Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Unconference' Call: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Unconference' Call: Opinion

Article excerpt

A seminar reboot inspires Kevin Fong to revisit his course material.

Last week I attended an "unconference". For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, these are a 21st-century reboot of the academic seminar.

Apparently they are the brainchild of someone who realised that the best part of any conference is the coffee break. The coffee and the conference programme, it turns out, are just props. Having just had the pants bored off you by a beardy bloke hiding behind PowerPoint and a lectern, what you are really looking for is the chance to chat freely with people you actually want to talk to about stuff that you actually care about. At least, that's the idea.

And so the unconference is organised to feel like one long coffee break, with the delegates setting their own agendas, huddling in a multitude of semi-formal groups (each with its own self-defined topic of discussion) and generally having a good time.

Our unconference was kicked off by a facilitator with a long feel-good, love-and-peace ramble that he appeared to have borrowed from the summer of 1968. "Everyone has the right to be heard here or not heard," he said enigmatically. It was all very touchy-feely. I got the growing sense that I had arrived in the middle of a mash-up between Woodstock and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

There was a bit of me that really wanted to hate it just so I could file the experience in the folder in my brain marked "Hippy Nonsense". But the unconference seemed to work remarkably well. People learned stuff, made friends and found new collaborators.

All this got me thinking. I've been looking for ways to liven up my undergraduate course for some time now. I've thought of everything from field trips and guest speakers to multimedia resources and lectures down the pub. None of it feels like it would quite hit the spot. But the unconference was a stroke of rare inspirational genius. Perhaps I could run an uncourse. It would be exciting: a grand redesign, like taking a sledgehammer to the wall on the ground floor of a splendid Victorian house. (Admittedly without knowing whether that wall is structurally important.)

Now on to a consideration of what the class might want. If you were to ask the students, I'm sure they would agree that coffee breaks are high on the (very short) list of things that actually work in the lecture course. And I'm sure there's plenty that they would like to get rid of, the first thing being examinations and in-course assessments. I'd happily wave goodbye to the former. By the time they hit their third year of university study, they have already demonstrated that they can memorise their way through a couple of lever-arch files and regurgitate them back to you at the end of the academic year. …

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