Wasting opportunities at ed tech conferences

Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.

It’s super fun to meet new people and see our friends at ed tech conferences. Sometimes they have photo booths and we can wear funny mustaches, Viking helmets, polka dot bow ties, and giant sunglasses. We get to hang out, eat a meal together, talk, share, laugh… all good stuff. It’s cool to see everyone having a great time and sharing their photos and thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

But I think that at most ed tech conferences we’re also missing opportunities. That session on the latest Google Chrome extensions isn’t going to change a kid’s life. That tools smackdown isn’t likely to make students’ learning much better (no, really, it isn’t). And those sessions on 60 iPad apps in 60 minutes? Well…

With rare exception, 80 to 90% of the sessions at most of our ed tech conferences are about extensions, apps, and tools and only 10 to 20% of the sessions are about nontrivial learning and teaching. Or leadership. Or systems change.

[I know some people likely will disagree with me on this breakdown. Fair enough. Grab Bloom’s taxonomy or Webb’s depth of knowledge levels, run through the session titles and descriptions of a recent ed tech conference, and make your own determination about what falls into the deep, meaningful learning category and what falls into the tools / low-level learning / ‘oh, tech is so fun and cool, look what you can do!’ category. Let me know what you find out.]

Oh, what’s the harm? A few sessions on apps or tools won’t hurt anyone, will they?

Probably not. Even when they’re the vast majority, not a small minority. But every time we just show how to use tools or apps or whatever – or our focus is only on low-level learning (or, dare we admit it, behavior control) – or we shill for some vendor – or we spend significant time on ‘OMG, this is so dang cool I might wet my pants!’ – we miss an opportunity to fight for significant grounding in and modeling of more substantive student learning. Every time we extoll the use of a technology tool for trivia or minutiae, we miss an opportunity to demonstrate how technology can be used for meaningful, cognitively-complex outcomes rather than routine cognitive work. Every time we decline to model the usage of technology to learn deep disciplinary practices, processes, and concepts, we reinforce the status quo of factual recall and procedural regurgitation and foster the idea that ’technology for technology’s sake’ is just fine.

We have entire ed tech conferences dedicated to the latest and greatest tools, apps, and extensions. Educators sign up for them in droves, often paying $200 to $300 per head to attend. They’re fun, they’re cool, and some organizations are making a LOT of money with this model. But next time you’re at an ed tech conference, ask yourself “Are these offerings really moving the needle in terms of systemic change in classrooms, teacher practice, or school systems?” (which is what we need)

I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon. I like ed tech conferences too, quite a bit. But I think our face-to-face time is rare and precious. So when there’s very little discussion or modeling of learning – deep, meaningful learning – I think that we’re missing important chances to change practice and move systems. We’re ignoring the opportunity costs. What could we have done – what could we have accomplished, together – instead? Ed tech conferences should be fun, but they also should be productive and maybe could be transformative.

I wish we had far fewer tools sessions and much more discussion about technology for the purpose of what?, with an emphasis on the what of deeper learning. What do you think?

Image credit: Opportunities, seaternity

UPDATE: Please also see An #itec14 apology

105 Responses to “Wasting opportunities at ed tech conferences”

  1. Scott, totally agree. In fact, I wrote this about large ed tech conferences a few years back and took an even more dramatic approach: We need to dump them all together!


    Thanks for the morning read.

  2. I often wondered why there are “ed tech” conferences at all! It seems to me that ed tech is a tool and should be embedded into other learning. By isolating them in a ed tech specific conference, it only isolates the ed tech even more.

    I wrote a little more here about it http://holtthink.tumblr.com/post/42355058391

  3. I think you are missing the point. YES we need to talk about deeper learning, but there are still folks (in 2014) who are still just dipping their toe in the pool. We wouldn’t just toss a kid into the deep end of the pool without some lessons and some precautionary first steps. Before a teacher can get to deep learning, they need to know what is out there. They need to wade in the shallow end and test the waters. I agree that it is time to focus on deeper learning..but we need to have opportunities to play as well. Hope to see you both at ISTE15 😉

  4. Kristin, thanks for the friendly pushback. Did you just advocate for a bunch of tools sessions?!

    How about a vision of where we’re trying to head with technology integration? How about modeling how deeper learning can be accomplished with these powerful tools by walking folks through what it can look like – in depth? Sure, have some sessions too for folks who are still ‘dipping their toe’ about how the tools work. That’s a necessary stage in the learning process. But when 80-90% of sessions still are at that level, we’re missing opportunities to move things forward.

