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Future student online experiences

Future student online experiences

Sharing the work of the Prospective Student Web Content Team

Team reflections the Educamp unconference in Edinburgh

Last week we hosted the second unconference organised by UKEducamp. Some of the team have been part of the organising committee throughout, and most of us took part on the day. We all took something from this fantastic volunteer-led free event and recommend more higher education digital colleagues get involved.

In this post, we all share a flavour of what we got out of getting involved with UKEducamp 2024, hosted by the University of Edinburgh.

University of Edinburgh staff pose in front of a wall of post-it notes.

Some of the Prospective Student Web Content Team who attended the 2024 Educamp unconference at the University of Edinburgh, plus Emma Horrell (centre) from Information Services.


Team contributions from:

  • Neil Allison (Head of Prospective Student Web Content)
  • Pete Watson (UX Specialist)
  • Heike McIntosh (Content Designer)
  • Lauren Tormey (Senior Content Designer)
  • Aaron McHale (Software Developer / Analyst)
  • Carla Soto (Performance Analyst)
  • Nicole Tweedie (Content Designer)
  • Nicola Dobiecka (Senior User Researcher)

Neil’s reflections

What I was hoping to get out of the unconference

Having attended a couple of unconferences in the past, I knew what to expect from the experience. My main hopes for the day were to: sit in on at least a couple of stimulating discussions and to catch up with (or make some new) connections in the sector.

Needless to say, I had the chance to participate in some great sessions which pointed me to new ideas, reading and resources and prompted me to seek out and chat further with some people making particularly interesting contributions.

I also had the chance to speak to a few people I’ve not seen since before the pandemic and to catch up with an ex-Bath colleague who I’ve not spoken to in over 10 years. I had a very pleasant surprise to find they’re now located in Scotland and living less than 10 miles from me!

Highlights from the day

I particularly enjoyed the sessions titled: “User experience – getting senior (and non-senior) buy in” and “Open roadmaps – for the win!”

Our colleague in Information Services, Emma Horrell, proposed the first session and this was very well attended. Clearly an issue common to many of us! The conversation was interesting and varied, with contributions coming from more senior experienced people like myself, from practitioners newer to the sector, from colleagues working in other areas that I don’t encounter so ofter like learning technology, and from contributors working agency side.

The second session I highlighted was about roadmaps. This group was significantly smaller but I was really interested to hear about other institutions experiences of roadmaps, whether generated for team and stakeholder planning and communications, or as the the session title says, shared openly for the win! There was a lot of conversation about the politics, risks and benefits of being ultra open with your planning which has prompted new thinking for me, and I also came away with a couple of articles and resources to explore further.

My final highlight is one as an organiser rather than an attendee.

Seeing nearly 100 colleagues come together with such enthusiasm and energy was so rewarding. It was lovely to have been part of making this second Educamp unconference happen, and to have had the opportunity to showcase the excellent facilities we’re lucky to have at the University of Edinburgh.

Why I recommend UKEducamp to others

Unconferences are an excellent format, and particularly well suited to higher education where I find colleagues across the sector tend to be so generous with their time, and open and frank in their contributions.

The volunteer-led, free model makes the event as inclusive as it can be and we see this in the range of attendees – from relatively experienced and senior people like myself to recent graduates looking to get into digital roles in the sector.

Finally I like how broad the intake is. I usually attend conferences that are much more specific to a discipline – web managers, user experience professionals, content designers and so on. UKEducamp is a broad church and with that comes a range of perspectives which I find refreshing. Everyone is driven by the desire to deliver better digital services but beyond that, it’s really only the fact that this happens in higher education that pulls us together.

The conversation and the interaction is all the richer for all these things.

Pete’s reflections

What I was hoping to get out of the unconference

This was the first unconference event I had attended so I wasn’t sure what to expect or what I might get from my experience. As a user researcher at University of Edinburgh I often want to talk to other people who work in my area. I’m fortunate that I have colleagues in my team who have experience that I can draw on, but I always want to know how research is conducted in other institutions.

I think the format of the unconference is great in that there are no planned sessions and it relies on attendees pitching ideas for topics they want to discuss. This allowed me to pitch a session on best practices for user research in higher education. I wanted to talk about my experience of conducting user research and hear from others about their experiences. I was also hoping that the session would help me connect with others to build a network with after the event.

Highlights from the day

At the risk of sounding a little arrogant my highlight was the session I was able to run with my colleague Nicola Dobiecka. She also pitched a session, but we felt it was more practical to bring the two topics together into one as they were quite similar.

