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Guest Post: “Four ISTE Challenges”


GUEST POST by Ben Curran

Ben Curran is co-founder of Engaging Educators, a company dedicated to helping educators shift toward 21st Century learning environments. He also works as a full time instructional coach at a school in Detroit, Michigan. He and his fellow Engaging Educator, Neil Wetherbee are currently writing a book for Eye on Education. You can check out their website, follow them on twitter, and read their blog.

In part one of this series, I discussed some of the many great things that happened at this year’s ISTE conference in San Diego. Today, I’ll share some of my concerns. Now, I don’t mean this in a negative spirit, my friends. In fact, let’s not call them concerns at all. Let’s refer to them as “challenges” instead. The following are four challenges I issue to those involved in future ISTEs, from presenters to exhibitors to ISTE itself…

Less Tools, More Teaching

Everyone loves a session on tech tools. In fact, they seem to flock to anything involving a Smackdown or a rapid-fire listing of web apps or websites. “60 Tools in 60 Minutes,” that sort of thing. I think web tools are great. Love them. Use them. Enjoy learning about new ones. But I feel a shift in the conversation is needed. I sincerely believe it is time to start talking less about tools (and apps and iPads and…) at huge events like ISTE, and more about the teaching. “It’s not the tool (or technology), it’s the teaching” has been a common refrain for a while now. Or at least it used to be. Have we strayed from that? I would challenge future presenters to come to future ISTE conferences to present about 21st Century teaching and learning, which, in my opinion, is not all about technology at all. In fact, it has less to do with technology and everything to do with critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, and engagement. I would love to see more sessions that focus directly on helping teachers shift their teaching methods and classroom expectations onto these and other critical areas.

The End of the Echo Chamber

I think it’s great to have a Bloggers’ Café, I really do. But what if ISTE found a way to expand the impact of social media and to become more inclusive and welcoming to new bloggers and tweeters (and taggers and pinners and…)? Because what the Bloggers’ Café becomes is a place for the “it” crowd to hang out. Sure, a lot of talking happens here, some amazing conversations. I had a few of them myself. BUT I fear that what’s happened is that this Café has become an exclusive club. There are no velvet ropes, but are they may be there in spirit.

How many first-time ISTE attendees ventured in and started chatting? How many even knew what the Café was? At my first ISTE, in 2010, I certainly didn’t. It takes a special kind of person to walk up to someone they’ve never met and just start talking. I know, all of us bloggers (me included) say, “Don’t be shy. Come up and say ‘hi.’” But that is far from an easy thing to do. I just worry that it becomes the same handful of people talking to each other year after year. That, I fear, is not what will bring about wide-scale change in education. We’ve got to figure out how to turn ISTE (and the education reform movement in general) into less of an echo chamber and more of an expansive canyon of inclusiveness. When the same 200 people are talking to each other, that’s not enough. We’ve got to find a way to get everyone at the conference involved in the discussion. Or at least find a way to empower them to have the opportunity. Right now, I’m not sure that I know how. And I’m okay with that. And I also think the ISTE folks do an amazing job already. But let’s raise the bar and bring more voices into the conversation. For a lot of teachers, they only get one trip to ISTE in their lifetime. Let’s deepen the impact. There has to be a way.

Diversity is Lacking

The population of ISTE attendees doesn’t come close to mirroring the demographics of our country or the world. I’m just going to come out and say it…there were a lot of white people there. How can we do more to diversify the participant population? I’m not sure I know the answer to this one. Is it important to do so? I definitely think so. A conference that mirrors the national population and that brings fresh and diverse voices into the conversation would be an amazing thing to be a part of. I feel like we are a long way from that, though.

The End of Excess

Nine out of ten edubloggers agree…ISTE has become too commercialized. HOWEVER, let’s remember that there is no ISTE without corporate sponsorship. It would look more like a gathering of 20 people in the basement of a random high school each June without the Exhibit Hall and corporate logos. So I can accept that.

