Monday, 18 May 2009

A nearly 'unconference'

On Friday I'm running our Learning and Teaching in the Sciences conference. I say I'm running it, but I very much hope that I'll just be facilitating it as this year we're going to attempt one of those participant led unconference things.

Initially I'd decided to cancel this year's event as we couldn't get the speakers we wanted, then (to my surprise and delight) several people complained. So it's back by popular demand! Alan Cann commented that a traditional conference was the last thing we needed and suggested an unconference? So that's what we're experimenting with on Friday. Here's an outline so that I can a) get my thoughts down and b) invite comments and suggestions.


There are some of the factors we need to bear in mind if this is going to work well.


We have 20 booking so far and I don't imagine that will go up or down a great deal between now and Friday.


We will be in GPS18 - a reading room in the George Porter building - which will accommodate more than 30 but will probably be best set up as 4 groups of tables with 8-ish around each table.


We have 3 hours available (10.30-13.30) but with lunch included in that, so will probably closer to 2 hours.


We will have a mix of people coming along - some of whom will be very comfortable with the idea of an unstructured unconference, others of whom (I expect) will find it all a bit odd. So I need to give the event some direction and shape, but without turning it back into a conference. I don't want to stick slavishly to the unconference model (of which there's not a great danger because I don't know enough about it!) but I do want to use it as far as it's useful in getting everyone involved and contributing and coming up with practical ideas.


The theme is assessment, more specifically we have a question to focus our thoughts: Do we over assess our students and should we assess less?


So a suggested outline is as follows (NB. timings very approximate).

Introduction (10 minutes)

Explain the proposed outline and relevant unconference elements:
  • each group will have a convenor to facilitate (not lead) the discussion - they are not necessarily an expert on the chosen topic, they've just identified a challenge and want some ideas;
  • each group will have a flip chart pad and pens and will need to note down (and then present back) the challenge they have identified and some suggested solutions;
  • participants can choose to go to whichever group they like;
  • participants can (and are encouraged to) move to a different group whenever you think they've got as much from they're current group as they can.

Pitches for session 1 (10 minutes)

This is the bit that's not very unconference-y. Get 4 pre-primed people to pitch their idea as one of the group topics. The suggestions I've had so far are as follows (not all of these people have been asked yet - some have been volunteered - but take it as a complement!).
  • Using Turnitin for assessment (Jo Badge)
  • 10 quick wins on assessment (Jon Scott)
  • PC-based exams (Richard England)
  • [and another one please - Alan? Chris? Dai?]
Each pitch is a a maximum of 2 minutes - no slides.

Just noticed none of these are problems - just things - any suggestions?

Session 1 (up to 30 minutes)

This is when people get into groups around the tables and off they go. Participants can switch group whenever they like (but not the convenor).

Feedback from session 1 (10 minutes)

Feedback from each group.

Tea and coffee (10 minutes)

Brainstorm for session 2 topics (10 minutes)

What do we want to talk about next?

Session (up to 30 minutes)

As for session 1.

Feedback from session 2 (10 minutes)

As for session 1.


What are we going to do next?


Courtesy of central catering.


  1. Sounds a bit more formal than I was expecting? I know you're trying not to scare people, but is this moving tables business a bit close to that awful writing on tablecloths thing? I think the idea of an unconference is that the agenda emerges after the conference, generated by the participants.

  2. Stuart Johnson18 May 2009 at 17:22

    Definitely no table cloths! So would you suggest that the outline's OK up to the bit just before the introduction? It's just that being responsible for it means that I feel I should give it a bit more direction than turn-up-and-see-what-happens. Do you think that would be OK though? Is your suggestion to leave the theme but to let it develop from there?

  3. Yes, the introduction is fine, "Pitches for session 1" is a bit dodgy - that's where is turns into a conference. I don't mind but I think there is a danger of running an event which is neither one thing nor the other and participants become confused. Brainstorming and feedback sessions are OK.

  4. Some thoughts
    I'm not that keen on the theme "Do we over assess our students and should we assess less?" The problem with this is that most people will think the answers to both questions is yes. What poeple really want to know is how to assess well with less effort/work.
    I think you could have the first session as very unstructured. What do people think are the problems with their current assessment? What is a "good" assessment?
    If we start with something open ended after the first feedback session we may identify topics that are worthy of further discussion.
    If you are just looking for another topic to add to your current list - how about how to assess teamwork, and/or is peer assessment reliable?

    Has Gilly Salmon been specifically invited can she send a representative since it was clear at Science Faculty L&T meeting that we don't know what she does.

  5. The answer to both question is yes? Really? What is assessment? What is the difference between assessment and feedback? How much it too much? What happens if you do reduce assessment? What strategies have people tried? What do students think about assessment? Etc, etc.

  6. Glad we're all agreed then! Will think more about it tomorrow. Less structure though was a point of agreement

  7. I'm happy to talk about Turnitin but I agree with Dai and Alan that I would like to see what people want to talk about when we turn up on Friday.

  8. What I was getting at is that most of my colleagues definitely don't want to do more assessment because it takes more time and purely from this point of view they would like to do less.

    I personally am less interested in philosophical questions, such as what is assessment? The university require us to "assess" all modules. In this regard they mean grade students according to how well they have met our "assessment criteria" which should match our learning objectives.
    Any questions which are more philosophical are not relevant to how most staff operate day to day. I'm not saying such questions shouldn't be asked I'm just saying most staff don't care what the answer is.
    I have always wanted this meeting to try and engage more staff in teaching matters not to put them off. If you want "ordinary" members of staff to come along and be engaged we have to be careful we don't get bogged down in eduspeak and matters that are more philosphical than practical. If I am misinterpreting other people I'm sorry.

  9. Stuart Johnson19 May 2009 at 15:23

    Sounds like assessment is the topic to tackle - just need to decide how. And we do want to keep the emphasis on practical strategies. Re who will come - I suspect given the late notice we'll get mostly people who are already interested in teaching. I'll do some more thinking tomorrow afternoon and update the website accordingly. Looking forward to it and thanks for your comments.

  10. [...] the sciences annual conference was organised as an unconference this year. It was an experiment and Stuart Johnson took his reputation in his hands to organise it. He needn’t have worried, we all managed to [...]