As I stated last week, I arrived at ISTE a little discouraged. I'd been to several conferences in the past few years and they've all tended to say the same thing. My experience at PETE&C in 2013 was quite eye-opening, but since then it's pretty much just been more apps, more buzzwords, and more promises/hyperbole which never seems to have any basis in the real world. I told myself that ISTE would either confirm that no, there are no new ideas, or that yes, there's tons more to explore beyond Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. As I'm now back at home, I can say that the answer is somewhere in the middle. There's many different tiers of teachers and "educators" from this conference. I'll try to explain what I mean:
The first group I'll have to address (and let off the hook) are the newbies at ISTE (or any conference really). While this was my first ISTE event, it wasn't my first EdTech conference so I'm excusing myself from this group. These are the teachers that really haven't been to a teacher-training event like this in the past and probably had no idea about all the tools and tricks technology could accomplish, nor all the innovative pedagogies currently being experimented with. They're impressed by pretty much everything, they live-tweet all the clever one-liners during the keynote, and they love catchphrases like "let's spend less time teaching and more time learning!!" I may find this group to be a bit overly zealous and naive when it comes to the buzzwords, but I can't hold it against them. It's their first time here, they're having fun, and certainly learning a ton of stuff (even if most of it is just fluff).
A conference this huge can't happen without money and bureaucracy, so of course that's arguably the most visible presence throughout the week. From the thirty minutes of self-congratulations and thank you's at the keynotes, to the massive vendor floor, to the hundreds of sponsored events, to the very-well-paid-non-education keynote speakers, to the logos and pamphlets covering my registration bag, it's clear that ISTE is much more "for-profit" than any teacher would like to admit. Once again, I don't suppose that any of this is avoidable; if you want to have a party this big, someone needs to pay for it. We can't be upset when they ask the attendees for a few favors in return. Still, as some of the discontented speakers noted, it's interesting that we have corporations on the vendor floor dedicated to the flawed testing/data industrial complex while we attempt to promote opposing educational strategies in the very next room. It's like a vegetarian convention sponsored by McDonalds.
As I said, the first two groups weren't who I hoped to find at this conference, but didn't blame any newbies for being new, nor anyone in management for trying to make a buck. That's their job, just like teaching is ours. The one group which really stood out (and sadly were the most vocal) were the sell-outs. At an EdTech conference, sell outs take two different forms: current teachers selling an app, and former teachers masquerading as educators. Many of the sessions I attended or saw advertised on the program appeared to be about pedagogical approaches...but after a few minutes were actually just the equivalent of "how-to" tutorials on building PowerPoint slides. Current teachers would stand in front of other teachers and tell them why a specific app was necessary to the success of a classroom. Whether it was a specific LMS, a certain sandbox-style video game, or specific video-app for iOS, or a presentation tool, these teachers would begin by stating "it's not about the tool, it's how you use it!!" and then proceed to spend an hour telling us how great a specific product is. Often times, these sessions had been arranged by the company in advance...so while the teacher wasn't exactly getting paid for this commercial, they were gaining a speaking slot to advance their own brand. The other "sell outs" which seemed to fill the arena were all the former teachers...who still pretended like they were in the classroom. It's one thing to exit the classroom, take up an administrative or instructional technology coach role, and then speak on those subjects (i.e. how to be a great principal, or ways to promote positive PD), but to leave the classroom and then tell other teachers how to run their classrooms comes across as disingenuous at best, and disrespectful at worst. To hear a teacher say "in my classroom, my students and I do this, that, and the other thing" only to learn this individual hasn't taught in a decade, or has recently shed his classroom responsibilities is a big problem at these events. Maybe these people had great ideas, and maybe they were excellent teachers...but there's lots of excellent teachers out there. I'd rather hear it from one of them.
The Men Behind the Curtain
The penultimate group I ran into at ISTE were those who never showed their honest selves. Much like Oz the Great and Terrible, these teachers/coaches/administrators/professors/etc. refused to reveal any actual flaws in their thinking, teaching, and pedagogy when sharing their professional practice. It's one thing to give your work a bit of salesmanship (i.e. with this new approach, my students had the chance to engage in authentic diversified learning that met each of them at their needs!) but the "men-behind-the-curtain" were careful to make sure no true flaws were revealed. Sure, they'd say things like "I'm constantly failing, but I'm always learning and so are my students! It's a learning studio!" but they'd never actually admit any weak spots or ask for help. This group was frustrating...partly because I'm sometimes one of them. When I'm giving my presentation, I know I have a tendency to downplay the weaknesses...mainly because I want others to see the positive side. The difference is, once the presentation is over, when it's time to have honest conversations and round-table chats, I found that many others refused to display any candor. I'd ask something like "how to do you all deal with time management, because sometimes I struggle getting students to use their time wisely?" and I'd be met with a series of buzzwords, talking points, and denials. They'd say things like "if you want a student to use their time wisely, they have to be properly motivated with real-world problem-solving!!" or something meaningless like that. Any real teacher knows that there's no such thing as a perfect day...so why are so many teachers pretending like they're in the middle of perfect decade?
While many of the groups above were discouraging parts of ISTE...they weren't ISTE-specific. I've met them all at every conference I've been to so far. I was concerned they'd be the only groups at ISTE and I'd lose hope in education-conference system. Thankfully, on that point, I was wrong. I did see several teachers willing to ask the tough questions, willing to challenge the corporate influence, willing to mock the new buzzwords, and willing to honestly ask "what are doing still having a 'technology conference'? One speaker compared the existence of ISTE to having a conference about the use of pencils in the classroom. He meant to suggest that technology exists...so what? Let's make this a pedagogy-centered event and we'd be much more productive. These weren't just angry rebels in the corner either, but some of the big names and panel leaders raised these important issues. Even better, these speakers didn't claim to have all the answers...in fact they knew the work of education is never finished and that teaching reform is incredibly difficult and incredibly slow. Still, they were willing to acknowledge and share that most of what we're currently doing...isn't change at all. That doesn't mean it's all bad, but they said that we should stop kidding ourselves that thousands of teachers are currently changing the education system. In reality, it's very few. Even my Gamification system, as much as I like it, still conforms to many existing education paradigms. There's a lot more work to be done. These Curious ones made it possible to think there's some out there who actually want to have an honest conversation. That's something I haven't seen since EdCampPGH.
So what's the verdict on ISTE 2015? I can't give you one. I found what I was hoping for, though it was buried in a pile of what I was dreading. Still, it doesn't take much to keep a fire going. Sometimes a fresh spark is all you need.