    Technology for the purpose of WHAT? As long as our answers primarily are ‘for tech’s sake’ (e.g., the tools themselves) and/or ‘for low-level learning,’ we’re never going to get where we need to be.

    • Scott, I totally agree with your assessment of the state of edtech conferences, but to Kristin’s point, I do think that some of the tech-centered conferences to serve some purpose (e.g., exposing late-adopters to current educational technologies, serving as a meeting place to connect practitioners with similar concerns about edtech across geographies, proving a space for people who arguably receive barely-enough time/funding for professional development to tap into the culture of edtech, etc.). That being said, you totally hit the nail on the head – not enough of these conferences cover ample ground with regards to pedagogy, learning outcomes, or any of the other really important research that it going on in edtech (digital education inequities, hello?!?). Still there ARE some amazing conferences that do span the breadth of edtech, from tools to practice to theory (DML and AERA come quickly to mind). Unfortunately for most teachers, it’s my experience that these larger-scale conferences are often geared towards more “academic” topics, and perhaps for this same reason, fail to attract a significant proportion of teachers or admins. This also exposes one glaringly real issue in education – the gap between research and practice. It is far too common for much of the research on instruction, engagement, learning outcomes, assessment (especially that which focuses on the role of technology in those areas) to stay “hidden” within the world of research and the academy, and not cycle back into actual classrooms. If more teachers had time/support to engage with some of the deeper-level learning theories and strategies that edtech research has helped inform in the past couple of decades, we might not still be stuck in this churn of low-level, tech-centered professional development. I share your frustration, but I think it speaks to a larger issue in the field of education.

      • Nick, you said, “If more teachers had time/support to engage with some of the deeper-level learning theories and strategies that edtech research has helped inform in the past couple of decades, we might not still be stuck in this churn of low-level, tech-centered professional development.”

        Wouldn’t ed tech conferences be the perfect place for this to happen?

        • Conferences would be a great place for teachers to brainstorm and share ideas about teaching techniques and amazing projects. Instead, they run from session to session like a speed dater.

      • Nick, you said, “If more teachers had time/support to engage with some of the deeper-level learning theories and strategies that edtech research has helped inform in the past couple of decades, we might not still be stuck in this churn of low-level, tech-centered professional development.”

        Wouldn’t ed tech conferences be the perfect places for this to happen?

        • Thanks for the follow up reply, Scott. Yes – ed tech conferences definitely are the perfect place for this to happen, but I think it (conversations about how ed tech can inform deeper teaching and learning experiences) needs to start at the institutional level (or happen in parallel between institutions and conferences). Without schools placing (more) emphasis on professional development, pedagogy, and research-in-practice, I think many conferences will likely be seen an “escape” from the regular day-to-day, rather than a critical part of being a teacher. In other words, if teachers aren’t already being supported in learning about ed tech at the workplace, conferences will be a place for them to “catch up,” rather than go deeper into how ed tech can inform better teaching.

  5. Having sat on edtech conference committees, I have never heard this conversation from the top – expressing such a vision. The conversations are largely around numbers, balance of sessions, vendors, sponsors, profits, big draw keynoters (that often have little to do with a more significant vision for learning)…

    As with similar issues in the classroom, it’s a leadership issue. If it’s not a priority at the top, if those at the top don’t understand and are not passionate about such a vision, then we’ll continue to see only small pockets of change at the session or classroom level.

    The whole model stinks…

    • Thanks for sharing this perspective, Steve. You’re right that it starts with the conference organizers and their vision (or lack thereof) for different types of adult learning experiences. And thus the status quo-reinforcing, replicative tech usage will continue.

      Wouldn’t it be great if we educators took a collective stand for deeper, more meaningful ed tech learning opportunities? Given the vast numbers of folks who seem quite content with ‘sit and get’ tool push-outs, I’m not holding my breath…

    • The antidote to frenetic conferences is the unconference. By far some of my best interactions have been at unconferences like NYSAIS technology retreat and SLA Educon. Attendees create the agenda and either offer to share knowledge or create sessions hoping to learn.

      • I love unconferences myself but many really get into the 60 apps in 60 minutes mode of presentation. But they are especially good when they get into open discussions about implementation and how to use things in the classroom.

