Are These Events Necessary?

Going back to the beginning of the summer…

In a podcast discussion with Will Richardson following the ISTE conference, Bruce Dixon made a comment about the need for organizations and conferences like ISTE that has stuck with me.

We always used to say when we had our computer using groups… we’d be successful when we’re no longer needed. And I’m not saying that necessarily ISTE isn’t needed any more, but I do think that half of what it’s doing is trying to strive to hang onto everbody that it has, rather than trying to build towards it’s extinction.

Because if all the professional associations were so embedded with their use of technology that there wasn’t a need for this specialist organization, I think they should see themselves as a success.

It’s very sad when it’s main reason for being is a conference and a vendor floor, and not enough to do with learning.

photo of poster sessions
The poster session at an ISTE conference.

For many years, as I reflected on the trip home from ISTE and other conferences, I’ve often had the same thought. Was that event was worth my time, effort, and money? Should we even be holding special meetings that emphasize technology?

However, another reason why Bruce’s comment and the whole issue of the need for edtech conferences really sticks with me is that I am part of the problem, so to speak.

I’m on the planning committee for the annual conference presented by our state ISTE affiliate, VSTE1 and we are just now gearing up for the event coming up in early December.

To the general question of whether edtech conferences have any validity, I think they still do, although I agree that we may not be working hard enough to put the organizational “edtech” establishment out of business.

For me, this has nothing to do with the vendor floor and only tangentially with the conference program. The value in any meeting like this, big or small, comes from the gathering of many smart people in the same place, and the opportunity for face-to-face discussions. I’m probably old fashioned in that way, but social media and other digital communications have many limitations in their effectiveness to convey ideas.

I worry about many of the people who attend ISTE, VSTE and other educational conferences. They miss many of those opportunities by spending large amounts of time with the marketing people, where most of the conversations are more about selling products than about improved learning.

They also spend too much time sitting in sessions. I realize formal sessions are the core of most conferences, with the keynote speakers often being a major drawing card for attendees. But those lectures are, with rare exceptions, very one-way relationships.

So, for those of us who will be assembling the various parts of our state conference, we have a challenge. To make the time spent by our members both valuable and interactive. Listening, so we can help them connect with new people and ideas, rather than telling them what is important and “hot”.

And to work harder to make the whole event, and the supporting organization, unecessary.

Is that like heresy? Do I have to return my edtech geek badge?

One Chance to Get it Right

In an earlier post, I offered my impressions of a New York Times article about teachers who are acting as “brand ambassadors” for edtech companies, sometimes for real compensation. Many of the people in my Twitter feed offered far more critical and pointed comments about this practice. And the edtech industry in general.

The Times piece is one part of an irregular series called Education Disrupted,2 written by a tech reporter working in the business section of the paper. And, in a follow up to the longer article, the writer reflected on the reasons why she finds reporting on the influence of technology companies on education so “riveting”.

Her parents and grandmother were all educators and she has some experience teaching summer courses in “tech-innovation ethics” to high school students. All of which gives her some credibility for me.

Her thoughts from the end of this reflection adds a little more.

But some tech companies were prickly when I asked them the same questions I had put to my students about the potential consequences of the companies’ education efforts. From some companies, I received responses like: “Nobody ever asked us that before,” and “We don’t understand the question,” and “We don’t think this is a valid question.”

Given that students get only one chance at a free public school education — an undertaking with huge implications for their economic prospects and life of the mind — it behooves us to examine Silicon Valley’s effects on the classroom.

I just hope she and others will continue to ask “prickly” questions of those companies who want a high profile in school classrooms.

So, teachers. Most of you have one chance with the students in your classes this year. Can you do your best for them and still sell interactive whiteboards on the side?

Just a question.

Marketing Your Brand

From the New York Times, a high profile story about how edtech companies are recruiting teachers as “brand ambassadors” to promote their products to schools and other educators.

Ms. Delzer is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology. They attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks. And they are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.

