The EdTech Boat Shows

Swap the boats for computers and it begins to look familiar.

Happening this week in London is one of the largest edtech conferences in the world, one that many educators in the US have probably never heard of.

It’s called BETT1 and the organizers say it will attract almost 35,000 attendees. For comparison, recent ISTE2 conferences, largest in the US, have included around 22,000 people.

Also happening this week in Orlando, Florida is another large edtech conference, one that is probably quite familiar to anyone reading this, FETC3. They usually attract around 8,000 people. So, big but not nearly the size of the other two.

All three edtech organizations, of course, want us, the common educator, to believe that the event will provide hundreds of professional development opportunities. Ones that address the “future of education” and “transforming education” (in the case of BETT).

Several days that will be an “intensive, highly collaborative exploration of new technologies, best practices and pressing issues” (FETC). That will offer “powerful ideas and inspirational speakers, while connecting with innovative educators who share your passion for transformative learning” (ISTE).

However, a large and growing part of these huge conferences is the vendor floor. I would argue it’s the largest, and likely most important, part to these three organizations. Companies pay big bucks to have a presence at these events, even more for a high profile sponsorship, money necessary to keep their budgets in the black.

BETT at least is up front about primarily being an industry trade show, rather than a professional development conference. According to it’s about page, this is the “first industry show of the year in the education technology landscape”. ISTE and FETC are more circumspect on the issue, but their literature still places a heavy emphasis on the number of companies that will be exhibiting at their events.

Ok, I’ve never attended BETT or FETC, and, based on their online programs, I really have no desire to go. (Although I wouldn’t mind visiting London. Anytime.) On the other hand, I have been to ISTE many times (over almost twenty years) and the attraction for that event has been declining.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always felt my trips to ISTE were worth while, learning much during the time and always making or renewing some wonderful connections. And almost none of that came from visiting the “massive Expo Hall”. I expect that the same would be true if I was at the big events in London or Ontario right now.

But I find that it takes more and more work to find those professional benefits at these overly-large conferences. Considering the number of people I see spending hours in the vendor hall and flocking to the “Cracker Jack” sessions, along with the volume of social media posts about the “cool new” stuff, I’m not sure that’s happening at all for a large percentage of those tens of thousand attendees.

On top of that, the dominance of the edtech industry has steadily grown at these conferences. Large parts of the formal program at ISTE and FETC are now presentations by corporate representatives and sessions by educators sponsored to some degree by those companies. Extending their marketing reach beyond the one hall.

All of which is making these huge conferences more resemble the classic boat show than an education event.

The title for this post is borrowed, with thanks, from Gary Stager. It’s just such a wonderful name for the massive and increasingly flashy vendor floors of these events so I hope he doesn’t mind me using it.

The picture is from the Detroit Boat Show.

1 From the original name the British Educational Training and Technology Show.

2 Anyone else see something wrong about an organization with “international” in it’s title that’s never holds it’s major event outside the US borders? Sorta like the “World” Series.

3 Which started life as the Florida Educational Technology Conference. It was changed to the Future of Educational Technology Conference when the event was purchased by a media company that operates many other business conferences.

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?

Coding for Everyone (Who Wants It)

Just one last ISTE conference-related post for this season. Promise.

So, coding was also a big topic again this year. After proclamations from the president and corporporate leaders that all students should take computer programming classes, and lots of edtech vendors jumping on the bandwagon, how could it not be?

But the most rational statement on the matter came from Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Hour of Code, the program responsible for jump starting the everybody-must-code movement. At the pre-show for the Tuesday morning keynote he disagreed with that idea, telling the audience flat out that no, every students does not need to learn to code. But every school should offer computer science.

Partovi didn’t have much time to elaborate (in typical talk show format, the next guest was waiting in the wings) and his point was quickly overshadowed a minute or so later by the R2D2 robot he rolled on stage, accompanied by an announcement it would be available for selfies. Shiny objects.

However, that difference between requirement and opportunity needs more emphasis.

