Attend a virtual meeting and you’re likely to find an online experience that mirrors much of what you’d expect from a face-to-face event: keynote presentations, panel discussions, and expert-led breakouts. But what happens if the face-to-face meeting you want to translate to a virtual event doesn’t follow a standard format? Can an “unconference” be virtual?

That’s the question Dave Nielson, co-founder of CloudCamp, an unconference for early adopters of cloud computing technologies, began asking a few years back. In January, he discussed his experiments in unconventional virtual meetings during a session at the Virtual Edge Summit.

At an unconference, Nielson explained, attendees work together to define the agenda and lead discussions once they arrive on site. This kind of participant-driven event is a winner for conferences on emerging technologies and ideas, where exchanging experiences and solutions may be more important than listening to experts—or when the ideas are evolving so fast that there are no experts.

At Nielson’s one-day CloudCamp face-to-face events (more than 150 have run in the past few years), he incorporates two key unconference elements: an “unpanel” and breakouts. For an unpanel, rather than having organizers decide on a topic and the panelists in advance, the moderator asks attendees what questions they’d like to have answered. After developing and prioritizing a list, the moderator enlists audience volunteers who feel qualified to answer one of the questions. These attendees become the panelists.

For the participant-driven breakouts, Nielson starts with a pre-breakout session in which attendees propose topics and choose the sessions they’d like to attend, each breakout is assigned a room, and attendees head off to their discussions.

Cloud Camp Haiti in January 2010 was Nielson’s first virtual unconference. The event focused on how cloud technologies can be used for crisis management and, at the same time, raised money for Haiti’s earthquake victims. What Neilson learned facilitating that event and two other virtual unconferences is that the technologies to support on-the-fly virtual breakouts are “still immature,” but the unpanel is a great fit because everyone stays in the same “room” and the technology that’s needed is relatively uncomplicated.

Using GoToWebinar technology, Nielson explained, the virtual moderator gathers questions for the unpanel using an online chat board. Attendees can both submit questions and vote for the questions that most interest them. The system’s “raised hand” feature works well as a way for volunteers to offer to become one of the panelists. The moderator can then unmute the panelists and allow them to speak.

For Nielson, the story of the virtual unconference continues to unfold. “There are many opportunities to innovate. The [technology solutions] will have to follow.” But until then, he says, “simple tools will work.”