Is This Meeting Necessary?

What did we learn?

At the end of next month, ISTE will hold its first live conference in three years.

In late June of normal times, the organization could expect to pack at least 15,000 people into a big-city convention center for the largest edtech conference and expo (with more and more emphasis on “expo”) in the US.1

I’ll be curious to see how many participants they attract to New Orleans during what is still an ongoing pandemic. I wonder if the possibility of contracting a possibly deadly virus causes people think twice about returning to a “normal” ISTE.

Earlier this year, several other major edtech conferences also returned to in-person events. FETC, which is now more trade show than educational meeting, held their annual conference in Orlando, Florida at the end of January. The Texas state edtech organization met not long after followed by California and others.

And the BETT Show, the world’s largest edtech trade show,2 normally attracting 35,000+ happened in March, postponed from their usual slot in late January.

But even with the appearance of normality returning to the edtech conference industry, one fundamental question remains from before the pandemic: do these crowded, noisy, increasingly vendor-focused shows serve a purpose? Are they still relevant?

Probably not. At least not conferences at that scale.

Way back in December, I attended my first live conference since before COVID, our annual state event that has always been much, much smaller than ISTE and those others.

This was certainly a different experience from years past (masks, fewer attendees, juggling live and virtual sessions). But it also felt good again being in the same physical place with some like-minded educators.

Probably the best reflection of that sentiment was expressed by a friend who told me “I didn’t realize how much I needed this.” in a hallway conversation. Me too. Those chance encounters were always the most valuable part of the many edtech conferences I’ve attended over the years.

A good deal of that had gone missing from the past couple of live ISTE conferences I attended pre-COVID. Many of the people I looked forward to interacting with had stopped going. Or would only drop in long enough to do a session or fulfill some other obligation.

The conference itself, with an increasing emphasis on the “expo” hall and growing number of vendor-driven sessions, had become irrelevant to their practice. And likely to mine as well.

Anyway, as with many these days, there’s probably no one answer to the question of relevancy for ISTE and other jumbo-sized conventions.

In my mind, edtech conferences (and education meetings of all stripes) work best for people when they are smaller, with greater emphasis on opportunities for personal learning and interaction, as opposed to mass promotion and selling.

If you want to attend a huge trade show with hundreds of promotional sessions and big name speakers, go for it. As long as you understand that’s what you’re getting for the expenditure of time and money at ISTE, FETC, and most of those other huge events.

I’ll stick with the smaller, less crowded conferences where those chance hallway discussions are easier. And there’s a lesser chance of picking up a virus.

The photo is from our VSTE keynote session featuring Carl Hooker and Adam Phyall recording a live episode of their podcast. In deference to the pandemic, it was held in a much smaller room than normal with several simulcast breakout rooms. And a live stream for virtual attendees.

1. I’ve mentioned this before, but how does an organization with “international” right in the name never hold an event outside of the United States? Not even Canada? Just asking.

2. At least they don’t try to disguise the fact that their event is a trade show.

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