Coming Soon: Edcamps, Brought to You by the Letters PBS

Professional Development

Coming Soon: Edcamps, Brought to You by the Letters PBS

By Stephen Noonoo     Oct 4, 2017

Coming Soon: Edcamps, Brought to You by the Letters PBS

The do-it-yourself conference is coming to your local public broadcaster, as part of a new venture between the Edcamp Foundation and PBS Education. Between now and May, 10 local PBS affiliates will host a series of specially branded events, called PBS Edcamps, aimed at educators and caregivers of students in Pre-K through third grade.

“PBS is moving from content provider to a convener,” says Sara Schapiro, vice president of PBS Education. “I think that’s an important distinction. We have a role in bringing together all of these teachers, and over 350 member stations around the country.”

The partnership marks the first time the Edcamp Foundation, a nonprofit based in Pennsylvania, has joined with another organization to host its events. A primary goal is to broaden the audience of attendees beyond the social-media savvy, digital-first teachers who typically attend an Edcamp, and reach more unconventional educators—like daycare workers—that work with young children, says Hadley Ferguson, the foundation’s executive director.

PBS reaches as many as one million educators each month through broadcast programming and online media. That represents a huge—and relatively untapped—market for Edcamps, which rely on social media, such as Twitter, to reach educators. “There are a lot of teachers who aren’t on social media,” Ferguson says. “For us to connect with PBS helps us spread our model to many more people.”

Open-ended, participant-driven Edcamps are also ideal for educators without a lot of outside professional development experience, Ferguson adds. “Our model is a very simple one. It’s not like a conference where you need a call for proposals. It’s a model you can learn about without a lot of stress.”

Edcamps are sometimes known as “unconferences” because of their lax approach to structure. At the start of the day, attendees usually suggest session topics by jotting them down on Post-It notes and tacking them to a whiteboard. Participants then vote on their favorites, which are assigned a presentation slot. Throughout the day, everyone is encouraged to wander around sessions as they please, utilizing what Edcamp calls “the rule of two feet.”

Even though the events are sponsored by PBS (and hosted at local stations), Ferguson says they will still look and feel the same to seasoned Edcampers—and of course they’ll remain free to attend. “We’re trying to take our model in a fairly pure fashion into PBS stations,” she explains. Although she does admit that “you might end up learning more about PBS media than you would have simply because you’d be at a PBS station. So you might see something about a PBS program there.”

In August, a local PBS station helped host a pilot Edcamp in Detroit that brought together nearly 100 educators, daycare workers and parents of homeschooled children.

“They were a skeptical bunch—they walked into the room and were saying to us, ‘What is this unconference thing?’” recalls Schapiro, who was there. “It was remarkable to watch the change in that room over the course of the day. People who didn’t see themselves as leaders, or call themselves educators, were leading sessions on race equity inclusion, parental engagement and bringing kids to arts institutions in the Detroit area.”

An attendee presents at Detroit's PBS Edcamp in August

Beyond introducing the unconference model to a new audience, PBS hopes to use the events to glean information about the types of conversations that are important to early-learning educators—a key demographic for the broadcaster, according to Schapiro. PBS will collect topic titles and take notes during sessions to help inform the creation of future resources and tools for early learners.

“We’re trying to understand the common themes that are coming up in these conferences,” Schapiro says, adding that PBS wants to foster local communities around early learning to help empower these educators. “This is a really under-resourced, challenged group that is often just thought of as babysitters.”

The Edcamp Foundation is also treating this as a pilot of sorts. Ferguson says that if all goes well, more Edcamp partnerships could be on the horizon.

Additional pilots with PBS stations will include WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida; Wisconsin Public Television in Madison, Wisconsin; WQED in Pittsburgh; WNET in New York City; KLRN in San Antonio; WCTE in Cookeville, Tennessee; ThinkTV in Dayton, Ohio; LPB in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Montana PBS.

Following the 10 already scheduled pilots, PBS hopes to expand its Edcamp presence nationally during summer 2018.

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