Transform Your Meetings With Open Space Technology

Serghi_open space technology December 5, 2023 By: Daita Serghi

In 2023, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education ran an online conference using Open Space Technology. With this new format, AASHE was able to provide meaningful online connections to attendees, engage with global members, and foster innovation in virtual education.

In June 2023, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education tried a new format for online learning and engagement. AASHE’s Sustainability Education Forum, a conference for members who are faculty professionals engaged in sustainable education, was a novel event using an Open Space Technology format. OST is a method for facilitating gatherings that promotes self-organization and collaboration among participants where attendees propose topics for discussion that become the meeting agenda.

Empowering attendees to co-create the event’s experience not only promoted creativity, engagement, and the free exchange of ideas but also supported informal networking and relationship building.

The Setup

The sustainability forum would be the first time AASHE organized a faculty-specific conference. Typically, these conferences are designed with predetermined topics and speakers. Engagement and interaction with topics, speakers, and other participants mostly takes the form of short Q&As. Networking generally occurs in the hallways and sometimes outside the conference schedule.

We wanted the forum to accomplish two things: engage faculty, a segment of AASHE that had been underserved, and introduce a new format: OST.

Trying two new things at once was a risk AASHE was willing to take to foster a stronger sense of community while also engaging participants in important discussions about what and how to teach students given the urgency of the times.

We organized the forum as an OST event to center attendee engagement and ensure that it would be a participatory, inclusive, and collaborative experience. The online format and schedule made it easy for people around the world to engage.

With the help of Qiqochat, a platform built for online OST events, the event was attendee-led at every step. During registration, attendees proposed discussion topics and offered resources for fellow participants. These topics were displayed on the event webpage, so potential attendees could preview them. The collated resources were organized in an accessible document, fostering ongoing contributions throughout and beyond the event—a living repository still in use today.

In a facilitated 30-minute session, attendees proposed discussion topics, which were collected and assigned to discussion rooms. Once the discussion block opened, attendees picked their rooms. Each room featured a pre-formatted notes document open for collective input. Discussion notes were combined into the “proceedings” of the conference, creating a valuable resource for revisiting ideas, suggestions, resources, and action items post-event.

The forum gave AASHE the opportunity to experiment with some creative approaches to reach its audience, such as establishing promotional partnerships with other organizations (in exchange for one free registration), scholarships and discounted pricing, including a pay-what-you-can option, and more.

Additionally, the event operated without an initial budget and needed to be self-funded, which was achieved due to much lower costs compared to an in-person or virtual conference. Requiring significantly less staff capacity, the entire project was led by the senior education manager with assistance from the organization’s marketing team and a few supporting staff during the event.

The Results

The event drew over 140 registrants from 13 countries across five continents and multiple time zones. Most participants had no prior exposure to OST and shared that in the feedback. They felt that it facilitated “inspiring, engaging, and meaningful discussions,” provided “a very holistic way of structuring learning and sharing,” and fostered “an inspirational sense of community.”

The event illustrated what’s possible when technology is used in an intentional way. Attendees reported feeling “even more connected than at an in-person meeting” and expressed a strong preference for this format, with some even saying they would like all conferences organized in this way. 

Through this process, we were able to bring together a segment of the membership that hadn’t been served well previously. We met members where they were in terms of registration fees and interest in the event. Partnering with other organizations for promotion strengthened our relationship with those organizations and ensured that we were reaching audiences beyond our core supporters.

Given the lessons learned, AASHE has guideposts for building on these insights to create authentic, inclusive experiences and a renewed sense of connection in online learning, as well as strengthening the association’s value to members.

Next Steps

Drawing from the positive responses we received on the sustainability forum, AASHE is organizing the Sustainability Professionals Exchange in January 2024, using an OST format. This event, like the forum, represents a new addition to AASHE’s virtual education programs, and is designed for the association’s core membership.

Based on the successes of the sustainability forum, AASHE is also planning the second edition for summer 2024.

Events using this type of participant-led format have the power to foster reengagement and retention among existing members, while also reaching new audiences for the association’s community.

Daita Serghi

Daita Serghi is senior education manager at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.