Mid-Year Course Correction

New Year Sunrise

Happy New Year. If you live in a part of the world that follows the traditional Gregorian calendar.

January 1 has always seemed like an odd place to put this particular dividing line. The Romans and other ancient cultures positioned the start of their calendars in the spring when nature seemed to be waking up from the winter. March 1 would be more hopeful date following a hard winter.

Of course all of that is based on the Northern Hemisphere, Eurocentric view of the world. Just imagine how celebrating the start of a new year would be different if we were using a calendar created in another part of the world.

I’ve lived and worked most of my life in an academic calendar, so somewhere around September 1 was more the start of a new year than today. This point has always been a welcome break before continuing with the second half (more like two-thirds) of the year.

But, if you think about it, midnight last night was just an artificial dividing line anyway. Today is really not different from yesterday (unless you’re a tax accountant). We divide life into chunks – months, quarters, semesters, years – for convenience and consistency. Life itself flows rather than restarting at particular intervals.

Many people use the start of the new calendar as motivation to make major alterations in their lives: eat better, exercise more, develop better habits. Not me. Certainly not because I have nothing that needs improving. The list seems to grow as I get older and more critical of myself.

However, I’ve lived long enough to know that big changes, executed on a fixed schedule rarely work. For most of us, New Year resolutions are largely abandoned before Groundhog Day.

Better to set goals for ourselves whenever we realize they’re needed, and then make smaller course corrections as required. Like on New Year’s Day.

Anyway, thank you for reading to the end of this random ramble. Let’s all make the next collection of 365 days better than the previous one.


The photo is of the sun rising on the Potomac River, as seen from the Alexandria waterfront, January 1, 2012.

One Small Step

Women's March on Washington

It’s been almost three weeks since the midterm elections.

Although the pundits on the talking heads channels are probably completely convinced they understand the historical significance of the results, the rest of us are still pretty confused. Big events, and even some relatively minor ones, require more time and context to fit them into history.

Regardless, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the vote at least pushed things in the right direction.1

But it was just one small step. The real work is still ahead.

For one thing, we need to get all those new people who showed up at the polls to come back next year. The elections coming next year will be much lower in profile but potentially very important.

In this area we will be choosing representatives for the state legislature, new county supervisors, and a school board. Decisions made by those officials often have more impact on day-to-day life than those at a national level. Similar votes will be going on all over the country.

Then those new voters, and many more, also need to participate in 2020 and beyond. We still have too many indifferent citizens that must be convinced that their participation matters. Plus the millions who were excluded from voting by corrupt and greedy politicians who can’t hold onto power in any other way.

All of that will require the new House of Representatives, and newly elected state and local officials, to decide that establishing a fair and transparent voting process for every citizen in every state is a top priority. No significant progress in any other area will be possible until that happens.

Beyond that, the list of problems that have piled up during the Twitter/Facebook wars is staggering. 

Many people are calling for investigations of many people and events, egged on by a news media that thrives on political fights. Certainly that’s necessary, especially since Constitutionally mandated congressional oversight has been sorely lacking for the past two years.

But just digging into the past won’t move the country forward. Unless those hearings and reports result in concrete plans to change the system, it’s all just noise.

In the long run, making actual progress to improve life in this country for all will require leaders willing to articulate a clear vision for the future. Innovators at all levels, state and local as well as national, with the courage to explain and defend their ideas. With the skills to organize people to make them happen.

And those of us not in leadership positions still have a role to play. We must pay close attention to what our representatives are doing in our name. When they are working for progress, we must let them know. When they are wrong, we must speak up and do what we can to push them in the right direction.

All of that starts today, not at some vague point in the future.


The image is of the Woman’s March on Washington, January 2017. Posted to Flickr by Mobilus In Mobili and used under a Creative Commons license. I expect more protest like this will also be necessary to move things forward.

1. Everything in this post is based, of course, on my personal view of where this country is and where it needs to be. You have every right to disagree. Politely.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Ignorance

Everyone is ignorant. At some point in our lives, and about some, probably many, subjects.

