One of the things I asked Jeff early on in planning for Learning 2.0 in Shanghai last week was whether or not I could do something a bit different in my sessions. I just did not want to “prepare” a 45-minute presentation to “deliver” to the people in the room for a variety of reasons. I’m sure the genesis of this feeling was because of the “unconference” format we used at Edbloggercon last summer in Atlanta, but I find myself more and more questioning the “get up in the front of the room and impart knowledge” model that is so thick with irony in the context of this conversation that it just doesn’t feel quite right anymore. So, anyway, what I decided to do for my five sessions was to simply offer up a topic, prep 10-15 minutes of discussion starting context, and then sit down and try to facilitate a conversation. Happily, Jeff was all for it.

For the most part, that’s how it worked out. Sheryl and I decided to combine one of our sessions, and we basically ran a discussion on overcoming obstacles around some key questions. And two of the sessions ended up being slated as “unconference” sessions where I prepped even less and just tried to let the conversation fly. But the other two had me talking for about 15 minutes on the topic and then just opening it up. And from my standpoint, at least, some fascinating discussion ensued. And what was great was that Jamie McKenzie sat in on one, Gary Stager on another, and Wes on a third. And they all contributed to the conversation. I just played the good group therapist and tried to reflect and deflect, prod and probe, without giving too much of my own bias away. (I will say that someone who I least expected came up later and heaped on some genuine love on what transpired conversation-wise in one of the sessions. It was a nice moment.)

On a number of different levels, I guess this could be seen as selfish. For one thing, I didn’t have to do as much work, and for another, I got to hear and learn about other people’s ideas and experiences instead of simply conveying my own. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some work and deftness that went into leading a worthwhile discussion. But it is a much different beast from nailing together that PowerPoint or that wiki page and then going through it step by step, filling up the allotted time. And my bottom line takeaways were that a) for me at least, it was a much more fulfilling experience, and b) for the participants, I think, it served a more effective purpose. (If anyone was in the rooms with me for those sessions, I’d love to hear your feedback.)

So here I sit, as do many of us right now, I’m sure, thinking about NECC 2008 and the looming deadline for proposals about a week away. And I am seriously struggling. Because I want to do something really different. Something disruptive…not in a bad way, but to push the envelope a bit. I want to bring the unconference to the conference, not just have it on it’s own separate day, and I’m wondering how to best do that.

Without totally cutting my throat here, it’s becoming obvious that traditional conference formats just aren’t as needed as they used to be. That’s not to say that there still won’t be 14,000 people (not including you) in San Antonio trudging from room to room, getting a look at the latest tools or ideas and learning just enough to make them dangerous, and wallowing in the multi-gajillion dollar vendor floor picking up huge Best Buy bags that will end up in the nearest landfill a day or two after. (My, how many laptops we could buy for kids and teachers with the money getting thrown around down there.) And it’s not to say that getting together face to face is no longer important. (K-12 Online is an amazing undertaking, but the totally virtual conference leaves something to be desired as well.)

In this world, every moment can be a conference session, one that’s much better than watching some slide show. I mean seriously…throw a dart at any conference session list and see if you hit one that can’t be done better through the network. (Ok…there are some, I know. But what percentage? 10? 20 percent that would be worth traveling the distance to see?) Somebody somewhere of late talked about this new, on demand, speed learning a la Twitter that’s cropping up, and it is pretty powerful. Tweet that you want to learn something and voila…instant classroom. The other day, John Pederson and I decided to learn Yugma (worked for him…I still can’t get it to see my Skype list.) And then Jeff tweets that he’s trying WiZiQ and all of a sudden I’m in a room with about 10 other people from like 10 other continents and we’re all chipping away at it, trying to figure out what works and how. And after you read Jeff’s post on the topic, tell me he woulda’ walked out of a conference session able to write that.

Point is, I think, that there is a better way today than sitting in that room facing forward doing what all of our kids do. (And look, I’m guilty as charged here too in terms of most of what I do when I present.) And that’s why Edubloggercon left us all in a daze. Because it wasn’t that. It was participatory (if you wanted it to be.) It was passion, not passivity. And, I don’t know, but yeah…I want my kids teachers to be learning the way I do rather than spending my tax money to sit in those sessions. If that comes across as hubris, my apologies. But I’ll gladly pay their way to the next Edubloggercon, wherever that might be.

So, I’m askin’…how do we bring the unconference into the conference?