If this were a normal Friday on the weekend before the Super Bowl in any of the past 12 years, I would be driving I-95 (or taking Amtrak) to Philadelphia. To spend the next two or so days at a unique high school in center city, along with five hundred or so dedicated educators, students, and parents, all of whom were there for some serious (and some not-so-serious) discussions about the practice of teaching and learning.
I was planning to go. After all, the conference is happening just a short train ride up the road in Philadelphia, a city I greatly enjoy visiting. I had booked my hotel early, paid my registration, and was all set to travel.
Then life started laying down speed bumps, as it is sometimes wont to do. Nothing critical, certainly nothing interesting enough to write about in this space. Just lots of those little things that tend to pile up, to the point that my plans had to change.
So this week I’ll be observing the event from afar, through the lens of Twitter and whatever video streams that can escape from the undoubtably clogged conference center network.
On reflection, however, I’m not entirely sure I will miss being at ISTE.
For one thing, as I’ve written about in the past, I continue to wonder if this kind of gathering has become too big and too expensive1 to serve any useful purpose, at least to me. I’m sure many of the conference attendees will gain from being Philadelphia this week. It certainly will be good for the vendors on the expo floor who must love having tens of thousands of potential customers passing by.
I know I won’t miss the formal sessions. Over the past three or four ISTEs, I pretty much stopped going to them. Most will cover information and ideas that can easily be found on the web, and offer little opportunity for any meaningful interaction with the presenters. Plus an increasing percentage of them are little more than infomercials for edtech products and lack much in the way of a connection to using technology for improved learning.
Most of the value of making the trek to ISTE for me has come from the direct connections I would make in the halls, the playgrounds, and lounges. But that benefit has also declined over time since many of the people that I would normally reconnect with at the conference have stopped attending. Or I will see them at smaller, less frenetic events2 where it will be easier to have a meaningful conversation.
So, if you are in Philly this week, have a great time and I hope the time you spend up there is valuable for you. Please share what you learn with the rest of us. For various reasons I will not be at ISTE next year in Anaheim either. But, after some reflection, I may find good reasons to return the following year in San Antonio.
Or I may become permanently not at ISTE.
The picture above was made at a previous ISTE conference in Philadelphia. It shows the city skyline from the 33rd floor of the Lowes Hotel. I wasn’t staying there. I think I rose to those heights to attend a vendor meeting.
1. Philly used to be one of the more reasonable cities for conference attendees, both in terms of cost and having the infrastructure to support everyone who came to ISTE. Not any more.
This past weekend was spent the same way I’ve spent the fourth weekend of January for the past twelve years: in Philadelphia attending EduCon.
EduCon is a relatively small conference that someone described as a popup community. It’s a community of smart, interesting, passionate educators who come from near and far to immerse themselves in discussions around many difficult topics about learning and society.
Reflecting back on some of the sessions I was part of, I think I may have been a little repetitive. Possibly even obnoxious.
I found myself asking the same question over and over: where are the kids in this process?
You’re designing a new school? Why don’t you have students on the primary planning team? Based on possibly many years of experience, they likely have some strong opinions and wonderful insight. After all, they will be expected to do some serious work in these spaces.
You’re revising the curriculum? Wouldn’t it be better if you included students who had taken the course in the past? Certainly there is a core of information, some of it required. But kids could tell you exactly what worked and what didn’t how that information is presented.
You’re writing a mission and vision statement for your school? I’m pretty sure it’s going to say something about kids and their future. They should be on the core committee right along side of the administrators, teachers, and those other “stakeholders”.
I’m pretty sure the people I used to work with were tired of hearing me regularly bring up the topic. The idea that students should be part of the teams that are responsible for planning the educational process that will have a major impact on their lives.
In our overly-large school district, students might be brought in as part of focus groups later in the process, but their input likely didn’t have much influence. When a project reached the focus group stage, the major decisions had been made and this was just about tweaking things around the edges.
Anyway, I never intended the question to be a criticism of anyone in the room at EduCon. And I think many members of this community are very aware that most schools and districts do a rather poor job of including students in their planning processes.
I hope at least some of them will take the idea back to their workplaces and begin asking their colleagues, “where are the kids?” more often.
The image is one I keep coming back to almost every year: looking down at the SLA cafeteria from the second floor. I’ll have to look for another view next year since the school and EduCon will be moving to a new building in the fall.
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.
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. :-)