What is an unconference?

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Written by Bethany Taylor on 18 May 2018

Walking into the room, it was difficult to gauge my expectation from a room of walls filled with chart paper waiting to be filled and tables with colourful stickers and pens. Even with the comfort of familiar faces in the room, my internal discomfort of the range of possibilities was very real.

Without getting too deeply into psychology, I probably suffered from the very common problem of the ‘fear of the unknown’ with a little ‘imposter phenomenon’ thrown in. The thoughts running through my head included: ‘What topics will we delve into? Will I have anything to contribute? Wait, what? I have to draw a self-portrait?’

To quickly set me at ease, the fearless facilitator Julie Drybrough (@fuschia_blue) made sure to lay out the rules and law of the unconference (or open space).

1) Whoever comes is the right people.

2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

3) Whenever it starts is the right time.

4) When it’s over, it’s over.

The Law of Two Feet, which states simply, if at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing – use your two feet and move to some place more to your liking. (http://www.openspaceworld.com/brief_history.htm)

Tracks and conversations

Providing a slight structure to the day, we all wrote down what we were hoping to discuss or learn. These focuses became the topics of discussion for each track and time. The topics ranged from sketchnoting to learning design, the need for an LMS or how to change hearts and minds of high level executives.

With such a range of topics and range of experience required, you would think that you would need a room of experts to take away some clear guidance and ideas. But you would be wrong! The mixing of minds from different levels and areas of expertise brings invaluable insights.

Within our world of complex problems to solve, the common phrase ‘two minds are better than one’ rings true. Imagine a room filled with minds all actively engaged with the process of providing insight or suggestions to move the problem closer to its resolution.  

Collectively we were able to provide a wide range of options and plunge even deeper into the nuances of each topic.

Quiet space

Also important to the progress of these conversations was the flexibility of taking time for quiet. A day of inspiration and complex ideas with solutions can make anyone’s mind tired (or even explode!). Whether or not it was used, it was integral to keeping the day swiftly moving and productive.

For some, the need for quiet contemplation or just a break from the action is required to really gain the most value. While for others its presence provided that safety net for when discussion got intense. I can’t say from experience that this area was actively used, but for me, it gave me the option to rest and contemplate; ultimately fostering my proactive participation.

Needs, offers and connections

No discussion, event or conference would provide value if all that was learned dissipated as you walked out the door. Even further, the ability to problem solve and provide innovative solutions hinges on the mixing of minds, this is where the unconference truly excels. So, it follows that we would want these conversations and discussions to follow us into our day to day.

Enter the chart paper which was strategically placed and dedicated to ‘Needs’ and ‘Offers’. Allowing us to post our specific or general needs, for those who wanted more support, or our offers, for those who had specific skills to assist. Providing an open space for everyone to continue to support, discuss and connect with each other.


With the nearly full chart paper for ‘Offers’, we could all see and feel the impact of generosity and care of everyone in the room. We all had particular skillsets that we were happy to lend to others. Pushing the unconference outside of the normative bounds of the day. 

The unconference blending of minds and discussions would also live on, because of the connections made. Another chart paper filled to the brim with resources to be shared and contact details of those involved.

I definitely acquired an arsenal of engaging, collaborative and expert connections to draw upon when in need and to assist. This was my key takeaway, a great group of people willing to continue the sharing and problem solving.

What is an unconference?

For me, this unconference was a condensed collection of opportunities. Both sharing and learning, these opportunities allowed me to think expansively and hear from other viewpoints. All the while, connecting and combining experiences and knowledge that would exceed the conversations of the day.

The unconference made me value the ability to have these connections face-to-face, but also reminded me of all the opportunity that exists in fostering connections in the digital spaces, or fostering personal learning networks.

Participating in #LDInsight (hosted by @LnDConnect) challenges and sharing answers or experiences with others (and commenting on others too). Or participating in other face-to-face and digital events like @LnDcowork, daily @TLDCasts (hosted by @the_tldc) or the myriad of webinars available (like the ones here at Training Journal).

All of these will provide even more opportunity to continue the mixing of minds and insights to solving problems.


About the author

Bethany Taylor is an instructional designer for eCom Scotland

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