Monthly Archives: September 2019

MappingUnconferencesA3 … this post is only about four months late (the thought-to-action time lag is getting greater all the time). I’ve wanted to thank Tom Farrelly since late May for curating a Gasta session at #edconTCD on May 18th, and it struck me that there were so many other role models of the unconference world to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for all I have learned from each of them. As well as marvelling at Tom the Gasta guru, I have watched Shelli Ann Garland inject Pecha Kucha style to the Trinity College Dublin School of Education last year; collaborated with Richard Millwood introducing Open Space Technology in both CESIcon and at ScratchEdMeetups; admired Eoin Kennedy herding huddles at CONGregation each November; twice been ‘lobbed’ by John Davitt at Learning On A Beach; watched with deep admiration how Frank Sabaté from Catalunya combined cheeerleader and MC roles at many many Ignite sessions at three successive Scratch conferences in Europe (BCN, AMS, BDX); I have been V-connected to many conferences now thanks to Kate Molloy of CESI; and as for TeachMeet, there have been so so many many who have inspired me over the last decade however the epiphany ‘big bang’ moment for me was watching founder Ewan McIntosh unconferencing the Scottish Learning Festival way back in 2008,. Thank you all …

… I include three things in this post – the slides I used at the edconTCD Gasta session in which I tried to explain the evolution of unconference world in 5 mins; an explanatory overview of the broad unconference world that I have been delving into since I began PhD research into TeachMeet [cross-posted as a #cong19 blog entry]; and an updated version of my MappingUnconferencesA3 I have come across, summarised origins, evolution, governance, and philosophies of each …



Researching the origins and evolution of TeachMeet brought me into the hall of mirrors that is the world of a recent global phenomenon – the unconference. Although the name comes from the tech community, coined for an XML developers conference in 1988, the idea is attributed to Harrison Owen and the Open Space Technology method he introduced in 1984, turning the traditional menu-driven conference format on its head and introducing more of the primeval conversational formats that attendees obviously appreciated, because it has flourished, replicated, and evolved ever since.

The main characteristics of the unconference, inherited from Owen’s Open Space, are high levels of complexity and diversity, potential for critical discussion, being driven by passion and responsibility, and the deployment of “the one law – if at any time you discover you are neither learning or contributing, use you two feet and move on”. Most people who use it refer to it now as the Law Of Two Feet. It is a very powerful permission to grant to participants, running counterintuitive to the ‘sit and suffer’ tendency when one it stuck in the ‘stand and deliver’ conference situation. Switching the brain and the body to unconference mode may take a while – timetables and agendas are built by assent and by participant choice – some patience is needed, and confidence, and there may be bite marks on the teeth of a control freak for the first while. It can demand a leap of faith, and provide a giddy sense of freedom. Perhaps the best descriptor for the complex-but-simple atmosphere of an unconference is the Dee Hock coined adjective chaordic. Dave Winer’s “What Is An Unconference” blog post from 2006 probably sums up why folk flip from conference to unconference when he says “This observation may turn out to be the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences … The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.” 

Looking across and down the history of modern unconference formats, I find they fall into three structures
(i) broad discursive unconferences with long time slots devoted to community conversations in an agenda agreed at the start of the day (Open Space, World Café, BarCamp, EdCamp, CampEd);
(ii) narrower hi-octane sessions with very short time frames and strict rules for each speaker (Pecha Kucha, Ignite, Gasta); and
(iii) hybrids with elements of both (TeachMeet, Pedagoo, BrewEd, ScratchEdMeetUp, ConGregation, Vconnect).

In terms of organisers’ deploying these unconference formats, at least five methods have crossed my horizon since I began to observe, each with varying degrees of openness and inclusion.
1 – Independent unconference events:
As in the annual event in Cong, most MeetUp, BarCamp, EdCamp, Pedagoo, BrewEd, World Café, and Open Space Technology gatherings are organised as stand-alone events, independent entities with open access for all interested parties to attend
2, 3, & 4 – Unconference events attached to conferences:
> many unconferences are doing what their names suggests and getting attached to an established conference as a fringe event outside the published timetable – some TeachMeets and MeetUp are organised this way; these may or may not be restricted to those attending the parent conference.
> other formats have evolved within the conference setting: using an unconference format for some activities during the conference schedule – one way is to include a TeachMeet, Gasta, Pecha Kucha, or Ignite session to vary the pace, inject energy, and open the floor to voices and ideas that might not other be included.
> another emerging idea is to offer a Vconnect session so that those not at a conference in person can digitally/virtually connect and join a conversation with those at the conference.
5 – In-house unconference events:
Many educational, community, business or special interest groups are adopting the unconference ‘caucus’ approach for team meetings and professional learning events. Access is limited to the relevant community, but speakers and presentation come from within the working group.