Their ranks are growing as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.

I’m not really sure the Times has discovered anything new.Super Software

Google, Apple, Smart, and other tech companies have had “certified” educator programs for many years. Look around any education-related conference like ISTE and you’ll find many sessions presented by Google Certified Educators or Apple Distinguished Educators. Some of the same speakers also show up at company booths in the vendor hall.

I know many of those educators, and few are receiving significant compensation, if any, beyond maybe a t-shirt or some basic tchotchkes. Most enthusiastically use the products they demonstrate at conferences and other professional development, motivated by wanting to share their successes with their colleagues.

But then there are also the high profile edtech “rockstars”. The ones who are featured speakers at conferences, who have tens of thousands of followers on their websites and social media, get quoted in the edtech press, and who are constantly promoting the products of a particular company. What’s rarely made clear is their relationship to the company.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve done hundreds, maybe thousands, of professional development sessions over the years. I was never compensated for using any of the products in my sessions. In fact, when I was working for my previous employer, I hesitate to recommend even the district’s officially blessed tools if I didn’t believe in them. That attitude certainly fouled up my chances of ever working for Blackboard or Pearson. :-)

Anyway, the bottom line to this story is the question of whether teachers who promote a particular brand or product to their peers, regardless of any compensation, are breaching ethical standards or even violating local and state laws. Can you promote a specific device, piece of software, or web service and still remain objective in deciding which tools will work best for your students?

I don’t know. The comparison made to similar relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry could be far too close.

By the way, near the beginning of the article, the writer includes one sentence that I think deserves far more attention in the whole discussion of the use of technology in the classroom.

Moreover, there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.

A topic for another rant on another day.

Teaching by Algorithm

A BBC video starts by asking “Could computer algorithms upgrade education?”. It just gets worse from there.

It’s a profile of the Alt Schools, a small chain of private schools based in San Francisco, funded by tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg. They also ask if this is the school of the future… and I certainly hope not.

I love the part where the CEO is giving the camera a tour of the company offices and notes that “almost everyone down there on the floor is a programmer”, and then, over there in the back, you have the educators. Plus the marketing and design people.

It’s pretty clear from that tour and this whole profile that the philosophy behind Alt School is very much driven by coding and data. They are using all this data (collected from largely rich, white kids based on the school in the video) to train their algorithms, with the goal to automate the teaching process. Something that makes the video’s note about the diminishing influence of teachers leading to a decline in good people entering the profession even more likely.

Or am I being paranoid?

Certainly teaching in a school where everything is recorded and deposited into a computer is pretty creepy. But is “hyper-personalized” instruction, driven by massive amounts of data and delivered by screen, really the future of learning? Or is it just the future for kids whose districts have the money to buy into this kind of marketing?

Watch the video. The New Yorker and Wired Magazine offer more details in their stories about this concept.

Getting Our Priorities Straight

EdSurge, an organization that tracks the edtech industry,2 is covering a conference called the ASU+GSV Summit. Here is the opening paragraph from their report of the first day.

Bankers, lawyers, researchers and policymakers. Administrators, entrepreneurs and the Golden State Warriors. The ASU+GSV Summit, now in its eighth year, has assembled yet another potent cocktail of education industry stakeholders from different walks of life. (We’re kidding about the Warriors, who just happened to be staying at the venue hotel prior to Game 4 of the NBA playoffs.)

Notice anything missing from that “potent cocktail of education industry stakeholders”? Like teachers, parents, and the most important stakeholders of all, students?

Just the fact that they use the phrase “education industry” pretty much tells you all you need to know about the priorities of EdSurge and this conference. But if that’s not enough, how about this little observation.

Yet among the more than 3,000 people who poured into Salt Lake City for the event, the bankers were visibly in full force.

In the hierarchy of edtech, bankers are far more important than teachers. And for the entrepreneurs excited about their invites to “meetings in private suites” with those bankers, profits are far more important than children.