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. :-)

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