  6. This is a great point – I was recently at a presentation on 3D printing in the middle school classroom. It was a thrilling conversation until the dialog turned to the properties of various filaments.

    It’s a hard balance to strike – perhaps that was the best information available on filaments and a web search would have wasted all kinds of time?

    I’m energized by the stories and best practices that emerge when teachers share the transformative they helped create with their students.

  7. I’m energized by those too, Hans. I’m even more energized when I get a chance to experience first-hand as a ‘student’ the types of deeper learning that are possible with these powerful technology tools. Model it for me and let me experience what we want students to experience, don’t just tell / show it to me…

    3D printing is cool. But how does it help kids learn in deep, significant ways? If I got to attend a session like that, I’d be thrilled.

  8. I couldn’t agree more Scott. I just facilitated a 2 hour workshop at an edtech conference and have a quick story that is a perfect example of this. My session was titled “Transform Teaching and Learning with an Authentic Audience.” There was very little mention of “cool tools” or apps in the session description. Guess how many people attended? 4 :-/

    One of my attendees came up to me after the workshop and said, “I saw the title of this session and I thought, oh good, I can get caught up on emails and grading because this is session sounds boring and I have to be here anyway.” Of course, she was feverishly taking notes and asked a ton of questions when she realized what we were actually talking about.

    Funny thing is that this same teacher went out her way to find me at the end of the conference to tell me “that was hands down the most valuable session I attended this week.” Why? Because my two hour workshop focused on student outcomes and pedagogy as the driver for integrating technology.

    First, I explained what an authentic audience is, and how it increases intrinsic motivation and student engagement. We also discussed the importance of recursive feedback and how tech affords teachers with more opportunities to assess FOR learning, rather than OF learning.

    Once everyone was in the right mindset, then we talked about how to leverage edtech to provide a platform for students to interact with an authentic audience. I also make a point of asking my attendees to look at the titles of the other sessions and inevitably they mostly consist of the latest and greatest tools, apps, and extensions.

    I recently wrote an article trying to propose an alternate method for teachers “Cool Tools Are Fun, But Learning Should Come First
    Some teachers can get caught up in the latest ed- tech resources and forget to prioritize educational value above all else.” http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2014/06/cool-tools-are-fun-learning-should-come-first

    I love your work and I was thrilled when I read this article. Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Eric,
      Great points, and thanks so much for the link. It’s obvious that this is a drum we’ll have to keep beating, because it’s very easy to lose momentum. We went iPad in our middle school and for some, it felt like that was the end goal; but in fact, it was just the start of our re-learning process.

      • You crystallized this whole discussion thread, “it felt like [Edtech] was the end goal; but in fact, it was just the start of our re-learning process.” I’m going to Tweet that!!

    • Exactly. There’s no reason we can’t ground the use of these tools deeply in sound and even forward-thinking pedagogy. That’s way better than sessions on ‘how to use Google Sheets.’

      Sounds like a great workshop. Hope you get more than 4 attendees at your next one!

    • Eric, the first time I presented at a tech conference was on incorporating technology across content areas. The 10 that attended were really engaged but I was disappointed with the turn out. I looked around and saw the sessions with the words iPad in it were overflowing with people and I wanted that large crew too. The next year I added iPads into my description(while still covering a lot of the same material) and had a packed house. Now you can add Google into your session title and see the same result.

      • This may be why our profession has lost prominence – vendors and for-profit testing agencies set the agenda. Name another industry where third-parties are in charge (other than healthcare)?

  9. Kristin makes a good point about folks who are just learning. But even those folks–maybe especially those folks– need to see how the tech can be actually applied/adapted/integrated with real content to create real learning opportunity. As a secondary social studies teacher, when I see “cool apps,” I struggle with how would I use this in a history classroom. Too often, these types of sessions are made too general for me, or they apply more to elementary school classrooms, or for math/science classrooms. I need tech sessions taught by experts in my content area.

    • I think it is important to frame the tech in pedagogy. I would prefer to hold a session on developing formative assessments instead of an hour-long session on polling apps. Then, I could showcase tech that assists teachers in formatively assessing students more accurately and efficiently. It is important to ask a teacher what they want to do before we prescribe tech to them. Otherwise we see tech dictating the lesson instead of supporting it.

