Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

New Frontiers: Exploring the Power and Possibilities of the Unconference as a Transformative Approach to Faculty Development

Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

New Frontiers: Exploring the Power and Possibilities of the Unconference as a Transformative Approach to Faculty Development

Article excerpt

"Innovation happens when minds come together to share ideas" (Ferriter & Provenzano, 2013, p. 19). The commitment to evolving ideas is a cornerstone of academia, informing the varied teaching and learning spaces we occupy as well as the professional spaces where we collaborate, share, and learn: from faculty lounges to hallways, from conferences to journals, from handwritten correspondences to emails, blogs, and tweets. 21st century technologies continue to multiply, affording us an ever expanding arena of modalities and methods to refine and impart our intellectual craftsmanship as scholars and as faculty developers. Faculty developers can benefit from the insights, methods, and examples of the unconference as a powerful platform for imagining and crafting dynamic and potentially transformative faculty learning experiences (West, 2012).

The unconference is powerful because of the rate at which ideas can be generated and shared; because the unconference celebrates autonomy and encourages the emergence of our personal narratives; because the unconference challenges traditional notions of learning space redefining the locations, relationships and structures by which we communicate and build understanding; and because of the unconference's democratic-participatory structure (Association for Learning Technology; Kassner, 2014). The unconference is an arena of possibilities that organically build off the very foundations that drive those interested in developing knowledge to connect with others. Conceived as such, the unconference can substantively inform and inspire new directions for the future of faculty development so that the field continues to remain programmatically relevant, agile, and exciting.

With the spirit of exploration in mind, this paper discusses the what, why, and how of unconferencing and probes its implications as a transformative approach to faculty development in higher education. The paper examines theory that informs the unconference, canvasses resources and tools that can be used to organize and build unconference learning experiences, and highlights ways the unconference can prompt critical reflection among faculty. To this end, best practices and strategies are offered, including reference to web-based resources that may assist in preparations for unconference experiences. Moreover, the authors discuss the importance of and methods for networking stakeholders as a practical means by which to set strong foundations for unconferencing to take place and become valued on institutional campuses. Three iterations of unconferencing as modes for substantively engaging faculty are examined as a practical basis for considering implications of the unconference on the future of faculty development.

What is an Unconference and How is it Different?

"'Unconferences' are a non-traditional form of professional activity defined by the absence of many conventional conference structures" (Carpenter, 2015, p. 78). Stated differently, "'Unconferences' are voluntary, informal learning experiences that reject traditional conference structures such as a predetermined slate of speakers and sessions" (Boule, 2011). Unconferences manifest themselves in different ways, yet all share common principles and structures. At its core, unconference events are participant driven. From topics to participation, from goals to agendas, the unconference works to organically surface interests and problems relevant to those attending, provide a place for them to work, and relies on the contributions of each participant to move group defined goals forward. The unconference approach is in direct contrast to traditional academic conference structures that exemplify more didactic modes of engagement.

"To a large extent, attending a [traditional] conference can be a passive experience" (Sweeting & Hohl, 2015, p. 2). The roots of dominant conference formats date back to the 1660's when travel and copies of physical manuscripts posed challenging obstacles to sharing knowledge. …

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