mentions, being talked to and not involved. I would love to talk/discuss with others and share ideas.

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