That being said, I worry about many of the vendors’ intentions. Not a single one of the 20,000 educators attending ISTE is there to be amazed by the Exhibit Hall. But what’s happened is that it’s gone over the top in a way that is a little maddening. Yes, I went in the Hall. And, yes, I did talk to some vendors. But just a few. And only the ones that were there for the same reason I was—to change education and to make a difference in the lives of students. I talked to the authentic folks, and stayed away from the spectacle. And there was spectacle galore. Salespeople dressed as pilots, baseball players, and more. Someone in a bee costume, even. I think it’s possible that over-the-top displays have run their course, and I’d love to see a push to scale things back. Not in size…if you have the money, you should definitely get a booth. But rather in scope and spectacle. Let’s face it—times are tough. Huge displays and costumed insects aren’t what people need to see right now. So vendors, with budgets the way they are, how about toning it down and simply focusing on how you can help us help students?

I hope I have lived up to the duties of “official ISTE correspondent.” I want to thank Larry for the opportunity and thank all of you for reading. I look forward to future conversations.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I agree! While not able to attend ISTE this year, I have attended the past two years. My constant challenge as a teacher is how to use the tools to learn. They are great but new tools will always be coming along, as well as the need to think and problem solve. How to merge them is the question.

    I have never had the guts to go to the Blogger Cafe for the reasons you expressed. I find myself in the Twitter world as a bystander, unable to find a way into the conversation. This is not limited to the techies of ISTE but other areas of interest.

    Thank you for validating my observations. P.S. I limit myself to one visit to the vendors so that I can get as a many sessions in as possible but also I don’t make the decisions about technology in my district.

  2. Thank you for this post — I agree with much you shared.
    I wandered in — and almost immediately OUT of the exhibit hall. There was nothing there I truly needed on my campus that I could not call about if I needed to know more.
    I decided to spend more time at the POSTER sessions and talk 1 on 1 with students and teachers who truly cared about what they wanted to share – freely and willingly.

    I agree with your comments about Blogger’s Cafe in that it represents SUCH as small percentage of ALL ISTE attendees. However, I do not believe it is an exclusive club. But I do agree it could be daunting to someone on the outskirts. And we do need to fix this — quickly.

    But the reason I feel we need to fix this primarily is not for the benefit of those looking IN — but for the benefit of those on the inside. I respect so many people that were within “the velvet ropes” but I think there is a false belief that we are the movers and shakers of technology. We might be — within the bloggers cafe — but to 95% of the attendees — we are the unknowns. Harsh — but true.

    I worry as well about the diversity — yet, feel that each year it is improving. However, it is not just a color issue — it is a gender issue as well.

    Finally, I struggle with the commercialism of ISTE — I truly would appreciate knowing more of the cost to run this conference — I paid approximately $250 to attend — lets multiply that by 18000 attendees and that is roughly 4,500,000 dollars. Now lets add in the special event costs and also the price vendors pay to have a booth. Counter that with the costs of keynotes, dinners, salaries, etc.

    I know that there are costs involved with a conference — but wonder how much we could cut those costs to have a very good conference but with much less commercialism.

    Just my thoughts.

  3. Thank you for writing this article. I loved ISTE2012, however it was my first time at ISTE and I would agree with every challenge you pointed out. I did walk over to the Bloggers Cafe at the end of my second day. I had been told that the best part of ISTE was networking. There were several people there in deep conversation and I was not comfortable just sitting down next to them to join in on their conversation. So I left and did not return. It did not appear to be for newbies like myself.

    As for the workshops, the ones I appreciated taught me how to help my students be creative, critical thinkers. The two sessions I was disappointed with were the ones that threw out a lot of tools, apps, and websites. These are great, but in reality who has the time to implement 60 new tools so that they are meaningful.

    I also got sucked into the Exhibition Hall where my tag was constantly being scanned. All I can think about is the truckload of junk mail that will be waiting for me when I get back to work. Which also makes me think that with all the technology at ISTE I am not sure why we were handed so much paper.

    One of my favorite thing to do was visit the Student Showcase area and listen as elementary through high school students explained me their projects. This was inspiring and highlighted what the conference is all about: creating students who are critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and innovators that enjoy sharing their learning with the world!

