ShapingEDU's Samantha Becker and Stephanie Pierotti

Key takeaways from the ShapingEDU 2021 Unconference: Reshaping Wicked Problems

Stephanie Jeanine King

— Aug 19, 2021

Powerful. Energizing. Thought-provoking. Community-building. These are just a few words to describe the ShapingEDU community’s time together at the fourth annual ASU ShapingEDU Unconference on July 20-23, 2021.

This year, the Unconference was one-of-a-kind: the entire event was held virtually for the first time, at a “remote” inn haunted by Wicked Problems (WPs) in education. When it came to this year’s theme of “Reshaping Wicked Problems,” the ShapingEDU community was asked to share the most pressing, complex challenges facing learning now or in the future. Once submissions were received, the community had the opportunity to vote for their favorite topics – the top nine issues became the events Wicked Problems that attendees would reshape during the event

Educators, students, faculty, technology leaders and changemakers who wanted to develop and build skills for dealing with the unknown – to become more antifragile in learning and living – registered to spend four days together at the virtual inn. 

Together, they addressed specific Wicked Problems facing learning and co-created actionable outputs, tools and new projects based on the needs, wants and interests of the community...with some fun and games along the way. “The ShapingEDU community is ready, willing and able to roll up their sleeves and focus on tackling any challenge that comes their way,” said Stephanie Pierotti, Director, ShapingEDU. “The energy, passion and enthusiasm with which they approached each Wicked Problem was inspirational.”

OLC's Maddie Shellgren and ShapingEDU's Laura Geringer
Maddie Shellgren of the Online Learning Consortium and Laura Geringer of ShapingEDU co-host the 2021 Unconference's Wicked Mystery Party.

But first, a wickedly wonderful mystery party

Once attendees arrived on Tuesday, they were greeted by the Unconference’s concierge, including ShapingEDU co-founder Samantha Becker and Pierotti, ShapingEDU’s first-ever Director, followed by a Wicked Mystery Party. All were invited to dive into a story-based interactive game set at the masquerade-themed celebration of the 400th year anniversary of the "remote" castle, affectionately named the Wicked Mystery Inn. Once the guests arrived, they quickly discovered that all was not as expected. The outcome? Attendees were able to exercise their problem-solving skills while strengthening community connections. “We designed the Wicked Mystery Party to introduce, in a fun and game-based way, some of the thinking skills and negotiating of competing values - and even frustration! - that attendees would encounter throughout the week in addressing Wicked Problems, said Laura Geringer, Unconference event co-producer and Wicked Mystery Party co-designer. “And, of course, to build community and lean into the week-long mystery theme along the way.” Special thanks to Maddie Shellgren and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) for co-creating and co-hosting the event with us and for being a Co-convener of the Unconference!

Taming the Black Swans

Ruben Puentedura
ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Dr. Ruben Puentedura designed and hosted the Unconference's Black Swan Game.

On Day 2 of the Unconference, participants ventured out to Black Swan Lake for some serious fun with Innovator in Residence Dr. Ruben Puentedura during the Black Swan Game. Puentedura led a Black Swan simulation focused on learning in the face of disruption to set the tone of strategizing around the unexpected.

Puentedura explained that Black Swan Game was quite unlike the usual “clean” academic simulation, with sharply predefined challenges and goals: it required that players deal with rule sets and conditions shifting under their feet, making decisions based upon incomplete information — and finding that those decisions themselves may well make the next steps to be taken opaquer. “In other words, an ideal introduction to thinking about Wicked Problems,” said Puentedura. Read more about the Black Swan Game

Reshaping Wicked Problems from multiple angles

Then, changemakers engaged their skills in dreaming, doing and driving as they began the process of addressing Wicked Problems in education. “The post-Covid educational landscape is undiscovered territory to an even greater degree than we thought when our primary concern was automation, which is a much more linear/logarithmic progress,” said ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence and Unconference facilitator Tom Haymes. “We must, therefore, be ready for everything.”Attendees began Day 3 at the Unconference with a keynote on The Intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) and Technology, courtesy of platinum Co-convener Workday. The Keynote’s panelists — Carin Taylor of Workday, Diane Doherty of Huron Consulting and Sergio Mendoza of Western Governors University discussed the important roles that technology and data play when it comes to DEI at institutions.

Carin Taylor of Workday, Diane Doherty of Huron Consulting and Sergio Mendoza of Western Governors University
Carin Taylor of Workday, Diane Doherty of Huron Consulting and Sergio Mendoza of Western Governors University presented at Workday's keynote: The Intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Technology.

