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UKEduCamp unconference comes to Edinburgh

Unlike a conventional conference, the UKEduCamp unconference gives attendees the chance to set the agenda and run the sessions themselves. Members of the UX team helped organise and took part in UKEduCamp at the University on Friday 12 January 2024.

UKEduCamp is a version of UKGovCamp – an unconference for people interested in public sector digital. UKEduCamp is aimed at anyone working in, or with an interest in digital in the education sector. Both unconferences are run by groups of volunteers and are free to attend.

Read more about UKEduCamp

Read more about UKGovCamp

Several of the UX team took the opportunity to be part of UKEduCamp, and we’ve shared our thoughts, reflections and takeaways below.

Catherine’s reflections

I had never been to an unconference before, so I was intrigued to see how it would run and whether it would descend into chaos! Fortunately, once everyone had made their session proposals, the day ran completely smoothly. I attended six sessions across the day, many of which included discussions about user research in Higher Education.

I submitted my own topic for discussion in the hope that one or two people would come along, but in the end so many people attended that we were allocated a bigger room! The topic was about user testing for truly accessible services and systems; this is something I’m keen to encourage at the university, beyond the extensive work already done when testing our technology against industry guidelines for accessibility.

Several people in the group shared their own experiences and advice for conducting user research with staff and students who have access needs. This gave me plenty to think about and motivated me further to design and recruit for inclusive research sessions.

All in all, the day was a great opportunity to share ideas and I appreciated having more time to continue conversations outside the usual conference format!

Nick’s reflections

My take on the unconference format

This was the first time I’d been to an unconference, and I was really impressed. I really liked how there were more opportunities to contribute than you get at a more standard type of conference. Attendees can pitch sessions at the start of the day and then be delivering them an hour later. As well as this, all the sessions I went to were in a round table discussion format, which meant we got to hear from a wide range of people throughout the day.

Sessions I attended

In the sessions I attended, we talked about:

  • User research best practice
  • Accessibility / how we can test ideas with a diverse range of users
  • Essential pre-conditions to make collaboration work
  • Understanding how website editors use the tools we provide
  • What innovation looks like in Higher Education (HE)

Lots of interesting stuff there, and all highly relevant to the work we do in Website and Communications. For me, the standout session was the one about accessibility. There were useful tips in that session on how we can test designs with a wide range of users, and sharing of practice around how we can improve accessibility more broadly.

The main theme that came through was that we’re all dealing with a similar set of problems across the HE sector. An event like this is great because we all get a chance to meet up, share stories and learn from each other. I came away with a better sense of how other HE institutions across the UK are approaching the digital aspect of their operations.

Emma’s reflections

Planning for the unplanned

As part of the volunteering team, I attended weekly planning calls in the months leading up to the conference along with colleagues from the Prospective Student Web Content team and people from the University of Sheffield and University of Cambridge. The previous UKEduCamp had been held at the University of Sheffield in July 2023 and many of the planning tasks had been worked out, as well as lessons learned to ensure the day ran smoothly to give attendees a great experience. I took on some promotion tasks, printed signage and (very importantly) secured the location for post-event drinks.

Having planned and facilitated many workshops and meetings, it felt strange to leave the agenda to chance, but clearly that was the whole point of an unconference! To address my planning impulses I ran a couple of sessions with the UX team to give us a space to come up with ideas of topics we wanted to talk about and propose on the day.

My stand-out sessions: Systems thinking and innovation in Higher Education (HE)

I framed all my session ideas as questions I wanted to discuss with others. Once all the proposals were in and the agenda had taken shape, I found it hard to pick which ones to go to. One of the ‘unrules’ of an unconference is the ‘law of two feet’ meaning if you start a session and decide it’s not for you, you can leave and go elsewhere. As it turned out, I didn’t feel the need to leave any of the sessions I chose, and there were a few that stood out for me.

Modelling a university as a system

I enjoy thinking in systems as I find it an effective way to get a view of the bigger picture – something that is crucial for both UX and service design. A discussion about modelling a university as a system got me thinking about how HE institutions are organised, their operating models and team topologies and how these factors impact the experience of everyone who is part of the system. I had come across this idea before in Enterprise Architecture and the Higher Education Reference Models (HERM) but hadn’t connected the two and the session gave me loads to think about.

Read about Global Higher Education Reference Models on the UCISA website

Innovation – just change by a different name?

‘Which areas in HE are most in need of innovation and what does innovation look like?’ was one of my session proposals. I wanted to hear others’ experiences of innovation where they worked, and how these compared to wider interpretations of innovation. The session was scheduled for the end of the day so I was aware people were tired. I encouraged attendees to write their ideas on post-it notes to give us a starting point for discussion (and to provide a break from talking!). I found it energising to ideate around some of the blockers and enablers to innovation, to analyse its relationship to change and consider ways we can normalise and sustain innovative practices.

Conversations, connections, therapy, idea-swapping

The informality of the sessions meant the day provided many opportunities for discussions, some related to the topics on the agenda, but also more broadly. It was good to hear others’ experiences, reassuring to know my challenges were felt elsewhere and insightful to learn how other institutions did things, what worked and what didn’t. I made many contacts and since the conference have picked up from where we left off. I also connected with people from the University of Edinburgh who I otherwise might not have met, which furthered my education on our institution and gave me fresh perspective on how my role fits in.

More blogs about UKEduCamp

From our colleagues in the Prospective Student Web Content team

Team reflections on the UKEduCamp unconference in Edinburgh

Attending my first unconference – UKEduCamp comes to Edinburgh

From the University of St Andrews Digital Communications team

The unconference experience at UKEduCamp

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