If this were a normal Friday on the weekend before the Super Bowl in any of the past 12 years, I would be driving I-95 (or taking Amtrak) to Philadelphia. To spend the next two or so days at a unique high school in center city, along with five hundred or so dedicated educators, students, and parents, all of whom were there for some serious (and some not-so-serious) discussions about the practice of teaching and learning.
The ISTE mega conference ended it’s run for this year yesterday and, although I wasn’t able to go this year, I know from experience one of the first questions attendees will get when they get back to work: “What’s new?” Or “what was hot?”
One attendee that actually gets paid to hype the new and hot at ISTE is EdSurge, a cheerleader for the edtech industry. They seem to think that Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated AI system, is about to take off.
Four-and-a-half years after Amazon first released Alexa, its voice-activated virtual assistant, the technology is finding its footing in education.
Across the massive, brightly colored expo hall at ISTE 2019, the annual education technology conference where companies display and demo their latest gadgets, upgrades and software, several vendors showcased the new skills they have developed for Alexa-enabled devices.
I’m not sure three examples, one of which sounds more like a promotion for the ACT college testing program, could be considered any kind of trend towards creating a “footing” in education.
They also spoke with an educator who is very enthusiastic about the potential for Alexa as an instructional tool, despite the fact that Amazon itself has warned against using their devices in the classroom. She’s using something called Amazon Blueprints, “a website that allows users to build custom apps on the voice-enabled devices”, to create applications for her students to use.
Of course, the EdSurge writer doesn’t address the potential data privacy issues involved with having a device that records everything it hears in a classroom, other than to link to two other articles.
I also wonder whether having students interact with those “custom apps” is a good use of their time. At this point, Alexa’s “thinking” is a rather simplistic, yes-or-no, this-or-that kind of interaction, and the classroom applications I’ve read about (here and elsewhere) certainly reflect that.
As I’ve written about before, a better used for this kind of AI in the classroom would be to enable kids to investigate how Alexa works and programming it themselves.
Update: If you’re interested in digging deeper into the privacy and data issues surrounding Alexa and other AI devices in the classroom, the article “Voice Assistants in the Classroom: Useful Tool or Privacy Problem?” by Susan Bearden from last November has a lot of good information.
Hey, Alexa. Push the clock ahead a few hours so I can get outta here. :-)
I was planning to go. After all, the conference is happening just a short train ride up the road in Philadelphia, a city I greatly enjoy visiting. I had booked my hotel early, paid my registration, and was all set to travel.
Then life started laying down speed bumps, as it is sometimes wont to do. Nothing critical, certainly nothing interesting enough to write about in this space. Just lots of those little things that tend to pile up, to the point that my plans had to change.
So this week I’ll be observing the event from afar, through the lens of Twitter and whatever video streams that can escape from the undoubtably clogged conference center network.
On reflection, however, I’m not entirely sure I will miss being at ISTE.
For one thing, as I’ve written about in the past, I continue to wonder if this kind of gathering has become too big and too expensive1 to serve any useful purpose, at least to me. I’m sure many of the conference attendees will gain from being Philadelphia this week. It certainly will be good for the vendors on the expo floor who must love having tens of thousands of potential customers passing by.
I know I won’t miss the formal sessions. Over the past three or four ISTEs, I pretty much stopped going to them. Most will cover information and ideas that can easily be found on the web, and offer little opportunity for any meaningful interaction with the presenters. Plus an increasing percentage of them are little more than infomercials for edtech products and lack much in the way of a connection to using technology for improved learning.
Most of the value of making the trek to ISTE for me has come from the direct connections I would make in the halls, the playgrounds, and lounges. But that benefit has also declined over time since many of the people that I would normally reconnect with at the conference have stopped attending. Or I will see them at smaller, less frenetic events2 where it will be easier to have a meaningful conversation.
So, if you are in Philly this week, have a great time and I hope the time you spend up there is valuable for you. Please share what you learn with the rest of us. For various reasons I will not be at ISTE next year in Anaheim either. But, after some reflection, I may find good reasons to return the following year in San Antonio.
Or I may become permanently not at ISTE.
The picture above was made at a previous ISTE conference in Philadelphia. It shows the city skyline from the 33rd floor of the Lowes Hotel. I wasn’t staying there. I think I rose to those heights to attend a vendor meeting.
1. Philly used to be one of the more reasonable cities for conference attendees, both in terms of cost and having the infrastructure to support everyone who came to ISTE. Not any more.
This past weekend was spent the same way I’ve spent the fourth weekend of January for the past twelve years: in Philadelphia attending EduCon.
EduCon is a relatively small conference that someone described as a popup community. It’s a community of smart, interesting, passionate educators who come from near and far to immerse themselves in discussions around many difficult topics about learning and society.
Reflecting back on some of the sessions I was part of, I think I may have been a little repetitive. Possibly even obnoxious.
I found myself asking the same question over and over: where are the kids in this process?
You’re designing a new school? Why don’t you have students on the primary planning team? Based on possibly many years of experience, they likely have some strong opinions and wonderful insight. After all, they will be expected to do some serious work in these spaces.
You’re revising the curriculum? Wouldn’t it be better if you included students who had taken the course in the past? Certainly there is a core of information, some of it required. But kids could tell you exactly what worked and what didn’t how that information is presented.
You’re writing a mission and vision statement for your school? I’m pretty sure it’s going to say something about kids and their future. They should be on the core committee right along side of the administrators, teachers, and those other “stakeholders”.
I’m pretty sure the people I used to work with were tired of hearing me regularly bring up the topic. The idea that students should be part of the teams that are responsible for planning the educational process that will have a major impact on their lives.
In our overly-large school district, students might be brought in as part of focus groups later in the process, but their input likely didn’t have much influence. When a project reached the focus group stage, the major decisions had been made and this was just about tweaking things around the edges.
Anyway, I never intended the question to be a criticism of anyone in the room at EduCon. And I think many members of this community are very aware that most schools and districts do a rather poor job of including students in their planning processes.
I hope at least some of them will take the idea back to their workplaces and begin asking their colleagues, “where are the kids?” more often.
The image is one I keep coming back to almost every year: looking down at the SLA cafeteria from the second floor. I’ll have to look for another view next year since the school and EduCon will be moving to a new building in the fall.
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.