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I Think I’m Done With ISTE

ISTE Expo

I first joined ISTE1 in 1995 when the organization’s journal was called The Computing Teacher.

It was 1999 when I attended my first conference, then called the National Educational Computing Conference, in Atlantic City of all places. I’ve been back 15 times since.

Which means I’ve been watching ISTE grow and change for a long time. But now I’ve reached a point where I may not continue as a member.2

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Don’t Teach Tools

Tinker Toy Windmill

An Education Week listicle “interview” with the CEO of ISTE popped into one of my feeds recently, and with the title “5 Big Ed-Tech Problems to Solve in 2020”, it seemed instantly forgettable.

But one point he made caught my attention, that we need to completely “rethink teacher prep for technology”. 

Instead, teachers could earn an endorsement or certification from say, Microsoft, Google, or Apple. “There’s good things about all their software. But at the same time it comes in with the assumption that all of the problems you need to address as a teacher can be solved by their software. And that’s a problem, and frankly, it’s a conflict of interest.”1

He said that a teacher would never say they were a “Houghton-Mifflin teacher, I only use textbooks by Houghton-Mifflin.  Give me a break. Immediately, there were would be a conflict of interest. But because of this vacuum, we haven’t had another option in technology. … We’ve had superintendents reaching out to us saying ‘please, help with this. We need something that is from a nonprofit organization, that is completely tool neutral.”

Of course, this is an opportunity for him to promote the new ISTE certification programs, but still, good point.

It’s also a problem that likely won’t be solved in 2020 since it’s been around almost from the day we first began bringing computers into schools.

Back when I was first starting we ran classes for teachers with titles like “Clarisworks Fundamentals”, “Intermediate Excel”, and “Powerpoint Basics”. Emphasis on the mechanics of using the software rather than helping students become better writers using a word processor or better communications skills using a computer. And that approach served as a model for teaching students.

The theory was that a person needed to learn the skills of working the device and software before they could understand them as instructional and learning tools. Things haven’t changed much over the years (decades?), as evidenced not only by the inclusion on this list, but also by the online workshops offered for current products like Google Drive.

From experience I know this is a model for professional development that’s relatively easy to design and present, even if it’s totally wrong.

As Culatta notes, concentrating on specific products also locks teachers (and, by extension, their students) into a particular brand, to the advantage of the company, rather than helping them understand the broader concepts of using computing devices as learning and creative tools.

I can’t speak to the quality of ISTE’s certification programs or whether they will actually solve the problem. But maybe it can slow the flood of corporate certification programs now sloshing around the edtech business.


Maybe someone else can make a connection but, for right now, the featured image has nothing to do with the topic of this post. It’s just a favorite from a recent trip.

1. This has a feeling of biting the hand that feeds you. Or at least nibbling a little. But credit to him for at least saying it.

Certified Value

Delmar Coulter Seventh Grade Certificate 1928

Last month I stumbled across an interesting discussion thread in the ISTE forums, one that began with someone asking for a list of “websites that offer their own teacher certification”.1

After less than a week, participants had suggested more than two dozen edtech certification programs and offered some insight into the requirements for a few. Someone also posted the link to a website dedicated to listing all the edtech certifications available, the existence of which surprised me but probably shouldn’t have. Between the discussion and that site, I’m estimating that there must be something like 200 of these certifications, counting multiples from some companies.

However, missing from this discussion was anyone questioning why. Why should a teacher spend their time, effort, and possibly money to obtain one of these certifications? What is the value of being certified on a particular platform or resource?

I know many educators who have earned one or more. In fact, many of the educators who are presenting at the ISTE conference this week include multiple certifications in their bios2. But beyond simply adding a line to their CV, a large number of them are actually directly representing the company.

Which makes me wonder if the primary beneficiaries of these certification program might not be the companies themselves. After all, they are getting lots of free marketing from the educators who promote their products at conferences and on social media. Does the company gain more from these promotions than the teacher’s students?

Speaking of students, do they benefit when their teacher gets a certification in using a particular edtech product? Does the software or resources their teacher has selected really help their learning in some way? Does being “certified” in one specific product discourage the teacher from exploring possible better options?

