The spirit of barcamps

clc2013I attended another nice Barcamp, the Corporate Learning Camp 2013 (#CLC13) at the Fachhochschule in Frankfurt, Germany. I’m not the industry and management guy, and feared to find myself out of place there. But to the contrary of my expectations it was a quite inspiring and revealing meeting of people from whom lots of things could be learned. The main reason I wanted to attend however, was that I wanted to see by myself what exactly a barcamp is, and if it could eventually be a communication format that could inspire also a FPU.

But what really is a barcamp, or “un-conference”, as some use to call it? For the precise definition lookup the web, but in my words I would define it as an alternative way with which people could communicate their ideas, projects, dreams. It works as follows. In the beginning all the present people convene in a hall and everyone is allowed to present in a minute his or her session. And “everyone” means just that: everyone. There is no hierarchy of sages, teachers or professors. Also a perfectly unknown could rush in and present a speech. You can propose for instance to discuss with those who like to attend “the future of the MOOCs”, or instead of presenting your own project you might ask for solutions, as “how to find funds to publish a book on hand surgery?”, or discuss how far “didactical and pedagogical optimism is justified?”, and so on. Once you have presented your session, and if among the present there are at least some who rise up their hands showing interest, you get assigned a room at a specific time. The same procedure repeats itself for all those who present a topic. Finally, several sessions have been programmed on the spot, without any previous intervention and or approval by a commission. On a board, in less than a half an hour a huge program of sessions have been set. Then everyone attends those which are considered the most interesting. What follows is not a talk held by the proponent of the session, but only a brief introduction, after which an informal discussion is opened to all the present.

Initially I was a bit skeptic. What I expected barcamps to be was a sort of, very democratic, but messy and out of control public speech where everyone interrupts the other with the risk of the talk degenerating in flames with emotions rising high (London’s ‘speakers corner’ alike). However, nothing alike happened. Quite the contrary, all the session I could attend were interesting, informative, with lots of discussion and exchange of ideas, even occasionally disagreement, but everything in the frame of a politically correct and civilized mood. The only disadvantage of the present barcamp format I could see is that several sessions are programmed at the same time (usually due to a lack of place and/or time), and if you are interested in two which happen to be on plan at the same time, you have to sacrifice one or another. But overall both barcamps I attended so far, were a very pleasing experience, which wanted to be repeated as soon as possible.

I’m wondering if such a form of communication might also work in a FPU? The idea is that the classical seminar format might be occasionally replaced also by an “un-seminar”. The traditional seminar is not going to die, I believe it will continue to play a role. However, in several situations a barcamp styled seminar might be a better solution. Because seminars are used to convey information. Instead an un-seminar can function as a platform to ask for information. One might have an idea of a research project and wants to hear what other students and faculty members might think of it. Another wants to set up a reserach group and looks for members participating. Another just wants to share opinions and impressions on a new discovery, and so on. What I mean, is that the barcamp, un-conference or un-seminar format might be a great tool for communicating among university members about ideas, projects, findings, news, etc. That would also foster a real socialization and eventually group think, which is not forced and imposed from above as it is actually.

Could that work?

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Attending OER13

OERI attended the OER13 (Open Educational Resources 2013) conference organized by Wikimedia Deutschland in Berlin, the 14th and 15th September. It was a quite interesting and inspiring set of conferences and barcamps distributed over five workshops rooms and a plenum hall. It was an intense two days workshop that focused on topics like the present day state of the art and the future of MOOCs (massive open online courses), P2P (peer to peer) learning, OER for schools and university, CC (creative commons) licenses and open source material. Unfortunately it was impossible to attend at several interesting talks since, because of the high number of participants and the choice to compress all the events into a week end, most sessions run in parallel and it was necessary to chose those which I considered the most interesting, neglecting however several others which could have been equally worth a visit. It would be impossible to account for any (mostly positive) impression. Just to mention some, what I personally found most interesting were essentially three contributions.

The first by Philipp Schmidt, of the P2PU/MIT Media Lab who described the Peer 2 Peer University open education project, and which gave me the impression of being a (still too) rare attempt to go beyond standard institutional approaches.

The second very interesting ongoing experiment and that will be worthwhile to keep an eye on in the coming years, is the German OER example SERLO (so far only in German), presented by Simon Köhl . It is a free learning platform for students which offers thousands of mathematical problems solved, hundreds of articles and dozens of exams with answers in math. What makes it interesting is not so much the content (most of it could be easily ‘googled’) but the collaborative character of its participants on an open platform that offers the possibility to anyone to develop new material and contribute with one’s own skills and interests. In fact, it is prevalently created by high school students, not only by instructors. Everyone can post problems with its solution and articles and everyone can edit the content of others too, without being a teacher or necessitating of degrees and titles. I believe that it will be this bottom up approach that will sooner or later reshape the function of the teacher or university professors.  The time will come were they will be no longer the exclusive providers of content, maybe they will even not create it, whereas their main function will become that of a tutor or facilitator, in the process of acquiring knowledge.

The third event that attracted my attention was the concluding keynote by Neil Butcher, the director of Neil Butcher & Associates and member of the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE), who gave a talk (in English) about “OER and the social imperative for educational transformation: what are the priorities?” He got to the point I was looking for (and that unfortunately, also in OER13, was still considered a marginal aspect): how we should reconsider learning, teaching, the relationship between teachers and students, didactics and pedagogy to fully exploit IT beyond its potentials as mere information delivery systems. Here I felt much resonance with the ideals of a FPU, even though he didn’t mention it in the frame of higher education.

Personally I enjoyed OER13 also because it was the first time I participated at barcamps (or ‘unconferences’), i.e open, participatory workshop-events, where the content of which is provided by participants. And overall the impression was that we are still at the beginning of a revolution, which was clearly perceptible in the halls of it. I’m already looking forward at OER14….