Kids certainly need to understand the concepts of programming, the logic behind the computing devices, visible and not, they use everyday. That needs to be a fundamental part of the basic course of study, replacing the rote processing and endless repetition in the K12 curriculum we call “math”.

The computer science classes need to be available for those kids who want to go further. Not to prepare them for one of the umpteen thousands of jobs the industry claims will go unfilled, but because the student chooses to explore an area of study that interests them.

Once again, coding should be one part of every child’s total school experience. An experience that offers them the broadest possible spectrum of what’s available in the world, and helps them make informed choices.

Coming Soon: VR Storytelling

Ok, the one question most people ask me every year when I get back from ISTE is: what was hot? What new technology was everyone talking about? Where did the crowds gather?

And the answer for 2016, of course, was VR; virtual reality.

During the conference, I heard more than a few people declared that virtual reality was going to revolutionize education (including the Sunday keynote speaker). Many vendors were offering VR “solutions”, even if it was just their old products with a VR component grafted onto the side.

And around the convention hall there were multiple scenes like this one (at the Google booth) with people staring into cardboard boxes and plastic Viewmasters, tilting their heads to get a better view. Of something.


Of course the current reality in VR is that the technology is not even close to the threshold of revolutionary when it comes to education.

First, let’s face it: our profession is evolutionary at best, and it’s a pretty slow change at that. But more to the point in this case is that the technology to produce VR of the quality that would make a “revolutionary” impact for learning currently looks more like this:

The Reality of Virtual

A big non-portable machine, fast CPU, powerful graphics processor (re: expensive), with a headset and software costing about half that of the computer to run it.

However, I’m not disparaging the push for virtual reality on display at ISTE. It’s only the beginning for this medium, and I’m actually very optimistic that VR will become an important tool for student learning in the very near future.

However, just not as the new, “exciting” (re: very profitable) content delivery system that Pearson and other companies at ISTE are hoping for.

In just the past few years, the tools for creating virtual reality experiences have become both easier to use and much less expensive. I believe that VR, both still images and 360 video, could become a wonderful creative tool for students (and teachers) to tell stories and present ideas.

It happened over the past ten years or so for 2D video, as the availability of good cameras packaged in relatively inexpensive mobile devices and powerful editing programs made the technology accessible to many kids. Not to mention the rise of YouTube and other online channels for easy, ubiquitous distribution.

Something similar is going to happen for VR. I’m already doing sessions that show teachers and others an easy process to take and publish basic immersive images with their smartphones (and why they’d want to). And the tools are getting better all the time.

Good quality dedicated VR cameras are already well under $1000. Which sounds expensive but not considering the cost of getting lower quality images just a few years ago. Or what we had to go through in the late 90’s when I first started playing with this technology (anyone remember QuickTime VR?).

Now I’m not going to tell you that every student should study virtual reality (like STEM, coding, and whatever comes next). Students deserve some choice in what they study. VR is a creative tool with great potential, one of many, digital and not, students should have the option to explore and use while they are in our K12 classrooms.

But I’m betting there are kids somewhere already working on a presentation that includes immersive images they created. And I’m excited to see the first fictional story told using VR video. I know it’s coming very soon.

Picture Post #14 (ISTE 16 Edition)

A few shots from our time in Denver for the 2016 ISTE conference. Not many of the photos I took are from the actual event but that’s fine. Plenty of other people took those shots. As always, more of my stuff is on Flickr.

Street Computing

This young man looks like he might be part of the conference but was just computing while waiting for the bus.

HackEd 2016

A group photo of the wonderful people who participated in the 10th annual HackEd unconference (which started life as EduBloggerCon) the Saturday before ISTE actually starts.

Stage Door

Next to the convention center and across from our hotel is the Denver Performing Arts Center. And every theater needs a stage door, with some interesting art work.

Blue Bear

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only photographer at the conference who took this shot. It was hard to miss the big blue bear curiously looking through the front window of the Denver convention center.