Talking to other people about our research and our practices helped me realise that I have developed a good level of experience during my time in the team. I was able to contribute and make suggestions for best practices to other attendees and learn about what it is like to conduct user research in other institutions. This helped me come away feeling more confident in the work that we do in our team and the level of experience we have.

I attended a session in the afternoon on developing a heuristic framework for appraising websites. In true unconference style the conversation developed in many different ways which allowed us all to get right into user research practices.

A key highlight is simply being able to have the time and space to talk at length with people who are directly in your area of expertise or doing something different. I really enjoyed some of the conversations I had and felt that there was a potential to develop a community of practice across other institutions which is something I’ve been keen on for a while. I don’t feel that any other conferences I have attended have offered that kind of opportunity like Educamp.

I also thought that the event itself was run really well so many thanks to all those who contributed.

Why I recommend UKEducamp to others

I have attended conferences before where some of the speakers give you little practical understanding to leave with. Sometimes you are presented to with little or no participation. The unconference format is great because you have the ability to pitch an idea of what you want to talk about. I think we were able to turn all pitches into sessions so you can come along with a topic in mind and know that you will be able to have a session on it and connect with other like-minded people.

From my own experience though I would be more prepared for my session. I felt I could have got more from it if I had planned out what I wanted to cover. But it was still really good fun.

Overall, I think this type of event is great. It’s run really well and attended by friendly and open-minded people who you can get into topics with as deeply as you like. I’ll certainly be attending the next one.

Heike’s reflections

What I was hoping to get out of the unconference

I attended conferences before and was an event team volunteer at a number of them. But unconferences were a new concept to me. I did not really know what to expect and how it would all work. So I wanted to get a better understanding of these types of events.

Highlights from the day

I did not expect to in advance, but I pitched a topic and then led the discussion. My topic was around how we can  convince academic colleagues of the importance of accessible website design and writing content in plain English. I decided to propose this because academic-style copy writing is a particular challenge for us during the annual degree finder update cycle. It was good to hear of others’ experiences and the actions other organisations have taken – from A/B tests to the involvement of a Vice Principal.

With so many people stepping up to propose ideas for sessions, it felt like a safe environment to put something forward myself. Stepping more into the limelight at an event was definitely a confidence booster.

I also contributed to discussion in sessions around user research, accessibility and the future of the UKEduCamp unconference.

It was also good to see that our team is undertaking a level of user research that others aspire to. Nicola and Pete led the discussion in this session, and it was interesting to hear what other institutions are doing in this area. I was also able to report on some of the experiences of our content design team, such as the on-campus usability testing during Welcome Week. Talking about how our user research activity involves the whole team rather than it just being the responsibility of our UX specialists was something I felt proud of.

In the accessibility session I got some very useful information and ideas while listening to how other institutions are approaching their challenges. It was also interesting to learn from an attendee who benefits from accessible content adjustments such as a special font for dyslexia. On top of that, colleagues from Website and Communications and I identified how we might be able to benefit from contacts I established during my time in HR to cooperate closer across the University. Accessibility is a topic for everybody, after all.

Why I recommend UKEduCamp to others

An unconference is an excellent way to explore topics with like-minded colleagues, to network and to benefit from each other’s experiences in a more informal but effective way. The discussions are a more practical approach than presentations at a conference. It also provides ideas and tips for the day-to-day work.

For me, UKEduCamp is a way to both increase knowledge and to develop personally.

Now that I know how an unconference works, I will be able to prepare topics to pitch in advance.

Would I get involved and step forward again? Definitely. And I am sure that I will be able to get even more out of future unconferences now that I know what to expect.

Lauren’s reflections

What I was hoping to get out of the unconference

I had never been to an unconference before, so I was interested in seeing what topics people wanted to pitch and hopefully engage in some fruitful discussions.

Highlights from the day

I most enjoyed the actual pitching session. It was really encouraging to see so many people volunteer with topics they wanted to discuss with others. I loved that all topics were given a space during the day for discussion. It felt like a very inclusive environment.

I particularly enjoyed the session I ran on hiring practices as it’s something I’m focused on at the moment, going through a content designer recruitment process. It was a small group, but I think that allowed for it to be a more engaging chat, with all participants getting a chance to chip in to the conversation.

I got some insights into hiring practices at other universities, as well as a space to share the changes I’ve made to our recruitment process that I’m proud of.

Why I recommend UKEduCamp to others

I think UKEduCamp’s inclusive nature is its best selling point. If you have something you want to chat to like-minded folk about, you can. It’s incredibly important that higher ed professionals are given that space to have those chats outside of more formal conference settings.

Aaron’s reflections

I enjoyed the unconference so much that I wrote a mini blog and posted it to LinkedIn immediately after the event! This was before I knew the team were planning this post.