Learning is about reducing that ignorance. It’s why we have schools and teachers and mentors and books.

And if we are not interested in learning about a particular topic, that’s ok too.

The problem comes when we form an opinion on a particular topic while still largely ignorant about that topic.

It gets even worse when someone is in a position to make public policy decisions around that topic while still largely ignorant about it.

This is why we have experts. Traditionally, society asks select people who have studied a subject in depth to then explain it to the rest of us. We trust them to be complete and accurate. We have to.

For example, I certainly have never studied climate science. I took some 101-type science classes in high school and college. But my basic understanding of how climate works is based on reading works by scientists (more often, science explainers) who know much more than I do.

As a result, I rely on the fact that the work of an overwhelming number of experts in this field say climate change is happening, it will be a serious threat to the world, and there are things that can be done to at least slow it down.

However, at the moment our country is being led by people who are ignorant of basic scientific principles. Who express a mistrust for scientists, reject their expertise, and make policy based instead on “common sense” and “gut feelings”.1

And it doesn’t stop with climate science.

The political party currently in control of the US government is built around the economic “faith” that cutting taxes for the rich will “trickle down” to the rest of us. Despite a half century or more of evidence to the contrary. Their leaders also propose legislation based on dubious claims about immigration, public education, poverty, voter fraud, and more with little or no supporting data.

Now, I have no issue with people holding their own private misunderstanding of the world and accepting all kinds of conspiracies. Those who think the world is flat can talk to each other all they like. If you want to believe aliens built the pyramids, so be it.

But personal ignorance is one thing. Turning that ignorance into public policy harms everyone, even the ignorant.

November 6, two weeks from today, is your next opportunity to push back against ignorance.

Removing legislators, at all levels, who want to make laws based on their personal ignorance is one of the best reasons I can think of to vote.

Do it!


Image: a sign at the March for Science, Melbourne, Australia, April 22, 2017. Photograph by John Englart, linked from Wikipedia Commons, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Which is possibly me being generous in ascribing their motives. It could be simple fear of change or complex greed.

A First Pass At An ISTE Reflection

IMG 5221

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. :-)

Preparing for ISTE

IMG 0827 IMG 0828

Very soon I’ll be leaving to attend the ISTE conference, which begins Sunday in Chicago. I’m going as much to see some old friends and explore the city as to attend the event. But it’s a good excuse to do both.

While planning for the trip, I realized that the last time I was in Chicago was 2001, a visit that also included the conference then known as NECC. The bag shown in the pictures above was given to every attendee that year and is illustrative of how things have changed in 17 years.

For one thing, the bag is faux leather with embroidered logos and was stuffed full of paper, including a thick, ad-filled conference program. As opposed to the flimsy bag made of recycled material and containing much less paper we’ll probably be getting at registration this year.

No complaints about the more ecological approach, however, although the heavier canvas bags of ISTE/NECC past do make wonderful reusable grocery bags.

NECC in Chicago 2001 was also memorable for the opening keynote speaker, Steve Jobs. As I recall, the speech itself was not very good. He did a lot of promotion for the then relatively new iMac and other Apple products, and offered very little visionary inspiration. But I’m not sure most other ISTE keynoters are much better.

Jobs’ appearance and the expensive conference bags his company paid for were only part of Apple’s high profile at the conference. They also occupied a huge booth on the vendor floor and I still have one of the polo shirts (mere t-shirts were not good enough) they gave away.

Apple will certainly have a presence at this year’s ISTE but mostly in the form of the wide use of their devices by participants and many vendor sessions (with long lines) on using their products.

They won’t be in the expo hall. The large space at the main entrance they used to have will now be occupied by Google. Which also illustrates how things have changed in the business of edtech over the past two decades.

Both companies are selling millions of devices into the classroom, but only one is making most of it’s profits from them. The other is in the business of selling ads and data. It should make you wonder why they’re such a major presence at an education conference.

Anyway, that’s a rant for another day. I have some packing to do.

I should also charge the many batteries I’ll be taking to Chicago. Another big difference between now and 17 years ago. Did we even have wifi in 2001?