CEEPS Conference

April 13 - 15, 2007
(Bark Lake Leadership Centre, Haliburton, ON)


   Updated: January 30, 2007




More About the Virtual Space Concept

Andrew begins to fill in the V-Space grid

History - On the shoulders of Open Space

Let us begin with some history.  It is now more than 20 years since conference-organizer Harrison Owen discovered that more was accomplished on the coffee breaks than in the sessions he had created.  His response was to create Open Space Technology (Owen, 1997) - essentially a series of 'coffee breaks' instead of rigid meetings.  Open Space is a superb tool for empowering a group to create and control a potentially challenging dialogue, and exponentially increase its effectiveness.  The founding principles of Open Space are deceptively simple:


Whoever comes are the right people.


Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.


Whenever it starts is the right time.


When it’s over, it’s over.

While to the uninitiated, Open Space often sounds like a recipe for chaos and anarchy, the tool has a huge worldwide following, and, at one extreme, was even used to design the Boeing 777 aircraft, (reportedly to great acclaim).  Still, it is more of a meeting format than a conference format.  Open Space lacks the structure required for attendees to explore multiple complete workshops with more clearly defined ‘presenters’ (or facilitators).

Reference:  Owen, H.(1997). Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide.  (2nd ed.)  San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler.

NCCPS – a Conference Adaptation

In 1992/93, Tom Leahy created the American National Challenge Course Practitioners Symposium in Boulder Colorado, an annual event that continues to have great success.  The format for the NCCPS is Virtual Space (or V-Space to its disciples), not to be confused with the internet-based concept of the same name.  I'll let him describe it:

"Virtual Space is an incredible meeting technology.  Ward Flynn of the Venture Center of Colorado experimented with the Open Space concept of Harrison Owen and gave it a very practical twist.  In this evolution, V-Space allows for both traditional prepared workshops and it allows for passion and spontaneity when practitioners come together and realize that a need or opportunity has presented itself.  V-Space creates the structure that allows practitioners to gather what they need when they realize the moment."  -  Tom Leahy

V-Space is so true to the principles of adult education and facilitated learning, that I am still amazed that more conferences are not run this way (although the list is beginning to grow).  Here's how Tom describes the NCCPS V-Space experience:

"NCCPS is an uncommon gathering.  As a participant in NCCPS, you will take an active role in your own learning and you will be asked to share your knowledge with others.  At NCCPS, all participants are equals.   First time attendees and multi-year alumni work together to create an environment of safety and learning.  Imagine a conference in which you not only feel welcomed, but one in which politics and judgments are left at the door... where there is no such thing as a stupid question... where high school students teach a meaningful workshop to adults and where everyone freely shares what they know.  You will have tremendous power and responsibility to make sure everyone gets the learning they need.  No one who takes responsibility for their own learning at NCCPS ever leaves disappointed!  Just ask any alumnus.

Virtual Space??  At a traditional conference, who chooses the workshops?  A committee.  At NCCPS, all of the participants are on the committee.  With the structure of Virtual Space, we sort through the ideas together.  Passionate professionals, who have never even thought of presenting before, realize that their talent, skills and experience benefit the field.  People just entering the field find they can ask the many talented professionals around them to share.  NCCPS gives everyone a chance to develop their skills, to ask their questions and to request the materials they need.

NCCPS is the epitome of making the learner responsible for his/her own learning.  Virtual Space is the structure that turns potential chaos into a symphony of talent and fulfillment.  Our alumni are the glue that holds it all together, the grease that keeps it moving...they are the fuel.  And first time participants, when they realize the potential of NCCPS...they are the flame.  Everyone who attends brings his or her own passion for what we do.  NCCPS is about learning, facilitation, and experiential education."  -  Tom Leahy

Excited yet?  Now imagine all of that in your own backyard!  That is what CEEPS is all about.  We were weaned at NCCPS and are experts at the Virtual Space process.  (Read about an interesting anecdote from their 2003 gathering.)  In fact, we have even created our own small enhancements!  Read on...


V-Space and Traditional Formats Compared


Virtual Space


Workshops are created by presenters, submitted to a committee, and accepted or rejected (often up to a year in advance).

