At last month’s LACNIC 28 conference held in Montevideo, Uruguay, I participated in a tutorial: Collaborative Leadership Exchange on Infrastructure for Development. However, this was unlike any tutorial that I’ve ever experienced.
Organized by the Internet Society (ISOC), the format of this four-hour session was explained to us by our facilitator, Michael Fox, as being an ‘unconference’, which included equal parts of peer-to-peer style learning, engagement, networking and relationship building to foster interactive discussions among multiple stakeholders.
It’s a new concept that ISOC has been developing to prepare the next generation of Internet leaders to capably tackle the complex issues at the intersection of technology, policy and business. I, for one, was impressed for the following reasons.
Participants set the agenda
Following introductions and instructions on how the session would work, we were all invited to each propose a topic to discuss, which ultimately set the agenda for the session.
We then chose five to six proposed topics and broke out into sub-groups to discuss these amongst those who were most interested – the person who originally proposed the topic was the group leader and initiated the discussion. We also had a scribe to help visualize our discussion points on a whiteboard.
After 45 minutes, we reconvened to share the conclusions from the discussion with the whole group and then formed new groups to discuss other proposed topics.
Apart from the freedom that this format provided, I enjoyed the evolution of topics proposed as the session wore on. In the beginning, we were discussing broad topics such as net neutrality and regulation but by the last round of discussions, we were discussing more focused topics, including Internet for indigenous communities and the participation of women in ICT.
I felt that as participants started to become comfortable with the concept and more aware of the interests and expertise in the room, they became more confident to propose topics that were closer to their own work interests.
Multiple views allow for less biased discussion
The session was promoted as being open to anyone interested in exchanging ideas and discussing key local /regional Internet governance issues. As such, it attracted participants from a wide range of backgrounds, including ISPs, government agencies, and various academic institutes.
This broad range of expertise meant we had an equally broad range of topics being proposed and allowed those less technically minded to understand concepts such as routing and network security.
One sub-group discussion I was involved in focused on the benefits and challenges of Internet Exchanges Points (IXPs). To begin the discussion the technical people in the group, including myself, gave an introduction on what an IXP was. Apparently, we were so biased about the advantages of IXPs that those unfamiliar with them asked us “why don’t we cover the world in IXPs if they can solve so many issues?”
This was a real eye-opener for me, realizing that I was unconsciously biased, and imparted the merits of the multistakeholder model, which encourages those not as close to the subject to participate in such discussions.
Actively engaging in discussion is more worthwhile than passive listening
Finally, the success of the workshop, in my eyes, was largely thanks to our wonderful facilitator, Michael.
Sometimes I, like many, attend tutorials and conferences not giving the presenters my full attention – I’m passively listening but I’m probably working away on emails. At this tutorial, there was no way you could just sit and listen (or do any emails).
Michael was always moving around encouraging people to get involved and stimulating debate. One activity that you couldn’t help being actively involved in was having us all stand in a circle and him asking us a range of yes/no questions on various topics, which we had to answer not by a show of hands but by taking a step forward.
These tactics and the overall concept, which kept us active and allowed us the freedom to pursue our interests, all added to the unconference like experience, which I hope will become common practice in future tutorials that I attend.
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