The unconference experience at UKEduCamp

Lewis Wake
Tuesday 23 January 2024

Some of the Digital Communications team attended the UKEduCamp “unconference” event in Edinburgh.

Unlike conventional conferences, UKEduCamp fostered an open, collaborative environment where participants could directly shape the agenda on the day. This approach allowed for a more engaging and personalised experience, as attendees actively contributed to and directed the discussions.

To start the day, we had a brief introduction to the event before the 120 or so participants were invited to present the talking points they wished to have deeper conversations about. These were presented as large sticky notes that were assigned a meeting room and an alloted time for those who wished to attend and discuss (pictured below).

The sessions were then collated on an HTML spreadsheet time table.

This article will recount the discussions held during the five sessions I attended at UKEduCamp 2024.

A wall covered with colorful sticky notes arranged in rows and columns.


Session 1: User research best practice in higher education

The first session dove into the intricacies of user research, mainly focusing on effective strategies for creating a robust recruitment pool.

One takeaway for me was effective strategies for user research recruitment, such as QR codes on flyers linking to signup forms and incentive offerings. A significant point was made about the ease of user testing recruitment in a university setting compared to private companies.

The session emphasised early data collection, demographic targeting, and crafting precise recruitment questions. Discussions also delved into the challenges of engaging diverse participant groups and ensuring data integrity in user research.

The importance of continuous feedback loops and iterative improvements in the research process was highlighted as crucial for obtaining meaningful insights. We also touched on the need to avoid recruitment during academic peak times, opting instead for periods like orientation week.


Session 2: Enabling a culture of creative play in our service tools and teams

In the second session, we embraced the concept of creative problem solving with limited resources. This session emphasised playfulness and gamification to allow for focused solution development.

Rather than following traditional, linear approaches, the session encouraged a direct move to prototyping and quick testing.

We also addressed challenges like ensuring inclusivity and accessibility in game-based approaches and the importance of informed consent and fun onboarding, and the session concluded with a discussion on balancing creativity with practical constraints in the prototyping process.

Resoruces that were mentioned included the New Metaphors toolkit and Pip Decks.


Session 3: What will the university customer experience look like in 2044?

This was the session that I pitched, so it was only right that I attended.

The session explored potential future trends in education, including AR, VR, and AI integration. We briefly compared the differences between student digital experience in 2004 and 2024. Remember MSN, and ending every text message with “tb”?

Discussions invloved adaptive curricula, digital literacy, and the importance of a defined international online student experience.

Participants engaged in speculative discussions about the role of emerging technologies in transforming learning experiences. A significant focus was on the need for educational institutions to evolve with these technological advancements to stay relevant and effective.

The session also pondered the ethical considerations and potential barriers of relying on so many future technologies.


Session 4: How do you enforce accessible website design and content in plain English?

This session highlighted the importance of simple, accessible web content, emphasizing clear, concise writing free from jargon.

The discussion covered best practices for enhancing web accessibility with simple plain English. This approach aligns with the growing trend towards inclusive and user-friendly digital content, ensuring that information is accessible to people with different levels of understanding and language proficiency.

Our team has written about the benefits of Plain English for the web in an earlier article.


Session 5: Open roadmaps for the win!

Examining the concept of open roadmaps, this session emphasised transparency and stakeholder engagement in project planning.

Tools like Roadmunk were discussed, alongside the importance of involving senior stakeholders. Two examples that were shared were the GOV.UK main site roadmap and the GOV.UK Design System roadmap.

The session also explored how open roadmaps could foster a culture of accountability and continuous improvement.

Practical tips were provided on how to effectively communicate and update these roadmaps to all stakeholders, ensuring everyone is aligned with the project’s progress and goals.


Feedback from the rest of the team

“A common thread throughout the day’s discussions was the importance of user research and testing. This featured most in the sessions I joined about recruitment and web content, and senior leadership buy-in. Another focus of the day was how to introduce and successfully manage change in an institution. The two are inter-dependent with user research being both a driver for change and a way to help change move in the best direction.

“User testing should not only be something which helps initiate projects, but it is also essential to re-test throughout the life cycle of projects.

“Another interesting point, which was mentioned a few times, was working ‘in the open’, in other words having as much transparency as possible as early as possible about change and developments. This helps to encourage feedback at early stages, raising important issues which could delay or block progress later.”

Elizabeth Andrews
– Senior Web Content Editor

“The EduCamp unconference was a format I had not experienced before. It was an interesting way to get people talking about things that concerned them and to bounce ideas off each other. I was able to make some new connections and share best practice from our experiences at St Andrews. It became apparent that a lot of the delegates shared the same issues, so it was reassuring that we are not alone in trying to improve the online experience for our students and staff.”

Stephen Evans
– Team Leader

“During the unconference I attended sessions on User research, Collaborative working, AI and breaking data Silos. I enjoyed the day, it was good to hear from others across HE sector, not just the usual web folks. I was especially interested in hearing about the work Jisc have been doing regarding AI adoption and will be looking through their web site for more information. My thanks to Edinburgh University for hosting the event.”

Nick Mullen
– Web Developer


Reflection

Reflecting on UKEduCamp, the unconference format proved highly effective in facilitating organic, relevant discussions, promoting a community-focused, participant-driven learning environment.

I personally felt that this was a great networking opportunity and it was easier to speak to others because the entire event was conversation driven rather than lecture driven. The setting encouraged open-mindedness and adaptability.

UKEduCamp showcased the value of collaborative knowledge sharing in technology and education, proving that unconventional approaches can lead to profound learning and innovation. Embracing these experiences can lead to novel insights and connections that may not be possible in more structured settings.

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