Open Space Technology

A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop promoted by the Center for Excellence in Teaching at my school. The email invitation gave attendants one task in preparation to the session: to think about “What are the ideas, questions and possibilities I want to explore about enriching the classroom experience?”
The professor who facilitated the session used Open Space Technology – a technique to run meetings or classes where participants create and manage their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme. Our theme for the session was “enriching the classroom experience”. As it usually happens in these events, I learned a great deal from exchanging classroom tips, stories, and practices with other participants. Nevertheless, discovering Open Space Technology - and the myriad of its potential applications - was the highlight of the meeting for me.  
Chairs were disposed in a circle, and there were flip charts around the room. There were signs posted on the walls with quotes like “Whoever comes is the right people” and “When it’s over, it’s over.” Cute pictures of bees and butterflies also decorated the walls of what is usually a neutral, impersonal meeting room. An appetizing table with sandwiches, fruits, deserts, and refreshments was set for participants to serve themselves at the back of the room. Before starting, we received handouts and a brief explanation of how the technique works. The pictures and quotes on the walls started to make sense after this introduction, and in a couple of minutes we were all “shopping” in a marketplace of ideas which would later develop to fill in pages and pages of the flipcharts spread throughout the room. As bumblebees, some of us moved from group to group, cross-pollinating discussions with ideas generated elsewhere. As butterflies, others stopped by one chart or by the refreshments table, listening, thinking, and condensing information. In the end, everyone moved back to the circle and we made sure to have  identified, explored and addressed all of the most important issues, gathered new ideas, resources and people and connected them to these issues, documented all of this in notes, and established strategic themes, clear priorities, immediate actions steps.
I left the seminar (re)energized and action-ready! Right after the meeting, I did some research on Open Space Technology and discovered a worldwide community of practitioners and plenty of online resources to support those who want to learn more about the technique.  Here is an article that is a good start for anyone interested: “Working in Open Space – a guided tour”
This can be a great tool to use in the classroom for the analysis of complex business cases, for example, or to identify issues of interest to students in an elective course. It has been applied to healthcare, participatory planning, organizational change, corporate strategy development, and leadership among other contexts, and it has been the focus of research in several disciplines.
Let me know if you have an experience with OST or know any other interesting and innovative way to facilitate learning and idea generation. I will love to hear about it!