  4. Ben,

    You’ve really got me thinking about several important aspects of ISTE on which I had yet to reflect! I too enjoy learning about great technology tools and also believe the focus of ISTE should be to help teachers shift their practice towards 21st century learning, thus child centered and passion based learning. I must have attended different workshops from you because I heard many educators talk about this shift such as Will Richardson, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Rob Mancabelli, Patrick Larkin, David Warlick, Chris Lehmann as well as others I can’t think of right now. That’s what I really loved about my first ISTE…it was teacher centered as there were several options to choose from depending on the needs of each teacher. I suppose the choices may be problematic for educators who aren’t aware they need to update and change their teaching practices…but are there many such teachers who attend ISTE? (I’m truly curious and most likely oblivious…) However, yes the big idea should be on the shift of teaching and learning rather than on the tools.

    Quite frankly, right now I’m embarrassed that I spent so much time in the Bloggers’ Cafe because I’m far from being in the ISTE “in” crowd. I aspire to become a more connected educator inorder to grow as a teacher (and learner); hence, I thought the Bloggers’ Cafe was the perfect vehicle. My friend, and personal ISTE guide, Steve Gagnon, told me it was a great place to hang out and physically meet all of the educators who have helped me become a better teacher. I sat down next to Jen Wagner in the cafe on Monday afternoon and she introduced me to several educators; thus my PLN immediately multiplied, for which I’m extremely grateful. Perhaps the cafe should be enlarged to make everyone feel welcome in attempt to eleviate some negative preconceived notions?

    Finally, I really agree with your thoughts about the Exhibit Hall. I only walked through half of it because it was so overwhelming. To my dismay, I saw some services being sold that seemed to be a waste of money and I hope no one fell for the scams. Is there an effective filter the vendors must go through inorder to get into ISTE? (Or is ISTE so desperate for money that they let anyone in?) I wonder if the Exhibit Hall can be divided into various sections such as online tools, tangible products and companies that promote philosophical and educational shifts? I heard Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach speak to inquiring educators at the Powerful Learning Practice booth and her mission is clear and genuine; she is more interested in fixing education and helping teachers and students become successful, passionate life long learners rather than making money. I totally agree you, ISTE needs to make money to be successful; however, the Exhibit Hall needs to change…

    I appreciate you for pushing my thinking,

  5. Ben:

    I’m glad you brought up the diversity situation at the ISTE conferences; I attended about half of the old NECC conferences (before the name change to ISTE) from 1986 to 2004, and the situation seemed to be the same. Very little diversity among attendees. I looked into the published demographic statistics about attendees (see for last year’s) but they do not include race/ethnicity. One factor, though, could be location. According to the census bureau, San Diego is 77% white; Philadephia, site of last year’s ISTE conference, is 46% white.

    It would be good for there to be a more diverse population attending ISTE. Given that the attendees are educators, I would hope that as the demographics of educators change the attendees at ISTE and other conferences will as well.

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  8. Ben
    I read your comments with interest as a first time ISTE attendee and presenter. Terry Jacka and myself delivered a model lesson which we believe addresses exactly what you are asking for ’21st century teaching and learning’. Participants at our session left with an actual lesson that they could implement immediately with their students along with a number of other ideas. We conducted our presentation as a model lesson, and reassured everyone that we were not selling anything, but came with ideas to share. As international presenters (from Australia) we were expecting to be exposed to more like-thinking sessions. Do not get me wrong, we both learnt new concepts that we are going to further develop, but our session did not get selected by a sig group, was not sponsored, was on the last day and unfortunately in retrospect had a title that did not start with the letter ‘a’ and therefore many missed out. We came with a wealth of knowledge and experience to share; we have been BYOD school since January 2011 and have over 1000 iPads in our school. Having been given the opportunity to present along with the very positive feedback we received, we are intending to present again at conferences in the next two months, knowing full-well that we are educators who are forging ahead with the ever-changing challenges that face both students and teachers. The exhibition hall was overwhelming! ISTE 2012 was fantastic.

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