Higher ed conferences are stale. A new format can fix that.

The unconference model: decentralized discussion

Like many people in higher ed, the more conferences I attend, the more cynical I feel about them. As we higher ed professionals advance our careers, we get more realistic about what we expect from conferences:

As early career professionals, we feel like conferences are THE opportunity to exchange ideas, learn best practices, and meet the brightest minds in our field. Every conference is a jolt of energy and full of potential.

As mid-career professionals, we go to present on our work and help organize the conference itself. We’re heads down in the logistics of making things happen, but we still hope that maybe each new conference will be the one with all the answers.

As late career professionals, we generally only go to conferences to see old colleagues or support our staff who are presenting. We’ve learned by now that no conference has all the answers we seek, and few, if any, have even a single one. There are only so many panels on best practices we can sit through.

But the flaws in higher ed conferences aren’t the fault of the attendees, the speakers, or the organizers—they’re the fault of the format.  If we want to truly serve students and alumni, we need the courage to innovate and try something new.

An open, participatory model

The traditional conference is modelled after the classroom. Keynote addresses are like large lectures, and smaller sessions led by two or three speakers are like seminars. You sit and more or less get talked at for an hour and then move on.

We don't need no presentation...

We don't need no presentation...

The odd exceptional presentation aside, our favorite parts of conferences are those that get the least time and organizational support—10 minutes of Q&A at the end of sessions and of hallway conversations afterward. By relegating the most meaningful parts of conferences to the margins, we effectively close participation off to people with presenting slots. The most anyone else can do is hope get a question in at the end of a presentation. But each and every one of us has something to share and contribute. It starts by creating space to listen and learn.

What if we adopted a conference model where meaningful participation wasn’t closed to presenters but instead open to everyone with something to contribute? What if we took the most powerful parts of higher ed conferences—the conversations that happen around the edges—and actually made them the focus of the conference? What if we modeled our conferences after the most engaging classroom experiences led by the most dynamic faculty, where everyone is alert, engaged, energized, and contributing?

We don’t need to wonder: Conference organizers have been using a format called the Open Space approach to achieve those goals for decades now. It’s been around long enough that it has a few iterations and names. When we implemented it at a conference I convened  for entrepreneurs last year, DazzleCon, we called open sessions “unconference” sessions.

Rather than trusting a handful of people to know exactly what every person attending the conference needed to learn or wanted to talk about, we left the majority of the conference time open to attendees to organize their own sessions and conversations. We played the role of facilitators, not pedagogues. Instead of sage on a stage, we focused on sharing and solutions.

An unconference session in discussion at DazzleCon.

An unconference session in discussion at DazzleCon.

The results were amazing.

We ended the conference with a path forward, a shared vision for the future, and a model of distributed leadership. We now have chapters in 20 cities around the world and a partnership with a respected think tank. The same is possible for higher education. The open, collaborative nature of the conference meant that we we weren’t just attendees; we were collaborators. We built something together that each of us could take home and use. When everyone contributes, everyone gets something out of it.

The second, and rather astonishing oversight we’ve noticed with conferences about students and alumni is there are no students and alumni to be found in the building. How is it that while these constituencies are higher ed’s “customer,” their voice is entirely absent from the conversation? This is akin to having waiters writing all of the Yelp reviews of the restaurants that employ them. We have a long way to go to make sure our conversations are diverse, inclusive, and participatory.

At Switchboard we spend a lot of time thinking about the role of social justice in higher education. One principle we’ve adopted is, “Nothing about us without us,” a phrase from the disability rights movement. What this means is that if we are talking about student and alumni service models, then students and alumni should be present and participating. So at ListenUp, we’ve invited student and alumni leadership from institutions in the region to act as facilitators and share their learnings and expertise.

Rather than finish the conference with mixed feelings—that some sessions were good but that the best were too short, that the tickets weren’t quite worth the cost, that you learned some things but aren’t sure how to apply them at your institution—attendees will leave ListenUp with something worthwhile. We will make something together.

Using this model in higher ed conferences

After the success of DazzleCon, my team and I at Switchboard decided to use the same open format to refresh higher ed conferences.

That’s why we’re hosting ListenUp EDU in collaboration with CampusSonar in Chicago this October. ListenUp will still have speakers, but because the entire conference is focused on the art listening—listening to our students, alumni, and teams—we’re scrapping the typical talk-at-you session format for more productive group discussions.

We are designing these sessions to be highly interactive, with a 15–25 minute talk followed by a facilitated workshop or exercise that takes up the majority of the session time. It’s a conference for people, not PowerPoint.

We will explore how a culture of listening, service, and trust-building accelerates student success, marketing and communications, alumni engagement, and advancement. We’ll be learning best practices to increase brand health and loyalty, retention, giving, and success from in and outside of higher education (including fields like hospitality, journalism, and technology). Here are just a few headline themes we’ll address:

  • The art of listening

  • Data-informed listening

  • The cost of not listening

  • Listening in practice

  • Listening and leadership

So ListenUp isn’t your typical conference. We won’t be sitting in rooms listening to each other drone on in a stuffy hotel ballroom. We’ll be in a vibrant, creative, woman-owned space active conversation and creation, a give and take. We will listen. We will be heard. And we will model that this authentic, reciprocal approach is the future of higher education. The participatory framework itself is something that we can take back to each of our institutions and use to make lasting change.

Join us, wont you?