My Flawed ISTE 2018 Journey Report

Smart badge cracked open

My personalized “ISTE 2018 journey” has arrived. This is the report generated from data gathered by the “smart badge technology” attached to our name badge holder. Data that ISTE said would provide us with a “more personalized learning experience”.

So, what insights and revelations does it reveal about my time in Chicago?

Frankly, not much. The report is simply an HTML email with links to program descriptions for the sessions I attended, plus links to “resources” provided by the presenters.

Except I didn’t attend half the sessions that ISTE’s tracker says I did. I’m very sure I was never in the room for “Amazing Must-Have Google Add-Ons, Tips & Tricks and Features You Never Knew” or “Mining Treasures in CSR: Timely, Curriculum-based. Free!”. No offense intended toward the presenters. Just not topics on my must-see list.

Some stops on my “journey” probably came from dropping into a room long enough to have a quick conversation with the presenter. For others, maybe I lingered too close to the room while tweeting or sending a text. And none of my time spent in the Bloggers’ Cafe or Posters area was recorded, even though ISTE placed their short, black receivers in those areas.

The report also doesn’t indicate whether I stayed for the whole session, only listing the time it was scheduled for. I know I was in a couple of sessions scheduled at the same time but ISTE’s tracker only seems to have captured the first one.1

Another oddity in my report is the list of vendors I visited. According to ISTE, this section was not generated by picking up the Bluetooth signal from the tag, only when my badge was scanned by a vendor.

Except that I never allowed anyone to scan my badge.

I did visit the Google booth a couple of times, primarily to see friends and talk to some members of the Geo Education team. But no one scanned me. For the other nine companies listed, I would have a hard time even telling you what they do just from their name. Maybe they had a device for scanning people as they passed. Certainly would be easy to do.

Anyway, the bottom line is that “Your ISTE 2018 Journey” really doesn’t tell me much. It certainly doesn’t explain what happens to my conference data now that the report has been sent. Will it be deleted or does ISTE plan to use it in other ways? Will it be shared with others outside the organization?

And a few other questions running around my warped brain…

Does the organization plan to use this technology again next year? If so, I wonder if the number of attendees who choose not to wear this “smart technology” (which really isn’t that smart) will spike. Will they be more aware and concerned with being tracked around a large convention center?

Is this technology hackable? At least two people I know wrote posts about being able to “see” the badges around them using a free smartphone app. As far as I know, they were only able to read the name assigned (mine was eventBit_18797) but that’s a first step to digging deeper. And possible misuse.

Maybe we need a pre-conference session on playing with this technology next June. It would be fun to see what could be done with tracking devices during ISTE 2019.


The picture is of my smart badge cracked open. Is there some way to read that chip?

1. I’m one of those annoying people who believes in the rule of two feet. If the presenter isn’t meeting my needs, I will get up and leave. Sorry, but I expect the same action from anyone attending a sessions I’m doing.

Photo Post – Chicago/ISTE18

A few more images from Chicago and the ISTE conference last month. More are in this Flickr album.

Centennial Wheel 2

The Centennial Wheel at Chicago’s Navy Pier. Nice place to spend a few hours on a sunny afternoon.

We See You Escaping

From a vantage point above the ISTE expo floor, you get a good view of what’s going on in the Escape Room.

Fountain with Skyline

The formal name is the Buckingham Fountain, but many just know it as the Married With Children fountain, as seen in the opening credits from the classic series.

Photowalkers

A wonderful group of people who attended the Art and Technology Breakfast Walk in Millennium Park, reflected in the Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as The Bean.

A First Pass At An ISTE Reflection

IMG 5221

Last week I spent some time at the “epicenter of edtech”, also known as the annual ISTE conference. What follows are a few random thoughts about the event, with more, possibly deeper, reflection later.

ISTE is too big.

To be honest, the conference probably passed “too big” around 2009 but this year it really hit me. This isn’t about the huge conference center or the long bus rides to and from the hotel.1 And I don’t really care about all the sessions scheduled in too small rooms that ran out of seats and were closed, resulting in great Twitter flurries.

Having that many people – I heard numbers of 16,000 and higher – makes it difficult to establish personal connections. And often just to find a place to think. I honestly don’t know how the organization could fix the too-big problem. Maybe split the event in two, with one for the eastern side of the country and one for the west. And that’s even if they acknowledge that the size is an issue.

The event is dominated by vendors.

That probably happened more than a few years back as well but I think the emphasis on selling tech is overwhelming any remaining educational focus. Of course, there’s the huge “expo” hall (pictured above), but in Chicago that space was leaking badly. The program is stuffed with “sponsored” sessions, many of which are thinly veiled ads. And the companies with the biggest wallets have also set up shop in the hallways.

