The un-conferences and open schools across South East Asia
Some organisations were asking me how we manage to bring together people in a city to exchange ideas and learn new stuff from each other. Here is a guide on how we run the open schools or un-conferences. Both these terms mean the same thing to us, we use the term open school as it translated better in some languages.
(The readcamp in Saigon)
The open schools or un-conferences are meets that we run across South-East Asia. Anyone can attend these; there is no fee. The participants discuss a range of topics — travel, relationships, career, education and personal development.
The meets are held at local libraries, cafes, co-working spaces, riversides etc. — any venue that we can beg, borrow or steal. We avoid sponsors. We have no registration, nor do we ask for any personal information from the participants. The only exceptions are where we are not sure about the venue, and we need the email to inform the participant of venue details. In such cases too, we delete the emails soon after. We crowdsource stationery and equipment. We urge the participants to bring their tumblers for water. We do not have banners, lanyards and swag. We use a minimal amount of paper for posting topics and voting. There is no food at the event (sometimes fruits, thanks to generous participants). We publish a list of nearby cafes and restaurants, and we urge the participants to explore these with their newfound friends.
(Participants are posting their topics at Mui Wo open school, Hong Kong)
(How to live with less, Mui Wo open school)
(How to make a forest from a single sapling, Mui Wo open school)
We do not pre-selected speakers; any participant can lead a session if they want to teach or discuss a topic they care about. The discussion leader can decide to run the particular session in English, or the local language, or multiple languages. Someone always volunteers to translate.
(Learn to free-dive session from Singapore, Singapore National Library was our host)
How to create an un-conference or an open school
- Get a venue that can accommodate 2 or 3 discussions in parallel. Projectors are not necessary.
- Announce the open school on Facebook or the social media popular in your region.
- If you are running the open school within your school or organisation, you can ask the participants to fill a Google form. Ask as few things as possible - 1. name, 2. any topic they want to talk about and 3. any topic they want to hear. If you collect contact details, let them know they you will delete these as soon as the event is over.
- Post the venue details along with the directions.
- Tell the participants in advance if you plan to take photos or videos, respect their wish if they prefer not to be photographed. We have found that people are more comfortable when there is no video recording.
(Singapore, space travel )
How do the participants post a topic?
When the participants come into the venue, they can take a post-it and write down the skill or topic that they want to learn, teach or discuss. They stick this post-it on the designated wall or a table. Other participants will vote for the topics.
(The open school in Saigon)
At the end of the voting (give about 20 to 30 minutes at the start for posting topics, voting and mingling about), we will create a schedule for the open school. We assign a discussion leader(the person who posted that particular topic or ask someone to volunteer to lead the discussion). We assign a spot (a room or a corner) and a time slot (usually 30 minutes) for each discussion topic.
Below is an example schedule
10 to 10:30 AM: Voting and say hello to other participants 10:30 to 11:00 AM: How to take better photos with your phone (Corner A) Generation gap - understanding my younger siblings (Corner B) 11:00 to 11:30 AM: What are you reading these days (Corner A) How I learnt to speak Chinese in one year (Corner B) 11:30 AM to 12:00 PM How to live without a Facebook account (Corner A) How I travelled and lived in Indonesia for a year (Corner B)
We will usually have two or three discussions running at the same time and we are fine with the participants moving to another group if they find their current discussion uninteresting.
(How to spot fake news, from Phnom Penh)
Some topics that we discussed at various open schools
Just a small sample of topics discussed at an un-conference recently
- How to find trustworthy information online? How not to get scammed?
- How to travel to another country with less than 30$? How to travel alone as a female traveller? How to connect with people anywhere?
- How to free-dive?
- How to live with less and not care about things?
- How to motivate your students or colleagues to learn new stuff?
- How to run a family business and still maintain a personal life?
Run the open school your way
(The readcamp in Phnom Penh - an open school focussed on what people love to read)
The above suggestions are just what works for us most of the time. Sometimes we change the flow and structure (for example, we run only one track if we have a smaller number of participants). You may run your open school based on what is more comfortable for you and what works at your venue and with your community.
Why run open schools?
We believe that there is a lot of knowledge locked away in our cities and communities. We wanted a platform where people from diverse backgrounds, ages, and occupations can come together. We were tired of rigid conferences with their expensive fees, non-context-aware speakers, VIP areas and a general waste (name tags, banners and other paraphernalia). We run the un-conferences as a neutral venue for people to come together and share skills, ideas and interests with an as low ecological footprint as possible. There is a lot of talk of smart cities, we believe that a “smart” city is the one that becomes smarter by sharing.
(The “art of getting lost” is an open school theme where we discuss our explorations beyond the borders of our status quo)
If you plan to run an unconference in your university or office, you can suggest to your teachers or managers that such type of meets help build the culture of peer learning and independent learning.
(The open school at the University of Social Sciences in Saigon)
Meets like these help the students or office workers build new skills without joining external courses.
Participants from Singapore and Phnom Penh join the “Art of Getting Lost” in Saigon. We are also encouraging people to move around and participate in open schools in other cities. Message me if you want to join the next open school in Singapore, Rangoon, Phnom Penh, Jakarta or Saigon.
(Yangon, talking about how to be a better teacher)
(Singapore, talking about space exploration)
(The best part of an un-conference is finding a nearby cafe and continuing the discussions well past the closing time)