There is of course way way more to unconferences than what I have written here, which is a potted history account from my own experience and research. If you know something I should include, feel free contact me. [ ]

audacityA spoken version of this post is here, a 7m 30s listening at 1x.
[Thanks as ever to my hero James Crook for the beautiful software that is Audacity. It gives me delight each time I use it.]

Owen, Harrison. Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997.



My knowledge of the geography of some English cities improved greatly this summer …

Turtle trip 1 – Curry On in London

It was a real treat to be present at the keynote by Cynthia Solomon at the Curry On conference in London, and watch her tell the Logo story, from its origins and through its development, to the programmers of today, many of whom are waaay younger than Logo.

After the keynote, Cynthia joined some UK  Computing At School [CAS] teachers hosted by Simon Peyton Jones of the National Centre for Computing Education for a round table discussion about computer science in schools. Good move – great conversation and exchange of views, it was a treat to be the representative of the CESI tribe at this table.

Turtle trip 2 – TurtleStitch atelier in Warwick University

Thanks to the hospitality and leadership of Prof Margaret Low who hosted a three day TurtleStitch atelier in the Warwick Manufacturing Group centre at Warwick University in Coventry. It was a chance to have space and time – in the lab and over meals – to develop ideas with each other, catch up and compare experiences, and plan for the near future (forthcoming Scratch conference) and the future future (SnapCon, Constructionism 2020). Working as a face to face group led by TurtleStitch developer Andrea Mayr Stalder, the group comprised Margaret Low, Robert Low, Joek de Montfort, Rebecca de Montfort, Richard Millwood; we were joined online by Susan Ettenheim in NYC and Michael Aschauer in Banff.

My two take away tasks were – update the embroidery machine information page of the website set up by Susan to connect the growing global community of practice, and then chase up and invite users to add their details to same. Haven’t done it yet – heigh ho, heigh ho …

Turtle trip 3 – Turtlestitch at #Scratch Europe in Cambridge

One of the best features of a Scratch conference is that it is not at all uppity or exclusive, it welcomes all block-based programming projects. And so there was a welcome for Turtlestitch as a both a discrete workshop and an ongoing hands-on poster session. Both attracted serious interest and active participation by attendees.

The workshop in the Sixties Building: We had a packed house as Andrea introduced TurtleStitch to participants from all over the world, Joek did a short demonstration, and everyone set off on their programming and stitching challenge. My favourite was watching Jadga Hugle wrangle with the code so she could stitch out Alonzo, the logo of her own working life with SNAP:

The Italian delegates were there in force and enjoyed themselves – thank you for your enthusiasm, Angelasofia Lombardo and colleagues:

Rob and Sandy in Hale and Pace ready-to-bounce stance

Rob and Sandy in Hale and Pace ready-to-bounce stance

The conversations among the educators present were really interesting and provocative; setting up a workshop like this is a huge collective effort, but when the result is what is was here, it is worth every effort. I think the ‘roadies’ might agree – looking at you, Robert Low and James Johnston, pictured here in ‘Hale & Pace’ ready-to-bounce stance (albeit at their other Scratch conference workshop gig, Tales for Tiles). Specially when folk describe it as a “wow” moment, as Neil Rickus did in his reflective Computing Champions blog post here.


The interactive ‘unposter’ session, ongoing in the foyer (close to the bar!): This proved to be a very busy and very worthwhile activity over Saturday and Sunday. Compared to the classic rather staid academic poster session, this was more like an unposter session. The machine – computer and embroidery – were both in constant use as visitor coded and stitched their designs. People wanted to know everything about the software, the machine, and logistics, the cost – it was non-stop. The final top moment for me was when Mutsa, a second level student from London, asked to make a design, and spend a long time concentrating on getting it exactly as she wanted it, and was so very pleased with the result of her work when she stitched it out on her conference bag – a perfect storm of learning !!

