A First Pass At An ISTE Reflection

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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. :-)

The Surveillance Classroom

During the 2016 holiday season, Amazon’s Alexa devices were huge sellers. Google was second in the category with Home. Apple just started shipping their Siri-enabled Homepod and they will probably sell a bunch of them.

So now tens of millions of homes have always-listening internet-connected microphones listening to every sound, and more are coming. This despite the many cautions from privacy experts about allowing large corporations to have access to a new continuous stream of auditory data. 

But who cares if the artificially intelligent software powering these devices is buggy? Does it matter that Amazon, Google, and Apple are vague about how they are using that information and who has access to it? Let’s bring these boxes into the classroom!

Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class, the hot education-change book from a decade ago, says Alexa and her friends is “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”.

It’s not entirely clear why Horn believes a “voice-activated” classroom would improve student learning. Other than that the superintendent he has interviewed is concerned that kids “will come in and will be used to voice-activated environments and technology-based learning programs”.

That’s nothing new. For a few decades (at least) we have been throwing technology into the classroom based on the premise that kids have the stuff at home. That approach hasn’t been especially successful, and Alexa is not likely to change that.

But these days, a major reason for using many, if not most, new classroom technologies is collecting and analyzing data.

These devices could also send teachers real-time data to help them know where and how they should intervene with individual students. Eastwood imagines that over time these technologies would also know the different students based on their reading levels, numeracy, background knowledge, and other areas, such that it could provide access to the appropriate OER content to support that specific child in continuing her learning.

Maybe I’m wrong but I think it’s better to have a teacher or other adult listening to kids.

Anyway, Horn presents a lot of questions about the use of Alexa and her peers in the classroom but his last one is probably the most salient: “What is the best use of big data and artificial intelligence in education?” Before ending, he also very briefly touches on the security of that data – “And there are bound to be privacy concerns.”. As I said, briefly.

But the bottom line to all this is whether we want Amazon, Google, or Apple surveillance devices collecting data on everything that happens in the classroom. Horn seems to think the technology could be disruptive. It sounds creepy and rather invasive to me.


The image is from an article about a contest Amazon is running for developers, with cash prizes for the best Alexa apps that are “educational, fun, engaging or all of the above for kids under the age of 13”.