The Teaching Unconference: Fostering a community of practice for postsecondary educators

By Brent Snider and Victoria Reid from the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary 

picture1For a variety of reasons, sometimes it seems difficult to open up deeper dialogue about pedagogy between post-secondary instructors. We work varied hours, and when we are in the building, we are locked away in our offices doing research, hosting office hours with students, actively teaching, or attending a myriad of committees and meetings. We don’t often gather around the photocopier or the coffee machine, and when we do, we may not choose to talk in-depth about teaching, about our successes and failures in the classroom, worrisome trends we are seeing with students, or our excitement about a class activity that went so much better than expected. However, when these conversations do happen, we are left feeling energized, motivated, supported, and like we are all in this together. Teaching is important, and these conversations are an important part of the reflective process necessary to continue to improve our practice.

So what can we do to get people talking? Sometimes, ironically, the way to make these conversations happen more organically and more regularly is by starting the dialogue in very deliberate ways. This can be in the form of coordination of courses, where instructors work together to make sure that course content is delivered effectively, or with informal or formal mentoring activities. Pedagogy might be addressed when we do curriculum reviews or when we are discussing student engagement. Recently, the Haskayne School of Business tried something new – we hosted our first Teaching Unconference, which focused on trends and challenges people are seeing in their classrooms, and fostering a sense of community and support for Teaching & Learning. Most importantly, it opened up robust conversations regarding teaching that extend beyond the Unconference and into day-to-day conversations at Haskayne.

What is an “Unconference?” The “structure” of an Unconference is unique in that it is largely unstructured. Participants drive the topics of conversations, and their experiences and expertise amplify those of the other participants. They are free to leave and join conversations throughout the event, based on their engagement in the topic and their own interests and goals. Three of the Haskayne Teaching Fellows (Peggy Hedges, Brent Snider, and Cam Welsh) were introduced to the concept by attending the Research in Management Learning & Education (www.rmle.org) unconference over the past few years. Energized from their experiences there, the Teaching Fellows were eager to host a teaching unconference for Haskayne.

“The premise behind the unconference idea is that, as entrepreneur Dave Winer put it, ‘the sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage.’

Unconferences are about empowering attendees to share their expertise. They give participants the opportunity to have an unfiltered exchange of innovative ideas.” (Bagley 2014)

Who attended? In total, we had 31 participants, including full professors, associate deans, staff, teaching professor, senior instructors, instructors, associate and assistant professors, and PhD students.

What was discussed?picture2 We engaged in topics that were determined by the participants, including:

  • Flipped classroom/techniques
  • Student Engagement/Involvement
  • Community Based Learning
  • Classroom Technology
  • Groups/Peer Challenges
  • Incorporating Student Feedback

What happened afterwards? Many exciting things came from these conversations, including identifying requested topics for a series of Lunch & Learn seminars that will be hosted by the Haskayne Teaching Fellows over the course of the academic year, priorities for our Office of Teaching & Learning, and connections forged between participants across concentration areas. Participants were offered the opportunity to set their own goals through a Commitment Form, and they will be offered individualized support in order to achieve them.

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Best of all, participants reported back that they felt energized and excited by the conversations they had at the Unconference, and that they were eager to continue those conversations with their colleagues. In fact, all 31 surveyed participants said they would attend another teaching unconference in the future. In the Spring, we will be hosting a (RE) Unconference to follow up on these conversations and helping to move the participant commitments even further into action.

Many thanks to the Taylor Institute for providing funding through the Seeding SoTL initiative.

For more information on Unconferences: Ten Simple Rules for Organizing an Unconference What is an Unconference?

References: Bagley, R. O. (2014, August 18). How ‘Unconferences’ Unleash Innovative Ideas. Retrieved November 2, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/rebeccabagley/2014/08/18/how-unconferences-unleash-innovative-ideas/#380285275e12

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