“You can use tech to make data-driven decisions,” said Taylor. “That becomes critical as you’re not just thinking about the sentiments that you’re hearing but you can really make decisions based on access.”

Working Groups met in Zoom rooms to discuss tough questions, have thoughtful discussions and, ultimately, develop actionable outputs to help untangle the Wicked Problems. While we began with nine WPs, over the two days of discussion, those nine groups combined forces to end up with six groups for maximum impact.

  • Invasion of the Degree Snatchers: Stacked microcredentials vs. traditional degrees

  • Frankensteining strategy into tools

  • 365+ Days Later: Post-pandemic best practices

  • Nightmare on Accessibility Street: Creating a space + place for all online

  • Brainscan 2021: XR, deepfakes and gamified experiences

  • Mirror, Mirror Spotlight on the Wall, Whose Voice is Not Being Heard at All: “Dial S for Success: Voice + Choice + Community-Building for Lifelong-Learning”, a combination of:

    • Silence of the Students: Why we need to prioritize voice + choice for lifelong learning

    • The Shining of the spotlight on DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) in education

    • Mirror, Mirror: Encouraging positive mental health & wellness practices

“The experience of serving as an Unconference co-facilitator for conversations about what we have learned about teaching-training-learning (“365+ Days Later: Post-Pandemic Best Practices”) — and, more importantly, what we can do with what we have learned — gave me an opportunity to explore the transformations we have seen since COVID-19 moved substantial numbers of people in our communities from onsite to online learning,” said Paul Signorelli, ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence and Unconference facilitator Paul Signorelli. “We have seen the struggles. We have seen the pain of learners and learning facilitators trying to adapt to a world they hadn’t imagined and, frankly, were not much enamored of inhabiting, much less sustaining. And we have seen incredible moments of creativity and adaptability that remind us we can do much more than we imagine we are capable of doing if we are immersed in a supportive community with members willing to adapt to changing circumstances in a world that seems hell-bent on continually throwing challenges at us.” (Read Signorelli's ShapingEDU blog post about the event.)

Special thanks to all our facilitators who guided these thoughtful discussions during the Unconference and to Tim Gabrielson, guest speaker and magician, who wowed us with the many tricks up his sleeves and on our computer screens!

Unconference Student Panel with Moderator Samantha Becker

The final day at the Unconference ended on a high note by inviting three students — Lance Israel Lim, John Janezic and Sophie Jones — to share their thoughts on this year’s Wicked Problems. From surviving and learning through a pandemic to interdisciplinary leadership to anti-racism and accessibility, these lifelong learners gave participants fresh perspectives towards solving our most Wicked Problems in education.

Karina Branson's Graphic Facilitation from the Wicked Problems Working Group Sessions

Enlightened by the students’ perspectives, attendees got back to work to develop actionable outputs, resources and products related to the Wicked Problems and then share them with all attendees. “I was so impressed with each group’s ability to learn from the antifragile ‘bootcamp’ and apply those skills to the Wicked Problem solving working sessions,” said Pierotti. “It was inspiring to see the ShapingEDU community members in action!” Changemakers celebrated a job well done and enjoyed a Wrap Party and Concert in VirBELA, courtesy of Workday!

Virtual Concert in VirBELA

Next steps for the community

For the ShapingEDU community, the Unconference is a launchpad for new projects and new beginnings. For example, Signorelli and his Wicked Problem Working Group are already beginning next steps for their project, like crafting a description of who they are, what they want to accomplish and how they will document and share information about how they can build upon what we have learned up to this point in pandemic-era thinking. “The formal conclusion of the 2021 Unconference was not as much an ending as a marker in a much longer journey upon which we long ago embarked and are continuing, enthusiastically, to navigate,” said Signorelli.

ShapingEDU community leaders are currently discussing and developing the next five calls to action for the community in 2022 and beyond. “I’m excited to work with the community to make these solutions come to life,” said Pierotti.

Storyteller in Residence and graphic facilitator Karina Branson (Conversketch) beautifully synthesized the week’s outputs with her graphic recordings. “Visuals connect multiple senses —  auditory, verbal, visual — and that helps spark memories of the conversations, details, and connections made during the Unconference,” said Branson. “Sharing the visuals with the community during and after the Unconference is a tool to use to reflect and build on the ideas the group is working with, and even share those with others who weren't at the event.” 

ShapingEDU is grateful to all who made the Unconference possible, including our phenomenal Co-conveners:


2021 Unconference Co-conveners


Stephanie Jeanine King