My ISTE experience: First the bad news…

I’m currently working on a presentation I’m giving for a digital writing course and reflecting on my experience at the ISTE conference, which I attended last week. It was the first time I’d ever attended an ISTE conference. As with most conferences, I came away feeling overwhelmed. One morning, as I stood in line at the EcoGrounds coffee stand (doing my part to help the environment, according to their signs), I glanced at the person next time me and saw her name tag. She had a sticker attached that read “My head is going to explode.” I suspect many people were feeling the same way. I know I was.

I knew from my previous experiences at conferences like NCTE that events like this could be overwhelming. Still, I don’t think I was mentally ready for what I encountered on Day 1 when I entered the ISTE exhibition hall. Vendors from Microsoft to Dell, Samsung to Google, and Smart to Pearson lined the entire space—a whopping 679,000 square foot area packed with companies promising the next great tool to make me a better teacher.


The 2015 ISTE Exhibition Hall

I think we all know a few teachers who tend to become overwhelmed by technology. I’m not one of those teachers. In the world of EdTech, I’m generally an early adopter. Sure, I’m certainly skeptical of the promises technology companies make, but I keep an open mind about the tools technology can offer that  can make me a better teacher.

But after walking through an exhibition hall larger than Lincoln Financial Field (because I was curious, I actually looked this up), part of me wanted to turn around and leave. Vendor after vendor with slick, attractive displays beckoned (the ISTE website boasted 4,500 different companies!). Freebies like pens, bags, USB drives, and candy were given away, while bigger prizes like iPads and Chromebooks were raffled off at regular intervals throughout the conference. And while I did pick up a few nice bags—I mean, really, what teacher can say no to a nice bag?—in the end, I walked away wondering, so what?

So what if your new online program can give me instant results about a student’s answers to a digital comprehension test? What I want to know is… who wrote the questions? What makes them worth answering? And why was that reading passage chosen? Who chose it? At one vendor booth, a teacher next to me asked the vendor these very questions. The vendor’s response? “We have our own team of experts, in-house, who do all the development.” Um, okay…  does your “team of experts” include teachers?

Over and over again, I met vendors who could talk to me about what their product did, but not how it could meaningfully affect classroom instruction—about its functions but not its applications. Or if they could explain its application, they could not explain to me why that was better than what I could already do with the (“old-fashioned”) tools I already have. Many new technologies can make things more convenient, but convenience isn’t an instructional goal.

I admit I was a little discouraged after my first morning at ISTE.  Thankfully, outside of the exhibit hall, many of the sessions I attended were less about the cool new gadget and more about what actually happens in the classroom. In fact, the best sessions were ones that focused on pedagogy rather than tools, and I’ll focus on those in my next post.

Perhaps because of my initial frustrations, I found myself at a session titled “Is it time to give up on the computer?” Featuring a panel of educational leaders that included Will Richardson—whose book Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts was my go-to resource for Web 2.0 tools when I first started exploring these new technologies—this session questioned the assumption that more technology was necessarily better. In the rush to bring more tech to every classroom, the panelists questioned

  1. what difference technology has actually made in terms of any significant impact on real learning, whether in the form of test scores or general knowledge (some research suggests it hasn’t);
  2. what happens when we allow for-profit corporations like Pearson make high-stakes educational decisions in the name of efficiency, measurement, and data; and
  3. what would happen if all of our conversations at this conference focused not on technology but on learning (what if ISTE was ISLE instead?).

Not surprisingly, many of their points resonated with me, especially after my experience walking through the exhibit hall. I find myself coming back to the same questions when it comes to integrating technology tools into my classroom—What is the problem that this tool solves? And does this tool actually help me do things better than before?

Lots to ponder…