Preparing for ISTE

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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.

ISTE Quick Thoughts: They’re Selling You

Yesterday someone asked how many ISTE Conferences (rebranded from NECC when we hosted in DC a couple of years ago) I’ve attended and, after checking the history, I realized that this is my 10th (starting in 1999). It also struck me that, although the technologies we’re discussing and using have changed a great deal*, the basic format of ISTE/NECC hasn’t.

Especially unchanging is the vendor floor where I spent some obligatory time yesterday. The expansive hall is prominent, huge, crowded, and noisy, and I can see how many attendees, especially first timers, might get the impression that this is the main focus and heart of the conference.

Well, it could be if you let it. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that this experience is what you want it to be. If you attend a lot of bad sessions, you probably didn’t have a clear idea of what you wanted to learn. Or you didn’t do enough research into the speakers and topics.

If you spend large chunks of time in the “exposition” or in vendor-sponsored sessions, then you come away with the impression that instructional technology is all about buying IWBs, new gadgets, and instant “solutions” to every problem in your professional life.

There are plenty of other opportunities at ISTE but finding them requires planning. And spending minimal time at the shopping mall.

*The iPad on which I’m writing this is an amazing conference tool compared to the iBook I lugged around my first ISTE.