Andrea Mayr-Stalder, founder of TurtleStitch

Andrea Mayr-Stalder, founder of TurtleStitch, welcomes workshop participants to join the global community of practice

And so now, back to Cavan after turtling around  London, Coventry, and Cambridge, it is about time for me to do some of my assigned TurtleStitch homework on the community website … check in there soon for updates. I will leave the last and most important image to be of Andrea, from whose brain all this came, introducing the workshop …

The first session of the recent Scratch Europe Conference in Churchill College, Cambridge (UK) was a ScratchEdMeetup hosted Richard Millwood and Mags Amond of the Ireland chapter. It was an indoor-outdoor affair with participants from many countries. It was a bit meta, as much about introducing the ScratchEdMeetup format itself as it was about discussing Scratch; an idea we shamelessly stole from the ScratchEd team at the MIT 2018 conference. Much praise is due to Karen Brennan and her ScratchEd team for putting huge thought into developing this idea, with impressive attention to detail, to foster discussion and sharing within the community of educators which has evolved around Scratch.

ScratchEdMeetup is popular in Europe but this was the first outing in the UK (hopefully not the last). The Meetup format is adapted from Open Space Technology unconference ideals, as is the Edcamp model more familiar to educators – participants with a similar interest or quest gather in an opening circle, questions are posed and shared on a bulletin area, the agenda is agreed from those suggestions, interests groups form and go away to discuss their chosen area, and eventually everyone returns to the open forum to share their ideas and findings. The only rule is The Law Of Two Feet – if you find yourself in the wrong place, move yourself to the right place. The time frame depends on context – in this case we had two hours allocated; it was just right – half hour getting sorted, hour discussion, half hour dissemination. [If there is a real-world decision making need in the air, way more time would be needed]. Numbers need not be a problem – this time we had 15 sign up, over 50 turn up, people came and went throughout the afternoon, but a core of about 40 got ‘stuck-in’ for the duration.

ScratchEdMeetup - Introductory open space discussion

ScratchEdMeetup – Introductory open space discussion – in this case, ‘open space’ has been taken literally by Richard Millwood


In this ScratchEdMeetup, after the initial whole group introduction, the agenda emerged around six possible themes – Scratch in formal education, Scratch in informal setting, physical computing with Scratch, Scratch for Art and Creativity, Building the Scratch Community, and a mixture of singular topics we dubbed “The Rest”. Four groups formed, each led by a volunteer chair, each adopting one the the first four themes for discussion. There was enough overlap with the other two themes to ensure they were not neglected.

After an hour of group discussion, the large group reconvened and each chair reported their group’s findings. The largest groups were the physical computing and formal teaching, and their report back in each case articulated needs of participants very strongly. All four groups report reflected passionate interest in developing skills and raising standards of the entire community. Eavesdropping on all four groups, it was clear there was huge sharing or ideas going on within the hour of discussion, and the general discussion bore this out – each suggestion or idea reported back was answered with offers of information, resources location, solutions. Most tellingly, we had to call time on the final conversation and ask folk to continue talking together in the interstitial spaces of the rest of the conference weekend. Which they did.

The strongest calls at the end were for more training for formal educators, more support and ‘know how’ connections for informal educators, more ease of inter-platform connection and agility in physical computing, and more recognition and support for those taking a creative and innovative artistic path. Close up of the notes on the questions posed are on agenda boards at the end …

So it is over to you now, lovely Scratch friends, to organise more ScratchEdMeetups – the initial administration route is a little circuitous but for me the joyful atmosphere of the meetings is well worth the effort. If you are using Scratch in any way, this is a good format to call on others and share what you are up to. Details of how to do this are at the shiny new website here:

And sincere thanks to Helen Drury of Raspberry Pi and her organising team, for taking the decision to include this unconference element in this year’s Scratch Europe Conference.


ScratchEdMeetup – agenda setting no.1 – Scratch in formal education


ScratchEdMeetup – agenda setting no.2 – Scratch in informal settings


ScratchEdMeetup – agenda setting no.3 – physical computing with Scratch


ScratchEdMeetup - detailed notes from the physical computing discussion

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