Quest For The New

Over the next week or so, tens of thousands of educators will descend on London and Orlando on a quest to discover what’s new in edtech. And thousands of vendors will be in their booths, starting today at The BETT Show, Sunday at FETC1, eager to show it to them.

At each conference/expo, attendees will also flock to sessions about the latest in software, hardware, apps, and extensions, with presenters offering “solutions” to whatever problem they might have. Plus tips, tricks, tools, hidden features, and more little bits of technology that you must have.

Both huge events represent one major reason why edtech has been largely ineffective, using multiple definitions of that term.

Like the tech industry in general, we in education embrace the promise of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the other “cutting edge” concepts that we are told will revolutionize the learning process, and the world in general, with far too little questioning.

I’m not saying we should never be curious about new stuff. Or ignore the possibilities that come with the development of new technology products.

However, when wandering the glittery sales floor of conferences like BETT and FETC (plus ISTE and any number of state and local edtech-related events) we need to dial back on the gee-whiz and ask some tough questions.

Like if claims for their products are backed by research. Or get the marketing people to talk about their privacy policies. Is any of the student data collected shared with other companies? Who are your investors?

I’m betting that last one will get you some funny looks. But we deserve to know the people in the background who may be more concerned with something other than student learning.

Anyway, as you go questing for the new, also indulge in some good old fashioned research before you adopt any of it. 


Indiana Jones, of course, is an archaeologist looking for old stuff. But if you think about it, he was on a quest for new stuff to put in museums that were already packed with relics.

1. BETT, formerly known as the British Educational Training and Technology Show before being shortened to just the initials, will attract around 35,000 people. FETC, which was the Florida Educational Technology Conference before being bought by a “media group” and rebranded as the Future of Education Technology Conference. They will likely have around 10,000 in attendance.

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?

Help The Children Lead, Instead of Telling Them Where to Go

From Alexandra Petri, one of the smartest, and often funniest, writers at the Washington Post, some (satirical) thoughts about the students now speaking up against the American love affair with guns.

Now, if you don’t want to hear from any more high schoolers traumatized by gun violence, then you either decide to try to create a world where high schoolers are not traumatized by gun violence, or decide to create a world where you do not have to listen to the high schoolers. It looks like we’re picking the latter!

We are not monsters. This burning shame that keeps us awake is their fault. If they were not there pointing the finger at us — We are being personally victimized! We are the real victims here! They have the audacity to point fingers at people for doing nothing! We haven’t done anything!

You can almost hear that coming out of the mouth of some “regressive”1 commentator on one of the talking heads channels in response to the raw and honest reaction coming from the children.

What these analysts and spokespeople seem to ignore is that the First Amendment doesn’t specify a minimum age and that the right to petition the government belongs to everyone, not just their friends with big bank accounts.

Anyway, I hope that the students from Parkland, now loudly speaking against our absurdly loose gun laws, continue to ignore those calls to shut up and sit down. Even more, I really hope that they, joined by protesting young people from all over the country, have started a movement that can affect major changes.

The adults of my generation have created many, many problems with our current government, and American society in general. Problems that are already severely impacting the lives of these kids beyond the almost-daily gun violence. From climate change to economic disparity and poverty to an increasingly unstable world, they need to be more than just aware. Students must be leaders in the work to the solutions.

But those solutions will not come easily. I agree with a post from a wise friend who writes that such a process will be “incredibly long” and will include many setbacks.

Sustaining the passion for the work is really hard, and you’ll need trusted friends and allies who will listen to you vent and strategize with you and privately call you on your mistakes and tell you when you need to go get some sleep. You will need those people, and I am sure you will be those people for each other as well.

Some of those “trusted friends and allies” must be their teachers.

However, instead of telling them to stay in the classroom, we must listen to our students, to both their concerns and ideas. We, as in all adults who support children, must help them learn how to use their authentic voices and to effectively direct the power of responsible civic engagement.

Guide them into adulthood, instead of always telling them what we think they need to know, what to say, and how to act.


