Tag Archives: unconference

Game Up Your Unconference

Last weekend I was delighted to head down to the University of Maryland for THATCamp Games, an instance of the popular humanities and technology unconference devoted specifically to games in education. It’s been a while since I attended an unconference — my last one was LibCampNYC in 2009 — and THATCamp Games reminded me how much I enjoy the unconference format. Capping registration at about 100 people and eschewing formal presentations means lots of opportunities for discussion and conversation among the participants, and lots of opportunities for learning. At this particular THATCamp the attendees were highly diverse, from faculty and staff in higher and secondary education to educational technologists to game industry folks to students. While there weren’t a huge number of librarians there, I wasn’t the only one, and of course the topics we all discussed are relevant to academic libraries as well as other educational organizations.

I’m an avid gamer and have long been interested in games-based learning, though it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve begun to incorporate games and game mechanics into my own teaching. I’d like to use more games in my research and information literacy instruction, especially to leverage the research behaviors that are a built-in to so many digital (and non-digital) games, and I appreciated that the unconference began with a day of workshops called BootCamps which offered hands-on experience with thinking through and creating instructional games. I know of at least one library that’s used the application Inform to create a text-based interactive fiction game (Bioactive at the University of Florida), so I went to a BootCamp on Inform and had the chance to play around with the software, which doesn’t require much programming knowledge.

Two of the BootCamps discussed using ARGs — alternate reality games — in educational settings. I’ve always found the idea of using an ARG for education intriguing: ARGs are immersive experiences that incorporate many beneficial attributes of games, like asking students to take on a new identity, and scaffolding knowledge and skills. But many ARGs are long, detailed, and involved, and I’ve struggled with the practicalities of integrating something so time-intensive into my instruction, which tends to be mostly one-shots. During the two BootCamps we worked on specific activities that I found really helpful in thinking about strategies for my own teaching, one an example of a narrative puzzle, and the other an exercise in which we broke into small groups to brainstorm a subject-specific ARG. The facilitators emphasized that when designing an ARG the game objective and the learning objective must overlap completely, which seems like sound advice for designing any educational game.

I’m also interested in exploring ways that librarians can use games in collaboration with other faculty to strengthen students’ research competencies. During the unconference proper there were several sessions on adding game-like features to classrooms and courses. In a session on “Badges Done Right” we discussed using badges and other game structures like experience points for grading or other forms of recognition within a course. There was also a session about building gaming into the learning management system, with examples of both a commercially-produced and a home-grown LMS. There’s no question that the trend in “gamification” is complex, and we spent much time discussing the benefits of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. However, for faculty using game mechanics like badge or XPs I can think of lots of possibilities for librarians to collaborate. (“Wikipedia fact-checker” badge, anyone?)

Like any good conference there were lots of interesting-sounding choices at every timeslot (and a phenomenal number of tweets), so I’m grateful that a shared, public Google Docs folder was created early on. There are notes from nearly every session, and if you’re interested in games and education I encourage you to take a peek.

Gone Camping

It’s summertime, so last week I packed my bag and headed off to camp: LibCampNYC, a library unconference held at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

This was the first unconference I’d ever attended, having narrowly missed out on signing up for Library Camp NYC in 2007. One of the defining features of an unconference is its loose structure. I have to admit that I came into the day somewhat skeptical that the model would actually work, that 100+ people would be able to plan the day’s events on the fly first thing in the morning. While the organizers had done some pre-planning, arranging the topics proposed by participants on the preconference wiki into clusters of similar themes, the 4-5 sessions that ran in each timeslot were determined by the entire group. It was amazing to watch the schedule coalesce right before our eyes.

I went to four sessions over the course of the day, opting to stay in each one rather than move around. Lots of interesting things were discussed:

  • In the How should we handle the dinosaur known as the reference desk? session, the point was made that at academic libraries students may not feel comfortable approaching the reference desk when it’s not crowded because the librarian on duty looks busy, and students don’t want to interrupt. On the Twitter backchannel, bentleywg shared that his library places signs in front of the librarians’ computers on the ref desk that read “Please Interrupt Me.” Such a great idea!
  • I co-facilitated Information literacy instruction and strategies, and I was especially pleased that so many public librarians came to that session. It was so interesting to learn about the variety of opportunities that public librarians have to teach their patrons, from kids through adults, aspects of information literacy. I’ve often wondered about how my library could partner with the public library, since we only have our students for four years and public libraries have them for the rest of their lives (but that’s probably a topic for another post).
  • The Open access session was fairly free-form, with discussion on the topic ranging far and wide. Advocacy was a recurring thread, especially how academic librarians can educate faculty about open access on their campuses. One of the most interesting suggestions was to engage students in advocacy, as discussed at the SPARC session on this topic at ALA’s Midwinter meeting in 2008. For example, Students for Free Culture, a multi-campus organization, seems like a great partner for librarians working on OA issues.
  • The final session I attended was Critical pedagogy/critical information literacy, a topic I’m very interested in though just starting to read and learn about. A big theme in this discussion was the “tyranny of the one-shot,” with many librarians chewing over how to bring critical pedagogies to a library session that may be restricted to as little as 45 minutes.

The day went by in a flash and was great fun. My only small frustration was that the sessions seemed too short. By the time the participants said a few words introducing ourselves and expressing our interest in the topic and the conversation really got going, the session time was nearly half gone. But it’s also true that longer sessions = fewer sessions, and I wouldn’t have wanted to drop any of the four that I attended.

Longer sessions would also have allowed for more space to accommodate the variety of experience with and interest in a topic that everyone brought to the sessions. And while I do think that this diversity of perspective added depth to our discussions, sometimes a conversational thread that was interesting to me was snipped short and I wished we had more time to for it. But of course that’s the spirit of an unconference, that the program evolves continuously. And that made the event one of the most exciting and learning-filled professional events that I’ve ever attended.

But I think that what I valued most about LibCampNYC was the ability to connect with librarians from across the profession. I spend most of my time with academic librarians, and it was great to have the opportunity to learn from my colleagues in public, special, medical, and other libraries. I also appreciated the diversity in experience — the mix of both newer and more seasoned librarians in addendance. And of course this was much more participatory than a typical conference, because the program and topics were determined by all of us, together.

If you’re interested in reading the session notes, you can find them on the LibCampNYC wiki. I can’t wait to go library camping again!

Speaking of Seattle . . .

While you’re planning your ACRL travel – or if you’re still on the fence about it – here’s another event to consider. Radical Reference (“answers for those who question authority”) is planning a preconference unconference to be held on Thursday, March 12th on academic libraries and social justice, including programs and collections of an alternative bent.

An unconference is a relatively spontaneous and unengineered conference at which attendees share information and generate ideas, unfettered by a rigid schedule or high registration fees. Though this is a relatively new concept for libraries, something similar was organized for an ASIS&T regional conference in 2007 – InfoCamp Seattle. As described by Aaron Louie,

In the library and information science community, there are limited – and often cost-prohibitive – venues for social interaction and professional development. Our field is constantly evolving, and those without a substantial travel budget or professional education program are left behind . . .

. . . we didn’t need to look far for alternative conference models. In recent years, collaborative, open conferences have become increasingly popular. The common element is that the attendees create the content, usually day-by-day, at the conference. This species of conference is generally known as an “unconference” . . . our schedule would not be decided beforehand. No speakers or topics would be pre-selected. We would create a theme, invite the right people and let the attendees decide what they wanted to talk about. By design, it would be participatory and user-centered, encouraging input, discussion and debate from everyone who attended.

Sounds like an intriguing addition and/or alternative to the traditional library conference.