There is no advance agenda.  Some workshops are prepared ahead of time by presenters, others are created in the moment.  Any attendee can create a session and have it included as an offering.

There is no committee making decisions for the participants as to what learning will be offered.  Sessions can also respond in the moment to the immediate needs of the attendees.

All sessions presented by formally accepted presenters – often from a narrow field of ‘experts’ or those who have presented in the past.

Any participant can create a session.  It might be a presentation, or a discussion, and they are not obligated to have the answers – just the desire to have the session offered.

Powerful sessions happen when people who would never consider themselves ‘experts’ take a lead and champion a workshop where everyone can share their knowledge and experience on a level playing field.

Sessions are usually selected partially on the basis of broad appeal to sufficient attendees to make the offering ‘worthwhile’.

With a virtually unlimited number of concurrent sessions, it is quite acceptable to have as few as two participants gathering to create a workshop or discussion.

The importance of the topic to the individuals present drives the process, not the estimated mass appeal.

If the learning an attendee wants is not offered, too bad.  If two desired sessions overlap, too bad.

Any participant can create their own session around a need or request a session to be created that would provide the learning they want.  The most powerful sessions are often initiated this way.  Anyone can also ask presenters to re-arrange time slots or offer sessions again to correct personal schedule overlaps.

Each and every participant is directly responsible for (and in control of) their learning outcomes.  If the desire for a particular session is shared, it will be created.  Also, the opportunity exists to tailor the time slots of concurrent sessions so that many more people can attend they sessions that they want.

Workshops have an implicit obligation to impart formal knowledge; most have at least some lecture component.

In addition to presentations and discussions, sessions entirely devoted to engaging participants in sharing and playing activities are encouraged.

For experiential education this is not only a case of practicing what we teach, it also gives conference attendees hands-on time with new activities and renewed energy for tackling the more formal learning segments.

If a participant chooses to attend a workshop and subsequently discovers that the session is not really what they were looking for, there is a polite obligation to sit it out and only kick themselves for their poor selection.

One of the principles of Open Space and V-Space is the “Law of 2 Feet”: If the session is not what you need, you are encouraged to move on and find another that is.

The participant is responsible for their own learning, and is expected to be proactive in making sure those needs are met.  Leaving an inappropriate session also prevents the inclination to try to change that session at the expense of the other attendees.


Enhanced Virtual Space - Our own V-Space flavour

Virtual Space is a wonderful format, but we were suffering from one thing that traditional conferences offer:  Pre-announced speakers and workshops are a lot more attractive to those unfamiliar to V-Space, and a lot easier to sell to decision-makers who determine who to send to what conferences.

We solved that problem by creating our Enhanced Virtual Space format.  We specifically invite a core of industry experts to prepare presentations, and we announce these ahead of time.  Those presentations are then placed on our V-Space time slot grid ahead of time as Prepared Presentations (usually 2 hours in length).  (The prepared sessions of typical V-Space symposiums are not announced in advance).

The rest of the V-Space sessions are filled in as before, with participants announcing, requesting, and creating topics on-site at the symposium.


Still have questions?  Perhaps you'll find the answer by clicking here.  Otherwise, please contact us directly!

A Virtual Space Case History - February 2003

Hi.  I just got back from the 11th annual National Challenge Course Practitioners Symposium in Boulder, Colorado.  At their Virtual Space kick-off, Tom Leahy, the conference host, called for the attendees with prepared workshops to step forward, write their topic on an orange piece of paper, and announce their topics, as he does every year.  This year there were fewer prepared presenters than usual (perhaps 15 instead of the usual 25).  He decided on-the-spot to formalize the other half of the Virtual Space concept:

He called for attendees with needs (not addressed by the prepared sessions already announced) to identify their desired topics on a white piece of paper and present them to the group.  In no time at all, 20 people stood where the presenters had just been, and described the learning that they had come for.  Tom next asked for people who could address those needs to create a workshop for the others.  When he then repeated the call for presenters, the ranks had swelled, everyone's needs were being met, and the conference was underway!

Andrew Welch

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Contents (c) Copyright 2004-2005, Andrew Welch.   This page was last updated April 19, 2006