Participant-Driven: Unconference Meetings for #TxEd #EdTech Leaders

With the new technologies that connect us, why rely on traditional organizations--TCEA and CoSN--to setup the venue and curate the conversations? It's a dangerous question and one that many technologists are already considering as edcamps and "unconference conferences" gain in popularity.
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Many technology professionals in Texas are already agreeing to work through a variety of topics on their own, organizing their own "unconference" meetings. Instead of post-its on a wall, though, agendas grow organically as tech directors add their ideas/questions to a GoogleDoc. Everyone gets their time in the sun.
An unconference, also called OpenSpace conference is a participant-driven meeting. The term "unconference" has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization.  Source: Wikipedia
Rather than attending as "individual" teachers, technology directors attend on behalf of their districts with the only cost including travel. The meetings do not involve fees, sponsored presentations or top-down organization. Participants--often technology directors--set the meeting topics.

These unconference meetings usually last a half-day and center around any of the following:
  • Problems that are perceived to affect more than one district
  • Solutions that one participant thinks should be shared with the group
  • In-house best practices that a district would like to share with others
And, there usually aren't any vendors present at these get-togethers. If there are any rules, they include the following:
  1. No top-down organizations (e.g. regional service centers, state-wide organizations), vendors or sponsored presentations.
  2. Participants develop ideas and questions.
  3. Solutions that work, that save money, are given preference.
  4. Safe, fear-free environment where peers can share their thinking without judgement or reprisal.
  5. Sessions are audio-recorded and shared with those who cannot attend, and/or notes are kept in a GoogleDoc to facilitate information sharing.
Aside: One day, I found myself sharing these rules with the "newbies" who had just joined the San Antonio Area Technology Directors' Meetings. Those conversations prompted this blog entry!
My first experience with ad-hoc organizational meetings like this involved a conversation Steve Young (Judson ISD CTO) had with me during a TEC-SIG meeting a few years ago. As I recall, the main benefits that attracted us to this format included slipping away from top-down structured conversations and vendor presentations. 

These two undesirable elements characterized many of the meetings we would encounter at the regional and state level. "Listen to this vendor present on their topic" and this just wasn't that exciting or helpful.

