My Annual ISTE Rant

Since the ISTE1 wrapped it’s annual conference last Wednesday I’ve been trying to write a coherent post of my experiences at one huge event. Something that would summarize five full days of conversations, presentations, crowds, noise, and activities.

But that’s not what follows. Instead this rant is a collection of impressions, reflections and disconnected thoughts.

For one thing, I’ve developed a real love-hate relationship with ISTE. I enjoy much of what goes on outside of the actual sessions. HackEd, a day-long, loosely organized un-conference on the day before the “real” conference begins, is probably the best part of the whole thing. A chance to talk with some very smart people about topics that go beyond “hot tech tools for today’s classrooms” (an actual session title).

On the other side, I have almost totally lost my tolerance for the “expo”. Gary Stager has long called it a boat show, with Audrey Watters using a less subtle characterization. But however you refer to the vendor floor, it’s difficult to walk through that giant hall, with hundreds of booths more resembling a carnival, and not question whether we are still talking about education and learning.

Especially when, on signs all over the Philadelphia Convention Center, we are told to thank the organization’s “Mission Sponsors”:

Two corporations who see classrooms as just another business (at least Samsung is upfront about it) and a third that sells what is my nominee as the all-time worst example of instructional technology. Ever.

Unfortunately, the marketing part of the conference doesn’t stay confined to that carefully guarded2 cavern of the expo hall. A large and growing part of the formal program are little more than commercials, sessions presented or sponsored by vendors, with many smaller companies now setting up in the lounges to push their products and distribute their tchotchkes.

So, where is the good stuff at this conference that makes the trip worthwhile? Start with the Poster Sessions (this year banished to the far reaches of the center, as far from “ISTE Central” as you could get) where I can talk with educators who are actually doing interesting and innovative things with kids. And, in some cases, actually talk to kids about their work.

In addition to HackEd, there are the hallway conversations with old friends and people I just met. Discussions over meals, snacks, and drinks with interesting, passionate educators that up until that point I only knew through their tweets, blog posts, photography or other contributions from my personal learning feed.

It’s those personal connections, along with the chance to get away from the day-to-day and visit an interesting city, that makes the trip to ISTE worth the effort and expense. And why you’ll probably find me making the trek to Denver next June.