The UKEducamp unconference – how Sheffield University created buzzing conversations while connecting education professionals.

If you work in further or higher education, Sheffield University was the place to connect with likeminded professionals at their education unconference in June.

I found out about the event when UKEducamp asked Jisc to help with promotion. Having been to similar community unconferences, I was keen to learn more about how in-person meets can excel at connecting people and sharing ideas and what it takes to make that happen.

Unconferences are all about the attendees. They lack a rigid structure, no lengthy presentations, or sales pitches. It is all about getting people involved with discussions about topics that interest them.

How do we make an unconference event successful?

The volunteers

Organising a large-scale unconference needs a team effort. Sheffield University had a terrific team of volunteers who contributed to its success and smooth-running. You can never be too prepared, and they helped with

  • Getting sponsors
  • Planning the structure and set up.
  • Venue risk assessment
  • Organising catering
  • Communications and promotion
    • Social media messaging
    • Promotional stickers
  • Registration on the day
  • Making people feel welcome.
  • Time keeping
  • Signposting rooms
  • Facilitation of breakout discussions
  • Tidying up after


At Sheffield University, there was space and different rooms to keep everyone comfortable. But in-person events can be intimidating. During registration, attendees could choose a black lanyard if they were okay with being photographed and red for those who were not. There was an assortment of preference stickers attendees choose for pronouns, whether they were happy to be approached for conversations or wanted space. These little gestures, make a world of difference for people who might not be so comfortable.

Assortment of stickers laid on table for pronouns and whether attendees would like to be approached or left alone

Topic gathering done superbly

Getting everyone’s ideas for topic discussions and organising what discussion happens where and when was the next challenge.

With around 70 attendees, everyone was asked to pitch their idea to the room with a quick show of hands from the audience if they were interested so we could determine the room size needed.

A session grid was prepared so each discussion idea was added via post it notes. This worked perfectly and as everyone pitched their ideas, the facilitator grouped related topics together and depending on interest, staggered them throughout the day.

This is what our discussion grid looked like as we were getting ideas.

Activity to document ideas for discussion with post it notes being placed on the wall
Creating the ideas grid for discussion

Kudos to our facilitator for this activity who did an excellent job at making sure topics aligned and people knew what to do.

Getting people to pitch their idea completely energised the room and was the perfect activity to get people talking and thinking. If you did not want to pitch, you could ask a volunteer to do so on your behalf.

What did we talk about?

With over twenty discussions happening throughout the day, the biggest challenge was picking which ones to attend. Each conversation was around 50 minutes giving time to explore the topics in more detail.

With my community hat on, here are my reflections from the discussion I was involved in.

Image of participants of the unconference listening to a discussion

Stakeholder therapy

Managing expectations for your stakeholders can be tricky. But the more we look through different lenses to the problems across education and research, the better we understand the possibilities.

  • Like in our communities, building trust is a crucial aspect to create better relationships.
  • When we focus on building authentic relationships, before we delve into questioning, it helps build momentum and stronger bonds.
  • Building better stakeholder relationships involves championing active listening and more upfront and honest communication.

When dealing with senior leaders, we need to treat our priorities as a business case and be upfront about the risks. But we also need to inspire them, lead them and lastly nudge them to ensure they fully understand.


Having accessible online and in-person environments helps all student and learners to succeed. While it is becoming a higher priority for all departments, unfortunately, we still see lip service to finding solutions with little actions. So, what is missing? It involves a big culture shift. By using plain language and continuing to bring in the voices of those impacted we can get senior leaders to understand better.

Enhancing the student experience means making improvements for all, no matter their ability. The group discussed the idea of pairing senior leaders with students to share their experiences first-hand and the importance of understanding student data on common queries and concerns.

Jisc’s accessibility community is another way that institutions can get together and share advice and guidance on this topic.

What are the challenges?

When hosting people in discussion I noticed a few challenges anyone organising an event should consider.

  • Sticking to themes. During discussions it is natural that people can drift off topic. It is not always a terrible thing but having a facilitator for each group helps to bring conversations back to what participants were initially interested in.
  • Giving everyone a voice. Loud characters can take over the conversation leaving the quieter voices to miss opportunities to talk. A great facilitator can notice when this happens and direct the conversation. Or you can adopt the thinking environment approach to communicate and listen in the group by taking turns to each speak. There is no pressure for everyone to contribute, if participants are there to only listen then this is fine.

Final thoughts

This unconference helped me to connect with other professionals, find out what is on their minds. The format allows for open and honest discussions which have a clear benefit in helping people know that they are not alone.

I had a fantastic time at this event. It was a pleasure to help the team and the great conversations, people and delicious food was a recipe for success. With a day full of conversations, the energy remained with thanks to this fantastic organisation that kept attendees engaged and enthused throughout.

View this video from the event.

If you would like to keep in touch and participate in the next unconference you can join the LinkedIn group. And you can join the #ukeducamp channel on the GovCamp Slack workspace through this link.

Table filled with stickers for the UKEducamp unconference


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