We just wrapped up our annual #beyondlaptops mini-conference here at YIS, and again, for the fourth year in a row, I am amazed at the grounded, open, collaborative and thoughtful conversations we had over our three days together. Although the participant group changes every year, there is something special about the format that really creates a fantastic community of learners.

Although it’s very hard to articulate exactly what it is that makes #beyondlaptops so special (just like COETAIL, in my opinion), I did have a realization as we were working together last weekend: everyone in the room is willing to be vulnerable:

  • Participants have a huge range of comfort levels with technology (from tech directors and coaches to admin, coordinators and teachers) – and everyone (everyone!) is willing to give it a try. Even though technology is not the focus of the event, using a variety of tools to communicate, and understanding major trends, are both a big part of our time together. At this year’s event, we asked everyone to record a short clip (less than 1 minute) of themselves talking about their learning and then to create a remix from everyone’s clips using YouTube Editor. For those that don’t use those kinds of tools regularly, that could be (and I think it was, for some) a very intimidating experience. But, everyone participated (even though it may have really stressed them out) and during the remix session everyone was so focused you could hear a pin drop!
  • The planning team is always willing to take risks and try new things. The remix project is a great example – we had no idea if the videos would show up using the keyword #beyondlaptops in the title, we weren’t able to upload all the student videos in time, and we wouldn’t have had any video to remix if people didn’t make their individual videos. But, in taking that risk we learned how collaborative YouTube Editor actually can be, and developed some absolutely outstanding products which much more authentically represent the learning that happened than the  centralized and controlled (and more “flashy”) video we created in the past.
  • We’re all willing to share both our successes and challenges. There were no teams that refused to share, and no teams that only focused on the great things their school is doing. We represented our schools, and ourselves, honestly. Because of that honesty, we were able to learn so much more than we would have if we were all trying to outdo each other or present only the best versions of ourselves. During the design thinking challenge, my partner made the comment “this is like a therapy session!” When you don’t hold back, you stand to have the most to gain.

Looking Back

Although we have had a fantastic event each year, this element of vulnerability really stuck out to me this year. When we all appreciate that each of us has something to share and something to learn, we really do open ourselves up to the possibility of becoming better than we were when we started. So, as I think ahead to our next conference (the best time to plan is when it’s fresh in your mind, right?), here are the elements I want to make sure we maintain:

The Participants

This is not something special to this year, because every year the participants are amazing, but it really felt like this group bonded really quickly. I’m wondering if it was partly because we moved the conference dinner to the first night so that everyone had a chance to get to know each other very early on. Keeping our numbers set at 40 participants also helps create a close connection where most people know each others’ names by the end of the first day.


For the second year in a row, we’ve asked participants to attend in teams of 2 – 4. All four members of each team should have a different job title (administrator, tech coach, teacher, curriculum coordinator, for example). Having participants attend in teams not only helps give different perspectives on each topic, it helps ensure that the learning that happens at #beyondlaptops can continue on once participants get home.


Each year we include some form of action, as a way to consolidate our learning together, and as a demonstration of what we learned. This year we tried a few new things:

  • the video remix using participant produced clips and YouTube Editor,
  • an individual Design Thinking conversation, which led into a team-based Design Thinking challenge to solve a larger school-based problem,
  • a mini-presentation (in teams) sharing learning highlights and plans for future implementation.

These projects help give us a focus and a purpose to our time together. They work really well for people who prefer hands-on learning, and they give teams time to debrief, reflect and apply the learning from the three days. Although we wouldn’t want to do exactly these same projects again next year, the idea of application of learning is an important one.

The Planning Team

For the second year in a row, we had an all-star planning team (Heather Dowd, Rob Newberry, Michael BollSteve Katz, Dana Watts, Robert Duckworth) to work with me and Clint. Since only Clint and I are working at the same school, we had regular Google Hangouts every other week in the few months leading up to the conference. Having so many different ideas and perspectives allows us to develop an event that would really reflect the needs of the participants.


There are no presentations at #beyondlaptops. Everything is a facilitated discussion based on an idea, a resource or a question. This year we worked really hard to make sure that those sessions were determined as much by the participants as the planning team. We did a pre-conference survey to see what people were interested in, and then asked specific participants to facilitate discussions (thank you Patrick, Tyler, Hamish, and the rest of the planning team!), or created activities led by different members of the planning team. This means that although we spend most of the three days all together in the same room, there’s no one presenter, no “talking at” participants, and that the agenda can be flexible and change as the discussion evolves. We also make sure to include unconference time for all of those conversations that we weren’t able to think about in advance. This structured unstructured time really allows for participants to be actively involved in all aspects of the conference, and to steer conversations in the ways that are most interesting to them.


