Active Learning on Steroids: Unconferences and Information Literacy Instruction

So I went to a session at Computers in Libraries that I thought wasn’t going to have any relevance for my day-to-day work at all, but I wanted to hear the presenters speak because I’d heard good things about them through the Library Society of the World grapevine, and there wasn’t anything else compelling scheduled against it. The session was on unconferences, library camps, and other related phenomena,1 with presentations by Kathryn Greenhill, Steve Lawson, Stephen Francoeur, and John Blyberg. All were uniformly awesome presenters, by the way, validating Iris Jastram’s theory about the LSW and conferences.

Unconferences sound neat, and I’d definitely go to one if I thought it was relevant to what I do, but they seem to mostly be about tech stuff, and while I do some tech stuff, mostly I’m an instruction librarian. But then in a conversation with Steve Lawson afterward, I had a “duh!” moment and realized there’s no reason there couldn’t be a library instruction unconference. And in fact, I was contacted back in the fall by someone in our state library association about my interest in working with the instruction sub-round-table-interest-committee-group. So I might just re-contact her and offer to help, and then just shove some things around and make a library instruction unconference.

But the really, really exciting part came when someone in the audience said she was wondering whether you could pull off an unconference with schoolchildren, rather than librarians. And that got me thinking: could you do this with undergrads? Get a bunch of them in a room together and let them figure out something information-literacy-related? To me, this whole idea sounds like “active learning” on steroids.

There are a few conditions that would have to be met before this idea even has a shred of a chance of working:

  1. It would have to be organized around a high-level, conceptual topic, rather than a nuts-and-bolts skills-based topic. You could do an unconference on “how scholarly information is generated, disseminated, and paid for,” but not around “how to search for articles in JSTOR.” But, could you do an unconference on “how do you gather the information you need for a college paper in [discipline]“? Maybe you could!
  2. The place and time would have to be just right. This wouldn’t work for a standard 50-minute one-shot. It also wouldn’t work for a 3-credit info lit class. The former is just too short, and the latter, even if it had enough hours in total over the course of the semester, doesn’t have the critical mass of a long, unstructured time in a room together, which is an essential aspect of an unconference.
  3. Where it would work, though, is at a small college that has a “short term”: a 3- to 5-week session (usually in January or May) where students do one short intensive project. Or it could potentially work as a summer session, particularly if it’s super-compressed.
  4. And this is one that Steve Lawson pointed out to me: you can’t coerce people into an unconference and expect it to work. They have to be there because they want to be. So it definitely wouldn’t work as an add-on to an existing course. It might, however, work in that “short term” context, where students are actively choosing projects that interest them, and where there’s an established expectation for innovative and collaborative projects.

So what do you think? Could it work with undergrads? What kinds of topics would you want to teach/learn/explore? Is anyone out there already doing something like this?


  1. one question at the end of the session was “what’s the difference between and unconference and a happening?” and the answer, I think from Steve Lawson, was “less drugs at an unconference.” Knowing a little bit (not firsthand!) about happenings, that sounds about right.

3 Comments

  1. Posted April 2, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the nice write-up. Most of the stuff you mentioned I said came right out of Harrison Owen’s “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide.” I’m not sure it couldn’t work as part of an existing course, as long as it was clear that they could really take their ideas wherever they wanted to.

    Please let us know if this goes anywhere.

  2. Posted April 2, 2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Oh, the drugs comment wasn’t out of Owen’s book. That was all me.

  3. Posted April 5, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like the definition of a seminar, but with a “how knowledge works” focus. I could definitely see it – with people diving into issues around knowledge creation and web 2.0, intellectual property debates, what authority means now, the blockbuster v. long tail debate…

    how very tempting … but I think pitching it at an upper division level would be a good idea, since you’d have to be highly self-directed and would be in a better position to compare disciplines and their assumptions/traditions.

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