Ok, I’m not trying to demean anyone who earns one (or more) of the many, many edtech certifications with this rant. These are only questions, and I probably have a few more. I only hope my colleagues are considering these issues before they use any edtech product in their instruction, much less work on being certified in that product.

One last thought: what happens if/when the product you’ve committed your time and energy to disappears? Once upon a time I earned the right from Adobe to call myself a GoLive Certified Trainer. What’s GoLive you ask? Exactly. :-)


The image, a different kind of certificate than I’ve been ranting about, was posted by Douglas Coulter on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

1. If you’re an ISTE member, you can check out the posts here. Not sure if you also have to be a member of the EdTech Coaches group.

2. One person I follow on Twitter lists ten of them in their profile.

Not At ISTE

Eye to Eye With Ben

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.

2. EduCon, which coincidentally is also in Philadelphia, is one example as is the state conference presented by VSTE, our ISTE affiliate.

The EdTech Boat Shows

Swap the boats for computers and it begins to look familiar.

Happening this week in London is one of the largest edtech conferences in the world, one that many educators in the US have probably never heard of.

It’s called BETT1 and the organizers say it will attract almost 35,000 attendees. For comparison, recent ISTE2 conferences, largest in the US, have included around 22,000 people.

Also happening this week in Orlando, Florida is another large edtech conference, one that is probably quite familiar to anyone reading this, FETC3. They usually attract around 8,000 people. So, big but not nearly the size of the other two.

All three edtech organizations, of course, want us, the common educator, to believe that the event will provide hundreds of professional development opportunities. Ones that address the “future of education” and “transforming education” (in the case of BETT).

Several days that will be an “intensive, highly collaborative exploration of new technologies, best practices and pressing issues” (FETC). That will offer “powerful ideas and inspirational speakers, while connecting with innovative educators who share your passion for transformative learning” (ISTE).

However, a large and growing part of these huge conferences is the vendor floor. I would argue it’s the largest, and likely most important, part to these three organizations. Companies pay big bucks to have a presence at these events, even more for a high profile sponsorship, money necessary to keep their budgets in the black.

BETT at least is up front about primarily being an industry trade show, rather than a professional development conference. According to it’s about page, this is the “first industry show of the year in the education technology landscape”. ISTE and FETC are more circumspect on the issue, but their literature still places a heavy emphasis on the number of companies that will be exhibiting at their events.

Ok, I’ve never attended BETT or FETC, and, based on their online programs, I really have no desire to go. (Although I wouldn’t mind visiting London. Anytime.) On the other hand, I have been to ISTE many times (over almost twenty years) and the attraction for that event has been declining.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always felt my trips to ISTE were worth while, learning much during the time and always making or renewing some wonderful connections. And almost none of that came from visiting the “massive Expo Hall”. I expect that the same would be true if I was at the big events in London or Ontario right now.

But I find that it takes more and more work to find those professional benefits at these overly-large conferences. Considering the number of people I see spending hours in the vendor hall and flocking to the “Cracker Jack” sessions, along with the volume of social media posts about the “cool new” stuff, I’m not sure that’s happening at all for a large percentage of those tens of thousand attendees.

On top of that, the dominance of the edtech industry has steadily grown at these conferences. Large parts of the formal program at ISTE and FETC are now presentations by corporate representatives and sessions by educators sponsored to some degree by those companies. Extending their marketing reach beyond the one hall.

All of which is making these huge conferences more resemble the classic boat show than an education event.


The title for this post is borrowed, with thanks, from Gary Stager. It’s just such a wonderful name for the massive and increasingly flashy vendor floors of these events so I hope he doesn’t mind me using it.

The picture is from the Detroit Boat Show.

1 From the original name the British Educational Training and Technology Show.

2 Anyone else see something wrong about an organization with “international” in it’s title that’s never holds it’s major event outside the US borders? Sorta like the “World” Series.

3 Which started life as the Florida Educational Technology Conference. It was changed to the Future of Educational Technology Conference when the event was purchased by a media company that operates many other business conferences.

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