To avoid that, Area 20 technology directors usually access a GoogleDoc and input their question and/or agenda topics. Here are a few of the topics and sharing that occurred at a recent Area 20 meeting:
  1. Future Meeting Dates
  2. Two most interesting products or presentations at TCEA
  3. Mobile Security and Emergency Platforms
  4. What type of computers does your staff use?
  5. Mirroring iTCCS or TxEIS?
  6. Refresh cycle for equipment
  7. ESC-20's Clarity
  8. K-12 Instructional Tech Consortium
  9. Board Room Audio-Visual Suggestions
  10. Firewall vendors
  11. Wireless manufacturer
  12. Privacy Policy
  13. Encryption of Mobile Devices
  14. Types of School bus cameras
It's pretty amazing to look back over the history of these meetings and see the sheer volume of solutions shared! For example, in writing this blog entry, I looked back at a September, 2012 meeting--one of my first in my role as Technology Operations Director--and I was surprised to see some recurring topics, as well as ones I still had questions about now:
  1. Future meetings
  2. Region 20 BrightBytes and who is using it, other tools one can use
  3. Technology refresh rates
  4. Tech Department Evaluations
  5. Area 20 Robotics, Google Summit
  6.  I would like to discuss if anyone has any sort of budget formula based on FTE and/or Student Pop in order to fund classroom technology.
  7. Helpdesk solutions
  8. BYOT efforts
  9. Data Warehouse
  10. Staff Development for Technicians
  11. Windows XP migration to Windows 7 or 8
  12. Technology inventory solutions
  13. 1:1 device selection and applicability for elementary vs middle vs high schoolers
  14. Strategies for providing 1:1 connectivity beyond the 4-walls of your schools
  15. Mobile Device Management system round-up?
  16. Where everyone is with BYOD and if there are any specific policies in place for their BYOD initiatives; also, how do they handle providing devices for the few that may not have their own iPod, iPad, netbook, laptop or smartphone?
  17. What are some security practices your district follows?
  18. How are you deciding on areas of priority or need for campus computing? For example, how do you decide where to spend precious funding? 
  19. Do you have a minimum number of computer labs per elementary, middle and high school campuses?
  20. What web filtering solutions is everyone using currently?
  21. how are you handling proxy avoidance apps like ultrasurf?
  22. What is everyone using for imaging computers? Mac? Windows?
  23. Jump to Access Controls (door security)
  24. Digital Learning Environment HB5 scorecard?
  25. What are you using for inventory?
  26. Does anyone have experience with Neverware vendor?
  27. Data Governance Policy - Common Education Data Standards : and Authentica:
  28. Discussion on Big Data and the idea that districts are the entry point for student data and future parental questions regarding locating where student data is. If I use multiple cloud-based systems, where is my district student data stored and accessed?
  29. Chromebook - Looking for deployment advice
  30. Professional Development - How are you encouraging participation? (without a cattle prod?
  31. What does your equipment replacement plan look like?
  32. Surveys - We are looking into the SpeakUP survey about student, 
    parent, teacher, administrator use of technology at home and work. I 
    really want to do this with my district but finding resistance from 
    the top-levels about doing any type of survey. I wanted to know if 
    anyone has done this survey and what tips/suggestions they have to 
    persuade a Supt. who won't. Maybe I can have your Supt. call mine! 
  33. Google Apps - We are slow rolling these out right now. Tips/ 
    suggestions/ideas? I have a website I put together that is a copy of 
    Eanes ISD Google Apps rollout that might be worth sharing if anyone 
    else is doing this. 
  34. eCourses instead of packets - This year I started making eCourses 
    in eduphoria for staff to take instead of rolling out an AUP in Google 
    Docs, a Blood-borne pathogen training video on some other site, and 
    Sexual Harassment training on Region 20. I wanted to see if others are 
    using eCourses and providing credit for teachers? I know Boerne does 
    their AUP in Project Share. Would like an update on how that is 

Other groups across Texas are also meeting and discussing topics. For example, here's a brief overview of what Area 13--and note their #tc13 Twitter hashtag--discussed at a recent meeting:

Responsible Person(s)

TCEA report/sharing
wireless projection--looked at WePresent and Vivitek; connects to projector/USB--no Airplay; Actiontec-- Android; Airtame; Netgear Widi --
point-to-point (for Windows 8); districts looking at new web hosting options in face of eRate changes;; CampusPress option built on Wordpress; Edlio; Sumblox -- wood number blocks teach basic math functions; emaze -- presentation tool similar to Prezi; Slides -- very nice, simple online presentations; Pechaflickr -- create improv presentations using random Flickr images; Office Mix-- add-in for PowerPoint to add interactive features, such as quizzes.

Spent 3-4 months working with consultant, surveying users, getting feedback; entire process took at least a year; saving district $1 over 5 years; very easy check/click and drag report creation; service will handle business transactions, payroll, gradebook, student records, LMS, etc. Automatic data error checking
Valdez/Greiner (PfISD)

Today’s Presentation


Register for free ticket here:


Beyond Hour of Code (What is your school/district doing with coding, especially advancing past graphic tools like, Scratch, etc.? Do you have future plans to do things?)
Middle school {PfISD)--local electives; video coding/gaming, robotics (looking at using Finch robots); pulling in Computer Science as 8th grade elective; also at 1 elementary using or unplugged lesson; summer partnerships/mentoring with Oracle. Manor has middle school robotics course, elementary using; will be writing, Scratch, etc. into; offering 4-year options for CATE or STEM graduation paths.

