Craig Mod makes a nice distinction about what he expects from different types of learning events:
A workshop is where you verbalize, deconstruct, place your heart on a table and see what others think of it.
A retreat is where you disappear from the “real” world, a place of quietude, and in the case of Vipassana retreats, one of total silence.
A residency is a place for you to work like the world is burning, like every second counts, surrounded by others working on equally audacious, often equally non-commercial projects that span years (if not decades).
While the names and words can have different meanings to different people, if people know what kind of experience to expect, they’ll be able to prepare themselves mentally and emotionally.
The distinctions in the definition are useful in themselves, but this also helped me clarify something else: that setting the expectations of the type of learning that’s going to happen before they commit is a big factor in achieving it. This might seem obvious if you’re signing up for something like a class, with fairly common and obvious connotations, but it’s a bigger issue when people sign up for an unconference, which holds strong connotations to some, and is a completely new idea to others.
A fairly common mistake we’ve made is to stick an open space (or other form of unconference) in a conference. At a conference, a large segment of attendees imagine themselves catching up on email at the back of an auditorium while interesting talks drip into their subconscious. Asking them to get involved in scheduling and actively adjust their own path is simply not what they signed up for.
We struggle with this all the time. Whenever we have a new format that will achieve better learning outcomes, the bottleneck often moves to marketing and promotion. There’s a balance between selling something, which requires communicating about it in familiar terms, and doing something totally novel. It’s hard to sell an unconference, unless you make it look like a conference, and that schism is worsened if you separate marketing and delivery functions.
A remedy we’re developing (led by @bart) is to measure actual learning outcomes from the learners’ perspective. Did they learn something they applied to a current priority, and did it work better? Then using that success metric, work backwards through the program design, formats and content chosen, and back further still to the advertising and selection process.