Investing in EdTech

ISTE Expo

A couple of posts back, I ranted about the ongoing quest for the new in edtech at large conferences. Of course, on the other side of that quest are the many companies developing and marketing their products at events like BETT, FETC, and ISTE.

Related to that, Audrey Watters is someone who does excellent work writing about the big money attempts to “reform” American education and the place of edtech in that process. In a recent essay, Fables of School Reform, she starts with this observation of the results of all that investment.

Over the past five years, more than $13 billion in venture capital has been sunk into education technology startups. But in spite of all the money and political capital pouring into the sprawling ed-tech sector, there’s precious little evidence suggesting that its trademark innovations have done anything to improve teaching and learning.

Extend that timeline back, say thirty years, almost the range in which I’ve been involved in the process of using technology for instruction, and consider all the money and time that’s been expended by schools, governments, and teachers. Can we say it has improved teaching and learning?

A question, not a judgement. One deserving a much more extensive debate.

Anyway, Audrey is excellent at following the threads of education reform through history and in this piece traces the efforts to bring computers into schools back to A National At Risk, the 1983 report that kicked off the modern panic about the American education system. As with so many of the studies that followed, the conclusions were based on test scores (the SAT in this case) and are “wrenched out of historical context”.

She then brings the thread into modern day by visiting the ASU + GSV Summit, “a business of education conference fondly known as ‘Davos in the Desert’” (before moving from Phoenix to San Diego). The New York Times called it “The must-attend event for education technology investors”.

This year featured speakers included such well-known education experts as former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former US president George W. Bush, and… Matthew McConaughey?1 Of course missing from the presenters (and likely the attendees)2 was anyone who could speak with actual experience to the process of teaching and learning.

In addition to the conspicuous absence of education researchers from the “constituencies” served at Davos in the Desert, there was no mention of either students or parents. Indeed, every year (this year’s was its ninth), the ASU+GSV Summit seems to nearly coincide with AERA [American Educational Research Association], an organization that’s been around since the early 1910s. It’s hardly an insignificant scheduling gaffe. If nothing else, the dueling conference schedules tap into a powerful cultural trope, one that’s particularly resonant among Silicon Valley and education reform types: that education experts and expertise aren’t to be trusted, that research is less important than politics, that the “peer review” that matters isn’t the academic version, but rather the sort that drives a typical VC roadshow.

There is much more to Audrey’s experience at the Summit and her observations of the edtech business in general. This post is well worth 20 minutes of your time to read it all. She is also someone you should follow.


The photo shows just a part of the vast Expo floor at the ISTE conference last June in Chicago. ISTE also works very hard to promote the edtech startup business through their Edtech Startup Pavilion and annual Pitch Fest.

1. The speakers at the 2019 event in April include a mix of tech executives, politicians, and celebrities. It’s a very strange brew.

2. With ticket prices starting at $2800, I’m guessing not a lot of teachers attend this conference.

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?

A Few Learning Opportunities

For those who read my rants here in the northern part of Virginia – or the extended area that is annoyingly called “the DMV” (DC, Maryland, Virginia) by some local media outlets – I’ll be participating in these close-by learning events in the next six weeks or so.

Next weekend, November 7 and 8, I’ll be doing two of my Google Earth/Maps-related sessions at the EdTech Team’s Northern Virginia Summit. We’ll be at George Mason High School in Falls Church and there are still a few tickets left.

Later in the month, November 21, join us for edCamp NoVA at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Ashburn for a morning of collaboration, discussion, and learning. Learning about what? Well, that’s the beauty of the edCamp concept. The content is totally up to the participants. Did I mention it’s free?

And then there’s the annual VSTE Conference, the premiere learning experience in Virginia. We’ll be in beautiful downtown Roanoke for three days, December 6-8, of sessions and activities covering everything about using technology in the classroom. I’ll be in the Hackerspace area most of the time but also out taking pictures.

If you also plan to be at any or all of these events, please track me down and say hi.

Are EdTech Conferences Still Relevant?

I drove home from our state edtech conference earlier this week with lots of ideas, questions and conflicts. Nothing new there.

But one of those questions has been stuck in my head for a while: Are “tech” conferences like VSTE really necessary anymore?

Becker tweet

Adding to the conflict was a recent tweet from Jon Becker suggesting a conference merger between the Virginia affiliates of ASCD and ISTE.

He has a good point. VASCD could probably use a good dose of technology and grassroots social networking (as opposed to the manufactured version used by many organizations and most corporations).

And VSTE’s conference needs more focus on instruction and less on scattershot dispersal of tips/tricks/apps of the kind we saw in the closing keynote.

However, edtech conferences like ours (and the giants like ISTE and FETC) are only part of the problem. For the most part, their programs are very much reflective of the way technology is still used in most schools.

Despite decades of spending on “educational” computing and talk of web 2.0/21st century skills, actually using all that technology is still optional.  For most administrators and teachers – and students for that matter – it is not an essential part of the school learning process.

Thus we have conferences about education separate from those about technology in education.

Missing ISTE… Sorta

Tomorrow in San Diego, the ISTE conference begins with the annual meet-up now called SocialEdCon*. And, for the first time in ten years, I will not be attending.

Will I miss it? Sure.

San Diego is a great city. When I was a kid we used to visit my grandmother who lived in one of the little coastal towns to the north. We would take the bus into town, go to the beach, visit the zoo, and enjoy the nice sea breeze. I haven’t been back in a while so it would be nice to see how things have changed.

What about the conference itself?

Well, maybe not so much.  Actually, what I’ll miss most about not being at ISTE are the pieces not listed in the conference program.

Sitting in the Blogger Cafe and having great conversations with some very smart people. The impromptu hallway opportunities that often go “Let’s grab some lunch/coffee/ice cream and I’ll tell you what I’m working on.” The tweets that result in meeting someone I’ve only known through their creations.

In fact, the most valuable part of the formal program over the past few years has proven to be the Poster sessions, which offer lots of ideas in a compact space, plus the opportunity to discuss them with the people directly involved.

It’s certainly not the humungous vendor floor, which seems to get larger and move more to the center focus every year, and is totally forgettable. Or the growing number of sessions presented by representatives of those same vendors and crowd out the more authentic voices in instructional technology.

Despite all this, I would probably be in San Diego right now if it wasn’t for the fact that my district won’t pay my expenses (except for registration, the smallest part) for conferences and I have the opportunity to spend a week in Italy a month following ISTE. When it’s your own travel budget, you gotta make choices.

And this time next year, I’ll probably be traveling to ISTE once again. Why not? Visiting San Antonio for a week or so makes a nice little vacation and, for just the additional cost of registration, I get dozens of learning opportunities.

But for the next few days, I’ll just have to follow along on the back channels and build my own virtual conference.


*Ok, I know we’ve outgrown the EduBloggerCon name for this event but there must be a better replacement than that. And corporate sponsors? Blackboard? What’s next Pearson? Doesn’t mix with the whole “unconference” meme. Sorry. Ignore this side rant and go back to the main one.