Monday, February 24, 2014

The (un)conference (un)scheduler

I've had great experiences with unstructured professional development. Or perhaps I should say "loosely-structured," since there was clearly a plan in place.

The example I think of most often when I think of non-traditional PD is the EdCamp. I had the opportunity to go to EdCamp Ottawa back in November, and it was a fantastic experience. It gave me insight into what others are doing that I could incorporate into my own practice, and what I was doing that others might be interested in learning about. I had expected the prior, but the latter came as a surprise, and has led me to connect with some amazing people and share some great ideas.

What appeals to me most about non-traditional professional development is the flexibility of the PD to meet the immediate needs of the community it serves. That means that if there's a topic that's particularly relevant, timely, or popular, the event can (ideally) reflect that and deliver targeted solutions to real-world problems.

The EdCamp I went to was organized like this:

  • There were a set number of sessions and available rooms.
  • There was a schedule to follow (i.e. session 1 would last from 9 to 10, etc.)
  • There was a board with a grid on it in the main lobby, and large format post-it notes.
  • A few sessions had been publicized in advance, but several were only offered as session leaders decided what they felt like doing.
  • Many sessions were not a top-down seminar style, but more of a round-table session where all participants contributed to the learning.
I really enjoyed this model, and I thought that although the board was really cool, it would be fun to look at the data we could collect from a group of participants. Session leaders really didn't have any concrete numbers to work with in terms of knowing what would appeal to the attendees. Attendees didn't have much of a way of showing their interest in a specific topic, aside from just going to the sessions that appealed.

These are two areas that I think could be improved. So I created a couple of Google Forms to address this. By collecting the data, we can see a real-time picture of what people want to know about, what session topics are popular, and then we can schedule them and listen to the voice of the learners. I've made a flow-chart that graphically describes the workflow of the two forms.

It looks messy and complicated, but in fact, it's just two forms that talk to one another. I used three scripts to get things working the way I wanted:
  1. formRanger - this script allows the form items to change dynamically. I used formRanger to automatically add proposed topics to the suggestions, and to automatically remove topics that had been chosen for moderation, and an event created. Thus, formRanger was installed to both forms' responses spreadsheet.
  2. formMule - this form creates the calendar event and emails invitations. I also publish the calendar to a website in Agenda view, so it is easy to see which topics are already being moderated. This script was only installed on the Moderator Sign-Up form (as the topic suggestion form does not need to create calendar events).
  3. formRat - this form pushes form responses from one form response spreadsheet to another. This script pushes the responses from the Moderator Sign-Up form into the responses for proposed topics, allowing the Topic Suggestion form to drop topics that have already been selected.
First, the Topic Suggestion form. You're welcome to try it out.

This data gets collected, pushed to the Moderator Sign-Up form, and creates a nice visual graph. Here's what the data looks like, embedded in this post, showing changes in real-time.

Next, the Moderation Sign-Up Form. Try this one, too.

Here is a sample calendar, showing the upcoming events as created by the sample sign-up form.

So that's it. If you're interested, you can find links to all the forms and spreadsheets here. Make a copy for yourself, and use the formulas to keep the data organized.


  1. I am so excited by this idea!

    I can't wait to start trying them, but it looks like the links to the actual docs didn't make it into the blog post. Thank you so much for creating this!

    1. Hi Ben,

      So sorry that the link didn't work! There's always something I forget (if you need evidence, just look at my latest post). I've updated the post - the last line has the link. Sort of a reward for making it that far.

      Please let me know if you use it, how you use it, or if you need a hand setting it up to use it. I'm thrilled that you're excited by this idea. Take it, make it your own, and share it on!