So instead of following the format everyone else has adopted here you can read about my experiences at UKEduCamp in a separate blog post.

Aaron’s UKEduCamp experiences blog: “Attending my first unconference – EduCamp comes to Edinburgh”

Carla’s reflections

What I was hoping to get out of the unconference

I have attended many conferences over the years but had never been to an unconference so I was interested in how the sessions would be created and hopeful that I would meet some like-minded people.

Highlights from the day

The first session, where attendees were pitching their ideas for the rest of the day was one of the highlights for me. I was prepared to see hesitation and nerves but, instead, was amazed at the amount of people that had a pitch and I really enjoyed the organic way in which the programme was created, it felt like it belonged to all of us.

My favourite session was “Group therapy/I need a rant” as it allowed a very open conversation about the challenges we face as HE professionals but more so it made me feel part of a community and reminded me I’m not alone in my problems, something I often forget as I stare at endless spreadsheets on my own most days.

Why I recommend UKEduCamp to others

From the get go the unconference felt like a really inclusive and safe environment and that stood out to me. And, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to listen and contribute to conversations without the teacher/student dynamic that often happens at traditional conferences.

Nicole’s reflections

What I was hoping to get out of the unconference

I’ve attended traditional conferences before but this was my first unconference. I most looked forward to hearing what people would raise as issues important to them, and what we could learn from the challenges and success of our colleagues across the sector.

Highlights from the day

I really enjoyed listening to everyone pitch their ideas at the start of the day. As the pitches went on and themes began to emerge, it became clear that professionals in this industry who work in digital (in any capacity) face many of the same challenges. I actually find this encouraging, as it means there’s lots of potential to work together to find solutions to these challenges. I think the casual format of the day helped create a sense of camaraderie in this way.

One of my session highlights for the day was a discussion on how we can better create space for collaboration between content and recruitment or other non-specialist teams. Listening to others in the session, I think we do a good job of this at the University. However, it also made me reflect on how we as a team might try to increase that space a bit in future.

It was also nice to hear colleagues from Edinburgh share their knowledge and expertise with others. It made me realise how lucky we are to have that level expertise in our institution.

Why I recommend UKEduCamp to others

Traditional conferences can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re early-on in your career. The unconference format of UkEduCamp creates a really inclusive space and I think that’s why we ended up having such interesting and open conversations. It also results in a wide range of perspectives being heard, which traditional conferences sometimes lack.

Nicola’s reflections

What I was hoping to get out of the unconference

I’d never experienced the unconference format before, so I was interested in seeing how it worked. I had also not been to a HE-specific conference before, so I was interested to see what topics people wanted to talk about and to have some interesting and ongoing conversations.

Highlights from the day

It was great to meet up with people who I haven’t seen in person since the start of the pandemic – and some who I’d only ever worked with digitally!

This was the first conference I’ve attended since the start of the pandemic, and as I need to maintain covid safety precautions it shone a light on a couple of things. The first of these is that being the only person at the conference wearing a face mask, I didn’t encounter any negativity. This reflects the inclusivity of the environment created by the organisers and the attendees. The second is an observation of the need to include the ongoing presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in accessibility risk assessments as this is a barrier to attendance for some.

I found the session on incorporating a sense of play particularly interesting because of the new ideas that we shared about how to advance our research practice. It was also a useful discussion on the challenges of incorporating innovative techniques into user research and experience design whilst maintaining inclusivity for research participants.

I thoroughly enjoyed co-hosting a session on practising user research in HE with Pete. Heike also contributed, which highlighted the collaborative nature of the team. It was great to share experiences and insights of dealing with the same challenges with people from various universities. I appreciated the wealth of our combined knowledge and being able to share my experience from working on multiple diverse projects for the University, thanks to Neil.

Why I recommend UKEduCamp to others

It’s great to have a programme which emerges from the attendees because it means that all of the sessions are relevant, even if some are of more particular interest. Creating the schedule together made it easier to avoid running popular sessions concurrently and to repeat topics of interest. It’s a mutual learning and sharing experience in a very friendly atmosphere.

Learn more about UKEducamp

Visit the UKEduCamp website

Follow UKEduCamp on LinkedIn

More blogs about attending unconferences

University of St Andrews Digital Team reflections on attending

University of Edinburgh UX Team reflections on attending

Neil’s previous post about the first UKEduCamp held at the University of Sheffield (July 2023)

Neil’s previous post about attending a UKGovCamp unconference ( December 2017)


Post it notes arranged in a grid to present a conference programme.

The programme of sessions was generated by the unconference attendees, and organised into a timetable of sessions by one of the organising team. This process happened during the first hour of the unconference.

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