Course corrections for a revolutionary age

An ‘unconference’ inspires Kevin Fong to rethink his lecture material

October 3, 2013

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.

After 13 years of teaching the same sort of stuff, I feel like I need to liven up my undergraduate course for the same reason that someone felt the need to break the academic conference mould

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. We could surely spare them (and us) that.

And why not get rid of the in-course essay assessments, too? (Or at least replace them with something better.) There must be a more effective way of getting feedback from the students and making sure they are tuned in. Engaging them in small groups just might work.

I’m sure the class would also want to be shot of boring lectures. This is trickier: trying to remove content that is good for them but dull is like trying to squeeze jelly to death. But we could have a go.

Of course, I’m just guessing here. An uncourse true to the style of the unconference would start with sitting the class down and asking them how and what they want to get out of the semester, followed by hastily rejigging the whole thing on the fly. It would be like trying to change the oil in your engine while driving down the motorway at 100mph.

But after 13 years of teaching the same sort of stuff, I feel like I need to do something for the same reason that someone felt the need to break the academic conference mould. It’s not that the old formats don’t work, it’s just that they barely work, and with each year that rolls by, coffee breaks are increasingly becoming their only redeeming feature.

As I write this, I am preparing for the introductory lecture to this year’s course. I doubt that even I am foolhardy enough to start by breaking out a truckload of magic markers and flip charts, and deleting the content of the timetable we have so carefully put together. I fear that the wall I so badly want to take a hammer to might well be load-bearing. But I do think that we need to keep innovating.

The unconference originated in Silicon Valley, where in the late 1990s computer-programmer types decided that everything about their work and way of life – including their meetings – should be more “open source”. That philosophy partly brought about the digital revolution, which in turn has brought our ways of communicating and engaging with students into sharp relief.

With that and the other changes in higher education, student expectations are likely to grow far more quickly than the rate at which our course material becomes more engaging. And so, during this year’s introductory chat, I think I’ll finally start chipping away.

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