So You Want to Host an EdCamp

After a successful EdCamp Cleveland 2013 and a very hectic end to a challenging school year, the last thing I want to think about is hosting another big event at my school. But last week, four separate people mentioned that they’re interested in starting their own EdCamps, and it’s probably better to get some ideas down now while they’re fresh in my mind. It’s really not as hard as I’m going to make it sound, but here are some things to think about before going too far from someone who has been down this road a couple times:

Make sure EdCamp is the right kind of conference. An EdCamp is driven by the community. It grows from the idea that our best professional development comes from the personal learning networks we curate. Participation in the community is the learning. This is the same concept that drove the early MOOCs before the xMOOC people moved in and took over. This model doesn’t work if you have a specific set of instructional objectives or content standards that must be achieved. EdCamps would not work for teaching the common core. They’re more suited for the higher end of Bloom’s, where we’re collaboratively working to find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Check in with the foundation. There aren’t a lot of rules for using the EdCamp name. You can’t charge admission. You shouldn’t have a single sponsor underwriting the entire event. It should have an education focus. It should be participant-driven. That’s about it. Go to the EdCamp Foundation Wiki and create your event. There’s no application to complete, and no fees to be paid. Create a wiki page and you’ve got yourself an EdCamp. While you’re on the wiki, read the helpful information there about how to run an EdCamp.

Put a team together. You need folks who can take on big chunks of responsibility and get them done, and you also need people who are willing to take pretty routine and specific tasks and run with them. If you suck at this as much as I do, you probably won’t do this more than a couple times. The bigger key to the team, though, is the diversity that comes with it. You want this to spread beyond your school. If you have planning team members from different schools (and different types of school: public/private, K12/university, etc) then you’re more likely to recruit attendees from multiple sectors as well.

Find a good setting. You need a space, yes. Schools are ideal, if you can get them inexpensively. But you also need a good time. There aren’t any good times. EdCamp Cleveland was in June because it was a good time for me. In the past, we had had some success with professional development the week after school was out. The teachers were done with classes and grades, but they weren’t checked out for the summer yet. After EdCamp, there was still plenty of time to let the ideas ferment before starting a new school year. Plus, with school out, we could have it on a weekday, in a school, and not have to worry about custodial overtime or conflicting sporting events, or anything like that. Most EdCamps are during the year, though, and most are on Saturdays. Be aware of other events happening around the same time. You don’t want your EdCamp to be a week after another one 50 miles away. Pick something that works for your venue and your planning team, and run with it.

Find the money. There are two kinds of sponsors. There are sponsors who will give you product. In most of these cases, they’re companies who sell online subscriptions to software products, and they’ll give you some free ones. It costs them no money and gets them some good press. We like these sponsors, but they’re a dime a dozen. The second kind of sponsor is the kind that will write you a check. These are the valuable ones, because they make the event possible. To get these, you have to convince someone at the company that EdCamps are valuable professional development experiences. Ask lots of people. Be prepared for lots of rejections. In our case, many of these kinds of sponsors are individuals who were willing to kick in $100 or $200. How much money do you need? In 2013, EdCamp Cleveland spent $7.68 per attendee. In 2012, we spent approximately twice that much. The trick, of course, is that you don’t know how many people you’re going to have until they actually show up. In 2012, we over-planned. In 2013, we under-planned.

The rest of the stuff is pretty straightforward. You need some kind of online presence. Make a blog or a web page somewhere. Set up a Twitter account. You probably want people to pre-register, so use an online service (like EventBrite) for that. Find sponsors by looking at other EdCamps and seeing who sponsored them and approaching those EdCamp-friendly companies. You’ll need to educate your attendees about what an unconference is. Most people are not used to participating in conferences. They’ll need some encouragement. But that’s all manageable stuff.

But there are also secrets. Here are the things we did that most people don’t know about:

Boost the Wifi. Sure, the school has wifi. But for EdCamp, we’re talking about 100-200 people, each with at least two wifi-connected devices. And most of time, they’re in places where we don’t normally have large concentrations of students working. How do we accommodate 200 wireless devices in our main lobby? We add access points. For EdCamp, we added four APs to supplement the eight that are normally in the large areas that we used. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t have connection issues. Though we didn’t advertise it, the EdCamp wifi network was also unfiltered, unlike the wifi connections that are normally available in the school.

Use a short registration period. In 2012, we had about 12 weeks from the time that registration opened until the day of EdCamp. After the event, we noticed that our total turnout was about 49%. Interestingly, 2/3 of the people who signed up in the first two weeks showed up. Of the people who registered in the last two weeks, about 75% came. For the eight weeks in the middle, though, only 40% made it to the event. For 2013, we shortened the registration period considerably, giving people only six weeks to register. This time, 2/3 of the registrants made it. Essentially, we eliminated most of the uncommitted people who signed up in the middle, focusing on the ones that are more likely to show up.

Don’t market too hard. Going along with this idea, we didn’t push too hard to get people to register. Remember, there’s zero barrier to registering, and there’s no real commitment to attend. The people who attend EdCamp should be the people who want to be there. We don’t want people to feel like they’re being forced to attend, and we certainly don’t want people to attend just because we’re giving away a free lunch and some giveaways. Invite people to participate. Make sure people know about the event. But don’t push them into coming.

Be in the moment. Some people will advocate for live streaming all of the sessions. Others will push for documenting what happened in each room and making sure all of the resources are collected and available. Neither works particularly well. EdCamp is about the people in the room, when they’re in the room. If you try too hard to extend the event beyond that, you’ll lose people. They’re less likely to share if they know every word is being recorded or broadcast. Just let them talk to each other.

Schwag should promote the event. In 2012 I wanted to get EdCamp T-shirts for everyone. I was overruled. People don’t wear cheap T-shirts after the event. Teachers certainly don’t wear them to school. What could we get to help spread the word about EdCamp? What kind of product could we get that people would use around other teachers? We settled on travel mugs. While teachers won’t wear an EdCamp T-shirt to school, they’ll certainly carry an EdCamp coffee mug.

This event is not for you. You can run an EdCamp. You can attend an EdCamp. But you can’t do both. Or, at least, I can’t. For me, EdCamp Cleveland was about providing an opportunity for others to learn from one another. It was not about my professional growth. I go to other EdCamps, and other conferences, for that.

Do you want to host an EdCamp? I won’t help (much). But I will advise you, and help you get started. And, if I can, I’ll come. Let me know what I can do.

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