Image is of an editorial cartoon by the wonderful Steve Benson, whose liberal-leaning work always seemed a little out of place at the conservative (but generally responsible) Arizona Republic newspaper (known online as AZCentral).

1. Since “progressive” is often used as an alternate for liberal on the political spectrum, I think we should use a far more accurate synonym for conservative, “regressive”.

Technology Changes Everything. Or Nothing.

This from a recent segment of the BBC World Service podcast, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, caught my attention.

Two economists… published research showing that many companies had invested in computers for little or no reward, but others had reaped big benefits. What explained the difference was whether the companies had been willing to reorganize to take advantage of what computers had to offer.

You couldn’t just take your old systems and add better computers. You needed to do things differently.

The program1 is about how the technology of electricity failed to improved businesses who remained organized around steam, in the same way that computers failed to improve businesses who remained organized around manual practices.

With that in mind, go back to that first paragraph of the pull quote and replace “companies” with “schools”, minus the published research part.

Over the past twenty years or so, many, if not most, schools simply added computers to the old systems. And then wondered why the promised revolution never appeared. It’s still happening today.

The presenter ends the podcast with a few lines to consider the next time you hear or read about some service, app, or system someone claims will “revolutionize” learning.

The thing about a revolutionary technology is that it changes everything. That’s why we call it revolutionary. And changing everything takes time. And imagination. And courage. And, sometimes, just a lot of hard work.

Instead of just accepting the statement as fact, dig deeper and look for that imagination, courage, and hard work required to produce genuine change.

Acting Small in an Overly-Large System

George Couros, one of the most thoughtful voices in my RSS feed, recently wrote about leading in a large school district. The post was triggered by an administrator with a good question: “Do you really believe that you can make this change happen with such a large district?”

That “large” district serves 30,000 students and it started me thinking again about the overly-large school district in which I worked for many, many years.2 If this person has trouble wrapping their head around steering a system that size, what does it take to significantly change course in one with more than 188,000 students? As I’ve said, overly-large.

One of George’s suggestions is that “leadership needs to always act small”, regardless of the actual size of the system. He wonders whether teachers and others actually know who the superintendent is, and by extension in a large system, the other members of the “leadership team”.

Does your leadership go into schools? When they do, does anyone know? Do they show up with their “entourage” and pop in and out? Do they hang out in classrooms, sometimes bring their laptop, and sit in classrooms to understand the impact of their decisions on classrooms? You should never make decisions for classrooms, students, and teachers unless you are present in those classrooms.

I know when any of the superintendents I worked for visited a school, it was a major press event. They never sat in a classroom without plenty of notice and several assistants in tow. Plus at least one photographer. Same for school board members, most of whom seemed to make principals very nervous.

Later in the post, George makes this observation.

Your district or school might be gigantic, but if you are in a leadership position, your job is the same; you serve students and educators.

In an overly-large district like ours, I think the superintendent and most of the leadership team often lose sight of that idea. Their days (and many nights) were often taken up by various political factions and issues, both internal and external, leaving little time to consider the everyday process of teaching and learning. Occasionally some of them will talk about “change”. It’s usually in very general terms, using the cliches drawn from the most current issue of their ed journals, and little of it gets translated into policy.

Now, none of this is intended to be critical of the people themselves. Most of the leaders in our district were well meaning (with the exception of a few nutball school board members) and believed their work was in the best interest of students. It’s the nature of the job that they have no time to develop a good understanding of the impact their decisions made in the thousands of classrooms of our district.

Currently the Fairfax school board is looking for a new superintendent to try and steer this colossus. They hired a “top” recruitment firm to conduct the usual “exhaustive national search”. Screening for the qualities of vision, leadership, and the ability to make data-driven decisions, at the top of the impossibly long list. The board should be getting close to making a decision, at least if they want that person in place for the start of the annual budget wrestling season.

But, I fully expect the person they hire will be far more CEO than educator. The little time spent in classrooms will be for show, when time allows. As to using social media to “create visibility during times that you can’t physically get into classrooms”, as George suggests, don’t hold your breath. It will be interesting to see if this one has any online footprint at all. Beyond newspaper articles and press releases, that is.