For the first time, we decided to add a theme to each day, rather than just slotting in events where they fit, we looked at the big topics that participants requested and organized them into three separate categories. This enabled us to select appropriate guest speakers that could deepen our thinking on the topic and start the day in focus. We were also able to develop activities that really highlighted the key elements of each theme.


Each day we made sure there was something we could interact with so that we weren’t just talking about big ideas, but we were actually testing them out. On the first day it was our student participants who had the hands-on focus in their Raspberri Pi workshop (which we then heard about later in the day). Getting to work through the design thinking process with Heather and Patrick after hearing about the importance of design from Trung Le on the second day was really valuable (and I now have some great ideas to solve my challenge). Spending most of Saturday creating these awesome remixes of the videos participants created was a great opportunity to explore more with a new tool and to see just how collaborative YouTube Editor can actually be.

Looking Ahead

Along with continuing the elements above, there are a few elements I want to make sure we add for next year:

Connecting Early

Mads had the great suggestion of finding a way for the participants to get to know each other a bit before participants arrive. This way participants will know who they might value connecting with at the event, as well as have a good idea of both the schools and the jobs represented. Hopefully this will spark some discussion before the event and possibly inspire some actual sessions when we’re face to face. In order to get this started, we’ve created a G+ community, which hopefully will also be a great place to store and share resources as well.

On-Air Hangouts

We are very fortunate to have some really amazing guest speakers join us via Skype or Hangouts. As we were chatting with Kevin Honeycutt and Ginger Lewman this year, Clint mentioned that it would be a great idea to host these as on-air hangouts so others could participate as well. Such an easy way to connect with past participants, and with others who may be interested but not able to attend.

Advance Prep

In order to keep pushing the limits of what we can do when we’re together, as well as to make the most of our time during the conference, Heather and Rob have been talking about asking participants to bring materials or media with them. We could then use those student samples (for example) or media produced at the school, for deeper conversations or an action project. Often it’s difficult to ask participants to prepare something for a conference in advance – especially those that haven’t attended before – but with the team format, usually there is at least one person that has been in the past and understands the format of the event. If we share some of those resources in the G+ group in advance, we could also have some really interesting conversations before people arrive.

Student Involvement

Every year we increase the level of student involvement. We started out with just a panel and have now progressed to student workshops, feedback sessions, and small group conversations at this year’s event. Next year it would be really interesting to see if we can structure a whole day with students. As Heather suggested, maybe we can work on a project together with students and then reflect on the process together. This would combine some of the major highlights of the event into one awesome day!

Final Thoughts

It is amazing to me that this event has continued to evolve and grow each year, and that it consistently gets better and better. One of the key learnings from our YIS team (Cari, Shanel, Rebekah and Zoe) was that this kind of structured unstructured time is so valuable for learning – not “sit and git” learning, but authentic conversations and thoughtful reflection that we don’t often have time for in our busy day. Our goal as a team is to find a way to bring this PD format to the whole YIS faculty to see what we can learn together. Our task now is to use the Design Thinking process to ideate ways that we can do that, successfully, for as many faculty members as possible.

I’ve attended other events that are kind of similar to #beyondlaptops (#edcamp springs to mind), but none of them are quite the same. I’m already excited about what we might be able to do at next year’s event! If you’re interested in joining us (and can get yourself and a team to Japan in April 2014), please check out the conference website and fill in the “join us” survey.


7 thoughts on “#beyondlaptops & the power of vulnerability

  1. There is a lot of power in vulnerability. It reminds me of the movement to encourage teachers to take risks. We expect students to take risks every day. We will foster an environment for this to happen if we ourselves take risks. The same can be said of schools. Schools should be taking risks if they expect teachers and students to follow. I think #beyondlaptops was a microcosm of this taking place. Thanks for the great event!

  2. Hi Kim,

    I have been watching some of the short reflective videos (yours, Gary Coyle’s, and a couple others) from #beyondlaptops. They are inspiring to listen to. I remember feeling very inspired after Learning 2.013 last year, and can sense that energy in all of you who were at #beyondlaptops.

    What struck me about what you wrote above was the mention of vulnerability, and what it can bring to any creative endeavor. I have just started to read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, which really explores the idea of vulnerability in a powerful way. The idea that by making ourselves vulnerable we are making ourselves open to new ideas and understanding about the world and about ourselves.

    It is great that there are events like #beyondlaptops that look at learning so closely. I am looking forward to being there one day soon, inshallah.

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