I first joined ISTE1 in 1995 when the organization’s journal was called The Computing Teacher.
It was 1999 when I attended my first conference, then called the National Educational Computing Conference, in Atlantic City of all places. I’ve been back 15 times since.
Which means I’ve been watching ISTE grow and change for a long time. But now I’ve reached a point where I may not continue as a member.2
Over the years, and especially in the past decade, ISTE’s focus has altered. Drastically. Moving from an organization that primarily advocated for teachers and students using technology for instruction, to one that is dedicated primarily to championing the edtech industry and marketing their products.
While I think the signs of this shift have become very apparent in most communications from the organization, it’s probably most visible at the annual conference.
The prominence of the vendor floor (now called the ISTE Expo) has certainly grown over the years as the square footage expanded. The overall event is now called a “Conference & Expo”, with the marketing space not-so-subtly receiving equal billing and the size of it touted in promotions as a (maybe the) primary reason to attend.
But even more revealing of the change in organizational emphasis is the way that sponsors have taken over the conference sessions as well.
Large blocks of the program are now presented by edtech company spokespeople, or their “brand ambassadors”, relationships that are not always obvious to attendees. Regular educators – teachers, librarians, tech coaches and others with a more authentic perspective on using edtech in the classroom with real students – have been shuffled off to the Poster and Playground sections of the hall.
However, there is one important recent decision by the organization that probably most signifies the completion of this transition in focus. It came late last year when ISTE bought a for-profit company called EdSurge.
EdSurge was always kind of an odd duck. It was founded in 2011 by several tech journalists with a mission to “cover” the edtech industry through various publications and events. They quickly attracted millions in venture capital led by The Washington Post and NewSchools Venture Fund, companies far more interested in profit than in education.
I’ve been following EdSurge almost from their start, reading their weekly newsletter (which rarely criticized a potential profit maker), and even attending two of their early events in Baltimore and DC. Both were mini, low-rent versions of the ISTE show floor with minimal connection to teaching and learning. Then and now, they were all about cheerleading for edtech companies and selling the product.
Anyway, ISTE bought the company out of the blue last November but they never told us (the membership) how much they paid3 or, more importantly, why. Other than the usual optimistic lines from the press release where this deal would “accelerate innovation in education” and “support and empower education change-makers”, whatever that means.
And with that maybe it’s time to terminate my long relationship with ISTE. Since my membership runs until sometime in the fall, I still have a few months to reconsider. It’s possible I might change my mind before then.
After all, I could be very well be wrong about what I’m seeing in the organization. Maybe it’s just a simple difference in perspective. Over time, I’ve certainly changed my vision of what “educational” technology is and should be. It’s possible my view of the new ISTE mission is quite blurry.
Would anyone like to tell me why I’m wrong?
The photo is one corner of the 2018 ISTE vendor floor in Chicago. Nice that they had a tower in the middle of the space for me to get some overhead shots.
1. ISTE, of course, is the International Society for Technology in Education. Odd side thought: it’s an “international” organization that has never has a major event outside the US. Not even Canada.
2. Although I’ll still be watching. With something that large, it’s hard not to.
3. The reports I’ve read said that the EdSurge backers would not be getting a return on their investment. So the price is likely enough to cover debts and obligations, with nothing left over for the venture capitalists.