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The Virtual Unconference


Source: flickr (User: Jill)

According to the web site Unconference.net, an unconference is “a facilitated participant-driven face-to-face conference around a theme or purpose”.  The basic concept of an unconference is to throw out all notions of your conventional conference – instead of a central planning figure, a pre-planned agenda and a set of presenters/speakers, the unconference has no meeting planner and no set agenda – and the content of the conference is driven solely by the attendees.

In fact, one of the key moments of the unconference is the setting of the session topics.  Attendees with ideas for session content grab markers and write their ideas on sheets of paper.  The papers are then taped against a large grid, which denotes the location and time of the given session.  For further details, Unconference.net has a great article titled “Facilitating unconference agenda creation Step-by-Step“.

With virtual events increasingly complementing face-to-face events, it’s only natural to ask whether an unconference can occur virtually.  My short answer – virtual event platforms need some tailoring and customization to effectively support the virtual unconference.  Let’s consider the pros and cons of virtual event platforms.

Source: flickr (User: scottamus)

Pro: Self Service Capabilities

Naturally, a virtual unconference requires a virtual event platform with self service capabilities.  The self service tools need to be placed in the hands of the attendees, so that they can set up meeting rooms and presentations.  A self-service webcasting/broadcasting tool is a must, so that an attendee who wants to jump right into a presentation or talk can do so with little to no set-up overhead.

The virtual event platform will need to provide the right tool for the job, however – it should support the broadcast of audio (and video, if desired) and allow two-way participation from the audience – they should be able to ask questions and have the ability to annotate a shared virtual whiteboard.  Since attendees do not arrive at the unconference with prepared PowerPoint presentations, the tool should also support desktop sharing (of the presenter’s desktop), with seamless passing of control to other attendees (and back).

Pro: Efficiency of (Virtual) Collaboration

Previously, I wrote about the advantages of virtual meetings – whereby certain types of collaboration are more efficient online vs. in-person.  For instance, annotating a shared document or diagram is easy to do with 1-2 active participants (in person), but gets trickier with a higher number of participants.  In a virtual whiteboard, many contributors can be collaborating on the space at once, as long as they’re not overwriting each other or stepping on (virtual) toes.

In addition, I’ve found the dynamics of text-based group chat to be interesting, especially during a high volume of chatter, with multiple voices contributing at once.  Imagine the heated conference call where everyone has something to say – if done in a text-based group chat, you often find less chaos and more efficiency.  Text-based group chat could be a nice complement to the session and an important component of the virtual unconference.

Pro: Navigation

Unconferences are all about free movement from one session to another.  If the session you selected is not right for you, get up and leave during the first 5 minutes – neither the attendees nor the speaker mind.  In a virtual unconference, finding the right session becomes even easier, since one can navigate to the next session without walking down the hall.  In this manner, you’re nearly guaranteed to find a session that’s right for you – simply click around until there’s a good fit.

Con: Virtual Agenda Creation

With today’s virtual event platforms, it’s challenging to re-create the agenda creation process, with its scrawling of proposed session topics and placement on the shared grid (wall).  I suppose the agenda creation could be handled via group chat, but that may take a while and is not efficient as the master grid.  Another possibility is the use of Google Wave, although the output of the wave will need to be imported back into the virtual events platform.

In the end, I think that an app would need to be created that specializes in the unique agenda creation process – the sheets of paper would take shape online and be placed onto a virtual grid.  Attendees could then click and drag to move sheets around on the grid or delete sheets altogether.  When final, the grid could then auto-populate the event’s Auditorium listing and allow attendees to conveniently navigate to their sessions of choice.

Con: Spontaneity (structured vs. unstructured)

Today’s virtual event platforms utilize a structured model behind the events they create – unconferences, on the other hand throw structure out the window and breed spontaneity.  For instance, if one particular group decided they wanted to move their session to the local Starbucks, that would be completely fine.  In a virtual event, the same sort of spontaneous decision is harder to fulfill.

Virtual event platforms can reach a similar level of spontaneity via self service tools – however, a balance needs to be reached so that the attendee creating the virtual coffee shop doesn’t take down the entire virtual event.  The virtual unconference may need to grant administrator rights to a small subset of attendees who have responsibility for overall virtual event production.

Conclusion

The notion of a virtual unconference makes a lot of sense to me – virtual event platform providers may have some work to do first.  And, similar to the in-person unconference, a business model will need to be established to subsidize the virtual event platform costs.

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3 Responses to The Virtual Unconference

  1. Neil Canham says:

    I have a tool in SL that is an exact replica of the wall of sticky notes you have at the start of this article – it is desgined for group planning and brainstorming. Type text, have a card appear with that text on, move it to exactly where you want it, colour is, select fonts and sizes. To see it and play with it visit out offices on the Beta Business Park http://slurl.com/secondlife/Beta%20Business%20Park/165/218/28 or contact Richard Meiklejohn in SL

  2. Dennis Shiao says:

    Thanks, Neil – that’s neat. Have you ever participated in an unconference within Second Life?

  3. Neil Canham says:

    No – I haven’t. I can imagine it would be an ideal way to do it though, as you say.

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