Sunday, March 18, 2012

StuCon has left the building

Its 5am Sunday, I'm lying in bed with my thoughts churning after the 24-hour tech event, thinking about how it went. Lots to process, and I have that feeling that it will take a few weeks, lots of random conversations and some time before I can process everything, but I want to get it down in writing while its still fresh in my mind in its unprocessed state.

The format: 
-Student-run: I think this component was a huge success and is fundamentally essential. We had some discussions about having the Gurus run sessions, as they would provide an 'outside' perspective, would be well run, and would be substantive, but in general I think the kids felt that they 'owned' the conference more because they ran it. A lot of the discussions and comments in Twitter and in videos was about it being student-run. That was part of the branding.

This is the part that is hardest to analyze. On one hand, it is what distinguishes it from any other conference, and defines StuCon. It also made it into a type of endurance event, which gave the kids a definition of 'success' that was less about technology and more about participation ("I survived StuCon"). Lots of the conversations were about this; kids challenging each other to stay up all night and congratulating each other if they did. I'm not sure how this component directly effects the quality of tech learning, as kids being overtired and saturated certainly has an effect, but I think it adds a component to the conference that was good. It certainly provided opportunities for the kids to bond in ways that were meaningful and not under our control.

-4-hour blocks:
We all felt that some of these were too long, especially in the second block, where the presenters were so tired that the energy level was down. I think the original intent was for the 4-hour block to pose a bit of a challenge itself so the presenters had to push themselves, but when combined with the lack of sleep it was just too much of a challenge for most. By the end of the second and third block, kids were spending an hour off task, playing games and napping. The second and third block, at least, could have been shorter.

The idea of having gurus was to have some 'nurturing adults' who were a resource for the kids. The organizers, with their heads full of logistical issues, ended up with a sort of professional distance, so the gurus's role was to fill this gap; to be an expert resource to answer questions, provide motivation and help refine their thoughts. I think they did this, but it was more complex than that. Kids are used to there being an adult in the room, and simultaneously having their own culture that excludes that adult; the Gurus were young and hip enough to be part of the youth culture, so they became de-facto model leaders rather than advisors, which was a good thing. They also provided some structure so that the kids' products had a chance to be more professionally done (I'm thinking particularly about the Game proposals). However, too many Guru-run 4-hour workshops could taint the purity of the 'student run' component; I think those should be kept to a very minimum. The Power Sessions were a good compromise, and the kids responded very well about those.

The coaches were great; most of them did not participate much at all, but slept or wandered around or watched their kids present. This allowed the kids to have control and for StuCon to evolve in a direction dictated by the kids' energy. They also did absolutely no second-guessing, no undermining or grumbling, which was wonderful and supportive. I wish I had had more time to chat and network with them, but my own exhaustion and focus on logistics kept me from being able to socialize much. But I think their sense of 'hands off and go for the ride' made it very easy to let StuCon run its course and we could all see where it would lead. As the night unfolded, I deeply appreciated the coaches' tacit support of this experiment. 

-Adjusting our agenda
At two points of time, we were faced with changing horses midstream. At the end of the two hour movie time, when the lights were low and the room was silent and it was 3am, there was an idea to extend this time period to 'let the kids sleep', but three of the four organizers pushed back to awaken the kids and get the next round of workshops on track. There was no surprise that the kids were overtired: this was a designed component, but creating a physical environment so conducive to sleeping at that moment made it hard to stick to our game plan. But in fairness, it was challenging not to seem hard-hearted with all these innocent little kids sleeping around you, by turning on the lights and waking everyone up. 

The second time we were faced with adjusting the agenda was for the last session. The tired kids had not been using their scheduled time fully, so there was a lot of 'down time' where they were gaming or napping, and we were concerned that they might feel bored or under-challenged. We decided to cut the last sessions down from 4 hours to just under 2 hours so the material would be compressed, and so they kids and coaches could get out early, but it wasn't an easy decision. Some of the teams felt let down, as they had prepared four hour sessions, however others had no one attend, so they were unaffected. The kids were in such a daze by then that I think they were only looking forward to getting home and to bed, so I don't know if any of them actively revamped their lessons. It was no surprise that the sessions were laggy by then, as the kids were exhausted, however we never gave that 'bounce back' of energy in the second day a chance to revitalize things. Like I said, I'm unsure whether we made the right call or not. I know that, as a team, we were unresolved about this, but went with it after good internal discussions. Compromise is key.

-Background Tasks
In addition to the workshops, we had discussed the existence of some activities that ran nonstop; such as 'make a video about StuCon', or 'take pictures of familiar objects and make them unfamilar', etc. I think the presence of a flurry of these things could have served as a much more binding element; the 'make a movie' one turned out to be the only one and did not generate very many products, but that was probably because it was not pushed very hard throughout the night, as we wanted to see if it would develop legs of its own. If we had given them a checklist of activities or posted a running log of achievements for a flurry of activities, it might have been a more motivating aspect. But, of course, it would have added an 'adult run' component, too. Maybe in the future, we can give design and running of these 'background tasks' to a student group to run, or something.

-Lack of sleep
The 24-hour component was directly related to the 'lack of sleep' aspect. We could build in some nap time, or break the conference into two parts, but we specifically wanted to create an overtired aspect to enhance creativity or push the kids into an 'altered state'. I think we achieved this but I am not so sure we capitalized on it, as we revamped the end of the conference so the during last few hours the focus was on getting wrapped up (and home to bed). Doubtlessly, at the time the lack of sleep felt mostly like a distraction, but I look forward to hearing how the kids feel about it in a week or two. It might turn out to be a signature component, or it might turn out to be a disposable element. 

Those are my first thoughts as I lie here in bed, at 6 am, recovering from StuCon. It was a challenging event to design, develop, organize and run, but it was fun and rewarding. I was the only coach or organizer to stay awake all 24 hours (well, 22 hours), so I feel quite weary, but I feel like I might have some unique contributions on some components of the design. After reading the hashtagged posts on Twitter from kids and coaches, and looking through some of the archived products, I realize that we did create an energy and an event with its own presence and life; I think there is tremendous potential for StuCon to become an established event with its own identity. What will be important is that we carefully analyze what are the best components, then make a conscious decision to more closely follow a traditional conference model, or to hold on to the very nontraditional structure.

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