On (Not) Missing ISTE 2013

I’m skipping ISTE this year. And I’ll confess: for the first time since I quit working at ISTE, I’m fairly relieved to not be going.

I made the decision in part because I’m working hard on my book, and traveling costs too much – too much time and too much money.

I’d initially planned to make it just to Steve Hargadon’s Saturday unconference (the event formerly known as EduBloggerCon) on Saturday – it’s always my favorite day of “the show” – but that didn’t work out. (More details to come on Monday regarding why.)

I am, of course, sad that I’ll miss the opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. That is always the biggest draw for me of any event: an opportunity to connect face-to-face and learn from the folks I am connected to and learn from online. And ISTE has been, for many years now, the one place I can be sure to regularly run into people.

Lots of people.

ISTE usually attracts around 12,000 attendees, including several thousand exhibitors. I can’t help but think about that exhibitor-to-teacher ratio – about 1:3 or 1:4 – particularly in light of my deep dissatisfaction with SXSWedu, where the ratio felt almost reversed. But even 1:4 isn’t such a great makeup if you want the focus to be on “learning” and not on “tools,” let’s be honest, and it’s no secret that ISTE (the conference and the organization) relies heavily on corporate dollars.

For a (short) while, I’d hoped that education startups would provide an alternative to the Pearsons and the Prometheans that dominate the sponsorships and exhibit floor and would forge a different sort of relationship with the educators in attendance – one that involves listening, not selling to teachers. I’m much less optimistic these days, not just because Pearson (via Learn Capital investment) owns a financial stake in so many startups, but because I see many young companies following the same conference marketing practices as established ones: booths, giveaways, parties.

But who can blame them, I guess. These practices have become standard at ISTE. Attendees expect and look for the freebies, sometimes with little regard for the quality, the utility, the data portability, their privacy, the pedagogical implications.

Microsoft, for example, is handing out 10,000 “free” Surface RTs to attendees. And by midday Saturday as I started writing this, there were already photos shared on Twitter of the line of those waiting to pick it up. I do wonder how many have read the reviews for the device (largely negative) or have thought critically about the data they’re agreeing to sign over in exchange for it. I wonder too, how just a few weeks after news broke of the NSA’s PRISM project and tech companies’ cooperation with building an infrastructure for spying on us, after Bill Gates’ pronouncement that he plans to spend millions to equip every classroom in the country with video cameras, after all the handwringing about inBloom and its massive data grab, that educators could be so exuberant about Google Glass.

I don’t get it. I mean, I try. I recognize the powerful allure of the education and technology industries’ myths. But right now, I’m happy to skip ISTE as I’m busily trying to write all my observations and frustrations and fears out in book-length form.

Don’t get me wrong: I like teachers that push teaching and learning with technology forward, and many in attendance at ISTE do just that. But I’m disappointed – increasingly so – that concerns about rampant tech consumerism and solutionism go largely unrecognized. I’m troubled that data portability, ownership, and privacy aren’t a core part of the ISTE (or larger ed-tech) conversation. My session proposal on this topic – Terms of Service 101 – was rejected, hardly a surprise since the popular sessions are always a variation on the “Top 5000 Apps You Can Use in Your Classroom” theme.

Always. Every year.

All this strikes me as a signal there’s a major problem at the core of education technology as we (commonly) know it, one that isn’t simply the fault of the companies churning out their products (although I’m happy to put a lot of the blame there) but is also a result of the flaws in teacher training and in professional development. It's a reflection, more broadly, of our cultural fascination with the shiny and the new. And no doubt, it’s a problem exacerbated by many technology and education technology blogs, where every app and every tool is equally newsworthy and nifty.

The theme of this year’s ISTE conference is “forging a learning frontier” – with little reflection on the imperialist legacy intertwined with such an analogy, I’d wager (but that’s a separate blog post). Yet it feels like, in many ways, we’re retreading the same education technology landscape that we have been for decades.

For over 30 years now, ISTE has offered a strange and often unsettling combination of the old and the new. The same, old problems of student engagement and attainment, for example, alongside the newest tools that promise to enhance or expedite these. And yet, as year-after-year the old problems remain, no matter which new tools are adopted, we should probably consider there’s something awry with the formulation. Something deeply, deeply awry. We should talk about it -- and talk about it loudly. We should recognize too that much of the “newness” of "the latest and greatest" that's celebrated at ISTE is a function of the planned obsolescence built into much of the technology and education industry – there’s always an update or an upgrade to procure, a latest edition to buy, a new (and well-lobbied for) policy mandate to fulfill.

Always. Every year. And by design.

So if I miss ISTE this year, I think I can be pretty safe in assuming it’ll be pretty darn similar -- with slight variations in color and layout, of course -- when the conference moves to Atlanta in June 2014. Maybe I’ll see you there.



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