Monday, November 27, 2006

Unconferences and open spaces

Bruce Eckel and several other people have been experimenting very successfully with unconferences and open space conferences. On the face of it "open spaces" seems to a very broad (open) ended concept, but it can be a very interesting and powerful concept if the participants are mature enough to make proper use of it. Here is the broad outline of my understanding of open spaces:

Open spaces are conferences propelled by a concept or question. The driving concept could be anything from "How do we make our neighborhood cleaner" to "What is the best way to utilize web services". These are not preplanned conferences. The person or organization who wishes to explore a concept/problem will send out invitations in the community. People/companies who have similar interests will accept the invitation to attend. An invitation fee is usually charged to compensate for food, equipment, and conference room costs. The conference is a self organizing conference, which means there is no pre-planned agenda. However the duration of the conference and time slot place holders are pre-determined. The time slots are later filled with a concrete agenda. On the day of the conference the initiator gives a keynote presentation on the main issue, after which participants volunteer topics that they would like to explore under the main umbrella. Each participant who volunteers a discussion fills up a time slot and place. Those with similar interests also sign up. Note that all time slots and spaces may not be signed up for. More topics may emerge after the discussions start.

Once the self organizing agenda has been determined, participants group up in various corners or wherever they want to, and discuss the issue they signed up for. Participants may move around from one group to another or may stay with a group for the planned duration. The person who initiated a particular topic is responsible for maintaining the transcripts and documenting any interesting findings or observations. On the last day all conversations are consolidated by the lead participants (participants who initiated discussion topics) by briefly telling everyone what was discussed and any interesting findings that may have emerged. Important findings and insights are noted and may be published on a website or a technical journal for later reference.
Open spaces has a huge potential for learning and education. We are living in a time when technology is changing very rapidly and people have different learning requirements for the same technology. For example different developers who want to learn about multi-threaded programming will most likely want to learn it at different levels. Some might want to just scratch the surface to understand concurrency, while other may want to learn in greater detail to write code that uses concepts of multi-threading, while a few people might actually want to gain a high degree of expertise in it, to create a multi-threaded server. Couple this with the fact that different people also have different learning speeds, and you will soon realize that a traditional workshop to teach "multi-threading in Java" is going to yield sub-optimal results.
What we need is an environment where people can pursue their learning needs at a speed and depth of their choice. I think open spaces offers one way to create such a personalized learning environment. 

Notes: This text was originally posted on my earlier blog at
Here are the comments from the original post

AUTHOR: ranjan
DATE: 11/28/2006 01:05:03 PM

I hope to attend( I am in the wait list) the ' unconference' by Global Voice( in Delhi on 16th Dec ...
Thanks a lot for this post sir..
I know what an unconference is ... otherwise I always thought its just on of the spelling mistakes that people make :)

DATE: 11/29/2006 08:07:35 AM
That's nice Ranjan. Do blog about your experience and let us know what it was like.


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