Recently, I was asked to present at a conference called Student Edge on student engagement and the web. The audience included executives of Student Unions from across Canada and the facilitation process worked more like an unconference than your standard “get up and do a powerpoint” style of conference.
Anyway, as I prepared for my presentation I realized there was so much territory I could cover, and most of it would be a 50-50 on whether it would be well-received, useful, or engaging. The web these days is becoming more and more abstract, starting with the whole Web 2.0 theory that seems to have gone past us, and on to more complicated theories like the Semantic Web. I did not want to have to explain the Semantic Web to an audience that may or may not know what a blog is.
That said, focussing on a particular tool was also quite pointless in my view. Whether a tool will work for any institution depends largely on the culture of the institution itself. Like many organizations, Student Unions have to face IT departments that may or may not allow certain things on their servers (a database, or PHP support for instance).
Clearly, what I need to do was facilitate a discussion with a group of 20-30 people, rather than present something to them. At first, I thought of a seminar approach — where I introduce a concept and get feedback on it. Then, following through with the unconference style of the event, I decided that a fishbowl would work best.
What’s a fishbowl you may ask? Well, it’s a style of Knowledge Management that invites anyone in the audience to speak, but in a way that is manageable. It works like this:
- You place 5-8 chairs in a space separate from the audience (usually inside a circle, but there are other ways to do this as well).
- You invite some members of the audience to fill the seats, except one of those 4-8 chairs is always vacant.
- Then you offer the instructions:
- People inside the fishbowl can speak at will.
- If you are outside the fishbowl and want to speak, you sit down in the vacant seat.
- If this happens, someone in the occupied seats ought to leave the fishbowl (at the most convenient or appropriate time possible).
It’s as simple as that. I did a few things to make the fishbowl work for what was supposed to be an individual presentation:
- I gave a 5 minute presentation on my experience of Twitter as a way to get at local action, and its potential for student unions.
- I then relayed a bit about what I could offer as a supposed “expert” in the field.
- Anyone in the fishbowl had the opportunity to play with one of the following:
- my iPod (someone said he was impressed at my eclectic musical tastes)
- a digital camera (someone said she thought my kids were cute)
- an ASUS EEE PC (it was a bit of field research. Someone booted OpenOffice and there were a few notes about how the keyboard was really aukward)
- I stayed in the fishbowl the whole time, since I supposed to be doing a presentation.
How Did It Go?
The feedback I heard was positive and there wasn’t any real time where people did not seem to be questioning, putting out ideas, admitting challenges and so on. I really liked that I could respond to specific issues or challenges that they were having — although, like most Web 2.0 scenarios, it is really difficult to demonstrate the usefulness of a tool, unless you can get people’s hands on it in real life. There was a curt skepticism about my Twitter idea, but I had a chance to respond to it and also the opportunity to ask for other options and opinions.
For sure, the fishbowl went better than how I envisioned a dull powerpoint about Web 2.0 strategies would have gone. I can do a slick powerpoint, but I find that such things are about self-promotion — setting oneself up as the “go-to guy” on a particular topic — more than they are about effective learning.
That said, if I were to do it again, I think I would have tried to “wow” them by showing something like Friendfeed in action. (In case you weren’t aware, there has been somewhat of a tech librarian exodus from Twitter to Friendfeed due to frustration with the Fail Whale). In retrospect, this audience would have had a lot of opportunity to brainstorm this issue on their own. In my defense, however, I was not completely sure I was going to have reliable connectivity to do my presentation.
Anyway, its an interesting way to approach a presentation and, if all else fails, it is different from your standard powerpoint presentation. In fact, it is like a panel discussion, except anyone in the audience can join in on the panel. If you want, you can ask people questions; disagree with points they make; argue; affirm and so on. And I could imagine it would get very interesting when a group of argumentative people must, in a non-verbal way, come to a consensus about who will accommodate a newcomer to the fishbowl.