History Logo Language for lower elementary students. Evolved into Scratch My husband, Charles Sudduth taught his 2nd grade logo in 1980.
Randy (facilitate)

Diocese of Austin Catholic Schools are implementing Bookshare, a free audio and text resource for students with print disabilities. 327,000+ titles in Bookshare. Free for students with some reading disabilities. Read to Go app (iOs); Go Read, Darwin Reader (Android)

Ann Sudduth, Educational Technology Consultant, Diocese of Austin
1:30 - 2:00
Round Rock ISD NGDC (Next Generation Digital Classroom)
Piloting 4 devices (Chromebook, iPad, Galaxy Tab, Dell Venue); Research & Evaluation team created measurable goals for engagement, differentiation, instructional time, teachers submitting surveys weekly; teachers had to apply to be pilot class
Let’s look at this! YouTube for Kids App for Android or iOS if Vic will unblock it temporarily, just launched. How do you turn off the music? App includes buttons for channels, music, learning, search.

Idea Digital Classroom
-minimum hardware
-minimum software
-minimum Support / PD

Wrap up


And, yet another Texas area group focuses on discussions that have a wide range of topics:
  1. Account management and systems integration, whether you host your own email/calendaring or outsource to GoogleApps, are critical challenges. 
  2. Establishing clear processes and procedures for purchasing new software and/or web-based services without ensuring fidelity of implementation.
  3. Implementing cost-effective Data Warehouse solutions.
  4. The changing role of instructional technologists. These positions are disappearing without a state-wide advocacy movement. They shouldn't disappear, but endure a metamorphosis to "curriculum coaches" that serve as the best examples of curriculum-technology blending. There's also a clear need to build relationships with "traditional curriculum specialists" and leaders that reflects the changing more silos.
  5. Adoption of digital textbooks has placed technology in an awkward position where data file creation strategies and building capacity is a clear and present need. For example, in the last two years, I've seen us jump from a handful of data files to over 25 data files with little changes in staff.
  6. Professional expectations for technologists and certifications for network services, technical support staff are all within our area of responsibility as technology coordinators, directors, AND Chief Technology/Information Officers.
  7. Digital citizenship that includes protection of confidential data, as well as putting agreements in place.
  8. How to choose learning management systems, or perhaps, transcend them.
  9. Assessing teaching, learning and leading in schools that reflects technology as a core component, but not the only integral one.
As I review my notes from past meetings, I'm again struck by the wealth of solutions. Of course, sharing those is another blog entry!

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JeanTower said…
Miguel - Come to CoSN Annual conference next month nd visit the CoSN Camp area - it is an "unconference" that runs throughout the entire conference. We have campfires (crafted from fabric) and lots of great conversations and collaborative probelm solving.
Anonymous said…
I suggest you run your own unconference event with teachers and get their feedback at the end of it to help determine the path for future staff development. I have been lucky to be able to run 5 unconference events. My last one followed the district convocation so all teachers were participating in their first unconference event (new district for me).

In previous districts, the unconference event usually kicked off summer staff development. Topics discovered in the group sharing time of the schedule became embedded as a pathway for the rest of the summer staff development schedule.

Plus, the feedback allowed me to harness more of what people may have been afraid to openly discuss as a backbone for future PD opportunities.

In every instance of an unconference, the most overwhelmingly consistent feedback is that teachers want a schedule. The entire unconference is overwhelming for MOST participants. There are a few who find the unconference method to be outstanding and they will rave about it all year long whenever they see you. But most participants still want the schedule. They want a schedule and an unconference so they can jump into one and then cross into the other at their convenience.

The feedback is the key in order to help customize the entire experience in the future as well as plan different methods of PD in even the most regular of training days.

I like to unconference most of my trainings. I have a general topic that will be presented on a given day. But I don't build the session until I find out what it is the people in the room already know on the topic and then what they want to know. What are they hoping to accomplish in the time we are together? What can they implement without barriers when they leave? What barriers are there to prevent them from achieving it (filter, lab time, lack of computer time)

Once we have that information, I show them where I get my resources. I let them see me research Twitter, Pinterest, Google, whatever and pull resources together to share. Then we go through it and share as a group.

But really, I suggest you host an unconference event. It is really fun. Your teachers may not have ever experienced anything like it before. It opens up new dialogue. It is risky and adventurous. And overall, teachers will appreciate you trying something new so much that you will try new things in every type of training forward.

Good post. I remember those Area 20 meetings and the notes documents too. I use that type of system now with any meeting I am in so we have a "paper trail". Thanks for introducing it to us all those years ago.

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