Are you considering attending the Blackbaud K–12 User Conference Unconference? You should be!

June 13, 2016 Jonathan E. Martin

Most professionals have long since realized that they learn far more—particularly when it comes to practical, hands-on, day to day work tactics—from their colleagues in the trenches than they ever can from a traditional stand and deliver workshop at a conference.

Not that the latter isn’t useful—it certainly has its place in the grand scheme of our professional learning and growth—but the peer-to-peer dynamic is often much more applicable and actionable.  And yet most of the time, most of the conferences we attend spend most of the time featuring programs which are talking at us, not helping us talk to each other.

More and more education professionals are becoming familiar with the unconference format, a kind of meeting that is also known as, or closely related to, Open Space and Edcamp meetings, but there are still many folks who haven’t yet had the chance to experience this awesome alternative to the conference norm.

Whether you’re long familiar or new to the experience, the July Blackbaud K–12 User’s Conference will again provide attendees the venue and forum to enjoy and benefit from this kind of peer-to-peer learning.  It will take place on day three of the conference, Friday morning, and it will be your capper for the program and, if history is a guide, the highlight of the event for many attendees.

The Unconference format is pretty simple.   After arriving and grabbing a cup of coffee, mingle with others, taking the time to be even friendlier than you might be in a more formal kind of meeting, because this event depends on the positive interactions among the participants.

If you wish—and there’s no obligation—come with a topic you’d like to propose hosting a conversation about—something you’re working on, struggling with, seeking to improve at, or perhaps a subject you’ve mastered and wish to share your successes with.   While chatting over breakfast, ask others if they’ve brought a topic for discussion, and be open to inspiration as you chat: consider inviting your coffee companion to join you in proposing a conversation jointly.

After some socializing time, the event host will convene the crowd, share some simple guidelines, and invite attendees to “fill the board,” coming to the front to volunteer a topic, writing it into the grid displaying the times and room locations for the unconference.   Soon thereafter, you’re off and running, selecting the topics of interest to you and joining in on those conversations.

Blackbaud Unconference leaders have multiple goals that they hope will be fulfilled for all participants.

  • First, unconferences are intended for attendees to have the chance to dig into issues planners hadn’t anticipated and to address user questions that are better answered by peers. Bring your questions; come seeking answers.
  • Second, unconferences are intended to remind and reinforce the truth that the wisdom is in the crowd, and that every one of us, each and every user, has something to contribute from his or her accumulated experience and observation. Blackbaud recognizes the importance of the user to the never-ending continued improvement of the service, and this event honors and perpetuates that.   The best way—the only way—that the profession will genuinely advance is by ensuring the growth of empowered users and engendering life-long learners.
  • Third, unconferences should help users build their networks. Discussions that begin in sessions often continue into the hallway, and sometimes participants end up skipping the next session to continue the conversation they’re in—and that’s more than OK.   Seize this opportunity to collect business cards and build the relationships necessary so that when you have an issue in the coming school year, you feel entirely comfortable picking up the phone and calling your new unconference buddy.

Things to remember when attending any Unconference.

  • The so-called “law of two feet” means that participants are always welcome, encouraged even, to get up and leave a session at any time they desire. This can be challenging for some people, and until the first person makes a move, some people don’t get it.  But know that this “law” is real— the organizers believe fervently that all participants should make the experience serve their needs and wishes to the utmost.  If you’re not getting what you came for in a session, or if you got it already, it is not being disrespectful to depart, and your conversation host understands and respects that.
  • And by the same token, be welcoming and inclusive of participants who come late to a session: they aren’t “tardy;” they are acting entirely within the norms of these events.
  • Check yourself: take care to avoid dominating conversations, whether you are leading or attending them. Unconferences are not usually best used for presentations; they are best when they tap into the knowledge of all attendees, not a narrow few.  So help that be the case by not talking too much—even if, or perhaps particularly if—you have the most expertise on the subject at hand.
  • Not having a printed program, people often have a hard time keeping track of what’s happening when and where. Go up to the big board after sessions are posted, and take a picture with your phone so you have the program in your hand.
  • If you are hosting a conversation, don’t feel let down if only a few people come. Know that they are the ones who are “supposed” to be there, and recognize that you might get even more out of the time because of the intimacy of your small group.
  • When proposing a conversation and adding it to the board, don’t feel any need to overly formalize its title. It’s fine, often better, just to pose a question or articulate something you’re curious about in a sort-of “headscratching” way.   Propose things like “how do other people deal with this, what’s the deal with this system, or here’s something I’m trying to think about doing next year;” these kind of conversation starters often lead to the best of sessions.
  • Unconferences are a great time to get your social media on. Whether on twitter or instagram, use the conference hashtag and start sharing the sessions you’re attending, the cool things you’ve learned, actions you’ll be taking with this information, or questions you still have.  And don’t just share—respond too, giving a like or a retweet to something someone’s said or answering a question they pose.
  • Not sure how to tap into the hashtag feed? Ask the person next to you, and without a doubt they’ll be happy to help you get started.
  • Relax and have fun: this is the time to let your hair down a bit, be more informal, and enjoy yourself.
  • Bring lots of business cards and readily hand them out, and/or have your twitter name prominently displayed on your nametag. Unconferences are a great way to strengthen relationships with peers, so take advantage of the opportunity to build your PLN (personal/professional learning network).

Hope to see you there! It should be a great day.

Register >

About the Author

Jonathan E. Martin

Jonathan E. Martin has 15 years experience as a Head of School, and eight years as a teacher, at three independent schools in California and Arizona. He holds a BA from Harvard University and an MA in School Administration from the University of San Francisco; in 2008 he was a Visiting Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. An expert on 21st century learning and assessment, he has presented to school-leaders, teachers, and trustees at more than eighty conferences and schools since 2010. He writes widely and consults to schools nationally on innovative instruction, 21st century educational program design, educational leadership, and next-generation assessment. Jonathan is also a Blackbaud K-12 expert and you can find him online at and on Twitter @JonathanEMartin.

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