Having been a part of running conferences (much, much smaller ones), I understand that the vendors often cover a large part of the basic costs. But many ISTE attendees, especially first timers, are spending large amounts of their limited time in that expo hall, encouraged to do so by the organization itself. Even worse, they believe they are learning something meaningful about edtech in those space. Something is very wrong.

The best parts of ISTE continue to exist outside the formal program.

The day-long unconference organized by Steve Hargdon on the Saturday before the official kickoff always offers some great opportunities to meet new people and have some deeper conversations (more on that idea in a later post). Although attendance was down this year, it was still a highlight of my week.

During the rest of the week, I spend a lot of time in the Playgrounds run by several ISTE PLNs and in the Poster sessions. I suppose technically these are part of the program, but, unlike traditional conference sessions, there’s more opportunity for interaction and discussion. Some people feel being scheduled in these areas is a consolation prize for not getting a “real” session. Instead, this is where real learning happens.

One big complaint:2 In past years, the Bloggers’ Cafe was a great location to meet people and have some good conversations, and a place I spent some significant time. This year, however, the organizers placed it directly in front of registration, the vendor hall, and ISTE’s own store which made the area as overcrowded as the rest of the center, and very noisy. We can discuss whether that name is still relevant at another time.

I’m still more amused than concerned about those “smart” badges.

We’ll see what comes of this experiment in “personalized” learning but it was fun following the reaction among the people I know who are more knowledgeable about data security than most in attendance. Doug Levin did some interesting hacking and research on the tags most of us were wearing, as well as on the receivers placed throughout the convention center. Mike Crowley also offered some good observations on the myth of personalized tracking.

Even with being too big, too commercial, and the potential for even more surveillance, I will likely be at ISTE next year.

Like Gary Stager, I can’t seem to quit the “dysfunctional family” that is ISTE. Although it’s getting more difficult, I still find great value in the little corners of this huge event, and in some of the communities that make up the larger whole.

Besides, I like to travel and this is a good excuse. Next year we are in Philly, one of my favorite cities and an easy train ride from here. I know many friends from the Eastern seaboard will likely be there and there’s really nothing like connecting with people face-to-face. Maybe I can recycle the badge (minus the smart part) from this year and just hangout in the hall.

However, don’t look for me in 2020 when the conference is booked in Anaheim, California. The Disneyland area is bad enough on an average summer day without added a large event to the mix. That trip could be more trouble than it’s worth.


1. I have nothing at all against Chicago. But if ISTE decides to return, I will not be there. A conference center located too far from most of the hotels to walk just doesn’t work for me. Not to mention the limited and expensive food choices in and around the center. Nice city, lousy set up for a convention, especially a huge one.

2. As if this whole post wasn’t already just a collection of complaints. :-)

Photo Post – Chicago 1

A few of my favorite shots so far from our trip to ISTE 2018 in Chicago. More coming when I have more time and better editing tools than are available on the tablet.

Bridges along the Chicago River in the morning light. Several are drawbridges but it’s not clear when they were last raised. Or even if they still can be raised.

From across the river, it’s hard to tell that this is an Apple Store.

The observation wheel at the Chicago Navy Pier.

Masts on boats at DuSable Harbor.

An interesting parking garage. The cars have a great view of the river.

Following Your Every Step

Here at the annual ISTE edtech extravaganza, the organization decided to do something different this year. They gave everyone a “smart badge”.

The little unit attached to every badge holder (that’s it above, with some identifying info redacted) broadcasts a Bluetooth signal that is picked up and recorded by the units they have placed throughout the convention center (at the right). The goal is to send everyone a “customized ‘ISTE 2018 Journey’ report shortly after the conference”. A reminder of the sessions you went to and the vendors you visited.

I’m not sure whether to be amused, concerned, or outraged. Or all three.

Ok, maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of outrage. It’s certainly amusing and there are some concerns that should be raised. The biggest one being about how this data (which is being collected for ISTE by a third party) will ultimately be stored, secured, and used.

The FAQ that was discretely linked in one pre-conference message tries to answer some of them, assuring us the tracking data will “not be shared with anyone else regardless of who paid for your registration”. So they won’t be telling your principal that you attended one session and skipped the rest of the conference to see the sights.

There’s been a little discussion of this tracking program since the conference started, but not nearly as much as I expected. Maybe most of ~20,000 attendees trust ISTE to do the right thing. Possibly they just don’t care. More likely, most haven’t really thought about it in the way strange people like me do.

But this is one more example of how electronic tracking of is starting to trickle into mainstream activities. Long after governments and corporations started collecting data on us without any concent whatsoever.

At least at ISTE, we have the option of tearing the unit off the badge and doing something creative with it.