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.