The Unconference - An Innovative Way to Foster Rapid Collaboration

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session Best in Track

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The most valuable parts of conferences are often the informal side conversations that occur between sessions. An Unconference connects people in an innovative way. There is no set agenda for this session! Instead, participants will propose professional topics they want to discuss and collaborate with others in real time.


Cynthia is an educational psychologist and Assistant Professor of Student Leadership and Success Studies at Utah Valley University (UVU). Cynthia earned a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California. She currently directs UVU’s Innovation Fellows Program, which focuses on helping students and faculty incorporate human-centered design in order to become change-makers in their communities.

Extended Abstract

Solving complex problems often involves connecting people with 1) similar interests 2) various perspectives, experiences and backgrounds and 3) multiple skills sets and areas of expertise. Tackling complex problems also involves gaining and coordinating administrative support from multiple departments. However, breaking down organizational silos and navigating multiple bureaucratic layers is no easy task.

One of the challenges in higher education is that too many people are working on solving complex problems on their own. For example, at Utah Valley University, several faculty members recently expressed interest in launching innovative projects with the potential to drive meaningful change. However, working as lone wolves, these individuals often lacked the time, resources, connections and support to move their individual projects forward. The result was that many ideas and projects stalled or fizzled out before they had a chance to grow.

While attending the Teaching and Learning Studio workshop at Stanford University two years ago, I participated in my first Unconference with over 300 people. An Unconference is a discussion style in which session topics are dynamic and decided at the event when participants propose topics they want to discuss. Other participants can freely join the conversations around topics proposed by others.

Participants at an Unconference follow the Law of Two Feet: if they find themselves not learning or contributing at any time, it is their responsibility to use their two feet to find somewhere they are learning or contributing.

At Utah Valley University, we used the Unconference format to connect the wider campus community. The goal of the Unconference was simply to provide a way for anyone who was interested to collaborate on projects that they were interested in. At our first event, three university vice-presidents, two deans, and many faculty and students across campus participated. To encourage further collaboration that began during the Unconference, we offered dining services gift cards so that groups could plan a lunch meeting together to continue their conversations. The feedback from the Unconference was overwhelmingly positive and we foresee hosting more Unconferences several times a semester.

Session Outline:

  1. We begin by explaining the objectives, rules and guidelines for the Unconference. (3 minutes)
  2. Participants will use their mobile devices to propose discussion topics on the Poll Everywhere ( website. (5 minutes)
  3. Once the discussion topics start to populate, participants will have a chance to vote on the most compelling topics using up and down voting buttons. The top 5 topics will become the topics that will be discussed at the Unconference. (2 minutes)
  4. We will divide the room into different quadrants. We will place large signs with numbers in various places in the room and assign topics to each number. Participants will be able to select which discussion group they would like to join, and they are welcome to move freely from group to group during the Unconference. (30 minutes)
  5. We will engage participants in a discussion to address Q&As and brainstorm implications of hosting similar events at their organizations (5 minutes)

Materials Provided:

Slides and handouts.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Participants will gain insights and understanding of how to connect individuals with 1) similar interests 2) various perspectives, experiences and backgrounds and 3) multiple skills sets and areas of expertise at their organizations.
  2. Participants will engage in a live Unconference session by proposing topics they want to discuss, and joining conversations around topics proposed by others.
  3. Participants will brainstorm ideas and identify opportunities for hosting Unconferences at their organizations.