The ISTE11 conference in Philadelphia was really a sight to behold, on a variety of levels. I had certainly never been to a conference this size before, and aside from some sporting events, I don't believe I have even inhabited a space with over 17,850 people before, let alone so many educators who were passionate about educational technology. I had certainly never been around so many iPads before!But one thing that stood out for me was the marked contrast between two areas of the convention: the presentations and meetings among educators on the one hand, and the exhibit hall on the other. Simply put, it appeared to me many of the products being promoted by the vendors were good for the vendors, but not really consistent with the ideas and ideals presented by the educators a few rooms away. Yes, I get that at the end of the day, these companies are there to make money, but seeing this distinction for the first time so clearly was jarring.
The presentations were really incredible. My biggest problem was finding the speaker to choose out of the 5 or 6 per time slot that I wanted to go to, a sentiment I heard echoed by others throughout the conference. In most presentations and in conversations with other educators, I played the part of sponge, sucking up information about this app and that web tool, one time even getting 60 resources in 60 minutes. The common denominator among these resources were that they were mostly free or very low cost, versatile, and easy to implement on the fly. Perhaps most significantly, they all fit in well with the current trend of "Bring Your Own Device," where schools utilize the prevalence of laptops, tablets, and smartphones owned by our students to create a built in, low cost, EdTech platform (instead of making costly investments in laptop carts and the like).
There was a slightly different theme in the Exhibit Hall. Nothing could prepare me for the first time I entered it.
"This must be as big as...."
Words to describe its enormity failed me. Thanks to a follow up email from ISTE, I now know that the exhibit hall was the size of 5.5 football fields, featuring 1,423 booths of companies selling all sorts of EdTech services, tools, and supplies. There were not one, but TWO full size coach buses inside the exhibit hall, as part of company displays (don't ask me how they got them in this second story level of the convention center!).
You ever have that experience where you go to the supermarket without a shopping list, and you just find yourself aimlessly wandering the aisles, slack jawed and starting at the latest variety of BBQ chips? That was how I felt as I made my way through that exhibit hall the first time. It was too big to have a plan, to figure out where to go next. You just walked along, collecting a free T-Shirt or a squeeze ball every few booths, and you kept going.
So where was the contrast, the dichotomy, you might ask? Weren't these exhibitors selling products that were supposed to more tightly integrate the concepts being taught during the presentation sessions?
Well, yes. There definitely were quite a few exhibitors pitching products and services that frequently come up in the context of effective EdTech. I felt this need to walk over to the Evernote table and just thank them for existing! Same with Google Apps for Education. Lego for Education was full of Lego awesomeness. C-Span was promoting an absolutely incredible service that allows teachers to access a full archive of video going back to the 80's. Great stuff.
But so many of the products that many companies were touting were single use, and very proprietary. I saw specialized ebook readers, clickers, and word processors. These devices would let you read a e-textbook, select an answer, and type an essay.
And that was it.
I kept finding myself thinking, over and over, why not just get an iPad, and find the proverbial "app for that" function that you are looking for, whether its to respond to test questions or read an ebook?
Now, these businesses are not stupid. They would not be selling products that there was no demand for. So now, I turn the question around on us, the education professionals: Why are we buying these products? Why are we investing all of this money in devices that have very specific, limited uses?
I saw an article recently which discussed Malcolm Gladwell's recent presentation at the TED global conference, and, after offering some historical examples, he asked a fundamental question: "Why do people place so much faith in technology...to solve problems?" His question I think speaks to the phenomenon of the great divide between the ISTE presenters and the vendors in the exhibit hall. It is human nature to seek a silver bullet, that all encompassing quick fix that is going to powerfully and simply solve all of our problems.
I believe that the underlying marketing message of many of the vendors was playing on this human tendency. "If only I had this interactive white board, or these software programs, my school/class/district would be rocking!" And while it would be wonderful if that were true, I think we all know that this underlying assumption is wrong. You know how I know this? Because in all of the presentations, the focus was on teacher’s learning about new tools, about using flexible devices, and about utilizing EdTech as a tool to help teachers continue to do what they do best, and not as a means of replacing them. THAT was the great divide at ISTE, and the refreshing thing that I observed was that most people at the conference understood this concept clearly.
As Josh Stumpenhorst eloquently wrote about the other day in a blog post titled "The Real Game Changer in Education," the technology in and of itself is not the game changer. He went so far as to say that in his opinion, social media and the connections he and countless other educators have made using it, was not, in fact, a game changer for him.
It's the people that change the game.
It's the teachers stretching themselves to learn new skills and applying them in class even when its uncomfortable.
It's the administrators that have the vision that things can move forward, and do the work in the tranches to ensure that there is a foundation based in a strong school culture and intensive faculty training and support.
As an aside, I think this is one of the reasons the Khan Academy has become somewhat of a lightening rod in conversations among educators. In my opinion, there are well meaning educators that are fighting what Khan is doing because it is being interpreted by many in the mainstream media as a savior for education, when we know that video can never replace a teacher, and the flipped classroom is simply one of many strategies that a teacher can employ in running an effective classroom.
My bottom line?
We, as human beings, need to be aware of our tendency to try and find that magic pill, so that we can a) exercise appropriate skepticism when something is put forward as the be-all and end-all, and b) focus on using the amazing resources that are out there as tools on our educators tool belt to continue to change the game.