It’s that time of year again. The last week in June is traditionally when ISTE holds their huge edtech conference, the 2023 edition of which wrapped up just a few days ago.

For most of this century I would be in the middle of the event, especially in a year like this one when everything was happening in Philadelphia. After all, that city is only a three-hour drive up I-95. Less than half that on the train.

However, starting several years before the pandemic, the big meeting, now being branded as ISTE LIVE! (don’t forget the all-caps and exclamation point), became far less essential. To the point of being largely irrelevant.

So, what changed? My reasons for want to the conference? Or have ISTE’s goals for holding the event shifted?

Certainly there is a lot from both sides in the mix. For me, I think it happened somewhere around 2009, when the conference was held in DC for the one and only time.

Around that time meeting and reconnecting with people during those four or five days became more valuable than most of what was in the program. I was gaining more insight from chats in the hallways, discussions in the lounges, interactions in the playgrounds. Very often I went to sessions to support friends or to have a chance to connect with the speaker afterward.

Then at the last few conferences I attended (the last being four years ago, also in Philly), I noticed that many, if not most, of those people I wanted to see had stopped going. Or came in only long enough to do their sessions or workshop and then moved on to something more important.

They were also finding less value in spending the time and money to attend what had become a bloated edtech trade show, as opposed to the learning opportunity that ISTE (and many other conferences) had been in earlier days.

However, there is the other part of this equation: ISTE and this event have also changed a great deal. Coincidentally, I can also date those major alterations to 2009.

That was the year they dropped the old name, NECC (the National Educational Computing Conference), and moved their primary office to Washington DC.

I think that was the start of the organization becoming more corporate and less of a community of educators. A big business that promotes the edtech industry, as opposed to one dedicated to improving the practice of teachers, helping schools, and enhancing student learning.

The new focus became more apparent in 2019 when they bought EdSurge, a startup founded in 2011 by several tech journalists with a mission to “cover” the edtech industry through various publications and events. But that coverage was much more focused on company financials and the soap opera of mergers and acquisitions than whether the products actually worked.

Then last year, ISTE announced a merger with ASCD, an education organization with no apparent connection to what most of us thought was ISTE’s mission. The combination made little sense then and nothing I’ve read since has generated any more clarity.

Anyway, despite past rants, I’m still an ISTE member, and still interested in what was happening up the road in Philly this week. To the point that I was actually reading Twitter again. Although it would have made things much easier if they had settled on one hashtag, instead of the four or five that seemed to be in use for the conference.

ISTE is back in Denver next June, another city I enjoy visiting and it will be interesting to see how the organization evolves. I suspect the influence of the big edtech companies will continue to grow, both in the organization and at the conference. They’ve already expanded to dominate the formal program in the past few years, as well as much of the content on the website.

We’ll see what happens to the community that used to be at the center of ISTE and it’s conference.

I’m reminded of ISTE once or twice a week when I use several conference bags from deep in ISTE’s past. Like this large canvas example pictured at the top. It’s from my first event, then called the National Educational Computing Conference, at the turn of the previous century. The bag is wonderful for hauling home a gallon of milk and a couple bottles of soda. Which is probably the same weight as all the paper and tchotchkes we hauled home from the conference. Ah, nostalgia.

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