It began with a box.
For years, organizers of “Edcamps,” a popular brand of informal professional development gatherings for teachers, received a resource kit sent by their host organization, the Edcamp Foundation. The box included nametags, pens, markers, sticky notes and lanyards—the typical staples for any event. They also got a check for $200 to cover the cost of refreshments.
In 2017, organizers got something extra in their “Edcamp in a Box,” as they were called: a maker kit, so that participants could partake in hands-on activities as part of the experience.
The maker kits were provided courtesy of Digital Promise, an education technology nonprofit, which saw these events as “a great vehicle to introduce teachers to making,” says Josh Weisgrau, its director of learning experience design.
That partnership helped pave the road to something even bigger. Last week, Digital Promise announced it had acquired the assets and operations of the Edcamp Foundation.
While, technically, that means the foundation will cease to exist as its own legal entity, the new ownership has pledged to continue support for the events. “Digital Promise is absolutely committed to maintaining the core tenets of Edcamp,” says Weisgrau, a former teacher who had attended Edcamps prior to his current role.
And with that, one of the most dedicated and fastest-growing grassroots communities of self-organizing educators across the country has found a new home.
From a ‘Camp’ to a Movement
The first Edcamp took place on the campus of Drexel University on May 22, 2010. The idea germinated earlier among several teachers in the Philadelphia region. “We were talking on Twitter about having an in-person meeting,” says Hadley Fergusion, who helped organize the inaugural event.
The impetus, she recalls, came from a desire to learn about new technologies that were coming into the classroom at the time. “If you were a teacher, you quickly realized that none of your past training prepared you for using these tools with your students.” Even where training was offered, it often felt stale and unengaging. “Professional development often meant filling in to an auditorium and being talked at from a stage,” says Ferguson.
Edcamp events offered teachers a voice in what they would learn. There is no preset schedule or agenda. Writing on sticky notes, attendees propose ideas they want to discuss. Organizers combine similar themes together. Then they break out into small groups to have those conversations.
It’s a simple formula that is easy to replicate—evidenced by how quickly the events scaled across the country. That first year, eight Edcamps were held. In the past five years, 1,875 official events were held across the United States, with 500 in 2019, according to Elyse Gainor, a program manager at Digital Promise.
Along the way, the Edcamp Foundation raised more than $4.3 million from funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (Disclosure: Both have provided support to EdSurge.) Partners including PBS and The White House helped host Edcamps of their own.
The number of gatherings scheduled for 2020 was on pace to surpass last year’s count before the pandemic put everything on hiatus, according to Ferguson, who became executive director of the Edcamp Foundation in 2014.
Ferguson says the initial conversations that would lead to the acquisition started at the SXSW EDU conference in March 2019. “That was when we first talked about the synergies.”
Where Edcamps have proven adept at convening classroom teachers, Digital Promise’s community-building efforts had largely focused on the leadership level—principals, superintendents, technology coaches and the like. For example, it already had a “League of Innovative Schools,” a network of K-12 district leaders open to sharing and bringing new ideas and approaches to their work. Bringing a new audience—teachers—into its fold seemed attractive to Digital Promise.
Digital Promise offers resources, including microcredentials, toolkits, research and guides that are relevant to topics that teachers often discuss at Edcamps, says Ferguson. These materials “can help enhance the learning that happens at an Edcamp, so that the experience isn’t just a one-off but something that they can build on afterward.”
Edcamp organizers design custom logos for their events. (Image source: Digital Promise)
These events also provide an ear to the ground as to what teachers are talking about, which can help inform the work of Digital Promise, says Weisgrau. “We also have a lot of learning science research that we’d love to get in front of teachers,” he adds.
Still, he promises that Digital Promise will “have no sway in the sessions or the topics” of the events, which will stick to its “unconference” model where teachers decide the agenda on the morning of each Edcamp.
As a result of the acquisition, Ferguson’s two colleagues from the Edcamp Foundation will join Digital Promise to oversee the continuation of the programming. Ferguson, soon to turn 66, will be retiring but says she will still keep an eye out in an advisory role. To ensure that Edcamps keep running smoothly, Digital Promise is forming an Edcamp advisory committee consisting of Edcamp organizers and board members.
Before the acquisition, the two parties partnered to co-host five virtual Edcamps after the pandemic outbreak. More than 900 attendees showed up for each one. The abrupt disruption to the school year, and the continued uncertainty about reopening plans in the fall, left teachers seeking guidance and support from their peers, says Weisgrau.
While he hopes that Edcamps will eventually resume in-person gatherings, the popularity of those virtual alternatives has shown that an online format can be feasible in the long term.
“There are programs [for] online teaching. There is training for blended learning. But nobody prepared teachers for this kind of remote learning” during a pandemic, Weisgrau notes. “Teachers have had to develop expertise on the fly, and who better to help one another than teachers themselves?”