      • Ryan – best answer so far. Two things that come to mind: (1) it is far easier to put together a presentation on how to use ____ then it is on how to teach/assess/engage/collaborate/ with the support of ____ … in reality, learning to tools is the easy part. (2) Those who put together edtech conferences want big attendance draws in sessions. Sadly, the “Cool Tool Duel” always packs the house. As Eric above points out, I’ve also had what I thought were pretty meaty sessions focused on learning where only a handful show up. Some of that is the art of writing the session description. Some of that is the culture of the conference and the edtech community. Both can change.

  10. I couldn’t agree more. Technology is shiny and sexy and in many cases has become a status symbol. Parents want their students to attend the schools that are state of the art with the latest technology, but they rarely question whether the tech improves learning outcomes. We also run the risk of losing teachers with sound pedagogy if we don’t spend more time discussing ways to integrate technology seamlessly within the teaching methods. Most experienced teachers don’t want to take a risk on a shiny piece of plastic or metal when they are getting good results without it. Others are scared to use something the students know more about than they do. We need sound research to justify that what we are doing with EdTech is moving us forward. The bottom line is that if teachers and students aren’t benefiting from, or better off for using technology then what are we doing here?

  11. Completely agree. I also get where Kristin is coming from. But why not do workshops on the purpose (as in Scott’s reply) first and the tools second? When we plan for student learning, should be starting with the tool and then deciding the objective/purpose? Not in my humble opinion. One of the reasons I loved Scott’s 4 hour workshop at NESA was because it was about the learning but then we had time to lesson plan & collaborate to learn about tools we could use.

    When I’m creating presentations I try my hardest to focus on the greater purpose and make them workshops, not sit and gets. If we’re going to take an hour with Google Hangouts, I want it to be hands on and make sure teachers leave with a) a successful hangout under their belt (which can be challenging) & b) ways they can use it to enhance student learning.

    I recently attended Learning 2 for the first time. It is an EdTech conference like no other. It really was about the learning and connecting, not the tools. It’s for international educators, but if you ever have the time – GO!

  12. Absolutely! I worked in educational technology at a community college for 8.5 years before moving into assessment and curriculum at the same institution. That move provided a great deal of perspective. Curriculum and assessment are at the core of any education institution; the focus on educational technology could/should be how can the technology deepen or enrich the formative and summative assessment – the learning process. Yet, how often is “assessment” the focus of a presentation at an educational technology conference? To some extent it seems to me, many educational technology groups within institutions and the larger educational technology companies “miss the boat” on what’s important; they marginalize the value of their own product or services by framing it as “ed tech” and focusing on the technology; that limits their strategic vision a great deal.

  13. If anyone can appreciate this, it will be the group of folks engaging in this thread. Check out my latest sketch if you have a second. I think it sums up everything we’re talking about in a single image: http://goo.gl/OZMVXZ

  14. So if so many of us automatically agree (and so quickly)…then why is the general sentiment that the tech comes first? How do we change the mindset of what seems to be the majority of educators et al?

  15. If you haven’t been to a Learning 2 conference you should definitely look into it for next October – powerful conversations with technology now taking a back seat. You can follow the twitter hashtag #learning2 or the website for more information. It’s the best PD i have had and i have attended for the past 4 years. http://learning2.org/

  16. The other big issue here is format and context. If you have a hour and put a bunch of strangers in a room, it’s very difficult to “do deep” In meaningful ways. I know, I’ve tried. The conversations we need to have require more time and understanding than 1 hour. It’s similar to the argument about presenters modeling bad pedagogy by lecturing. Much of good interactive teaching requires relationships and community that can’t be done in an hour.

    Conferences represent one kind of learning. In their current form, it’s difficult to do more than low level stuff.

    The only ones that go beyond that are ones like Educon but the secret sauce of that conference is a pre built community.

    I’m with you in principle but don’t think it’s just about different sessions. If it was, I’d have a lot more accepted. 😉

    • I agree Dean, the format and structure of a conference has a lot to do with what can be accomplished. It seems the larger the conference the less personal and disconnected things get. (I haven’t been to a conference in the US though so I really can’t comment on much of the conferences many are referencing) As you said though I think the community aspect is pretty important as well. Attending a conference that promotes and fosters learning communities can really blow peoples minds. It can also motivate newbies to begin to engage with these communities. Sometimes people need to connect a name with a real live face. Well run conferences can facilitate these things.

    • Kristin notes further down in this thread that ISTE does offer a variety of different sessions and formats that allow for varied learning experiences by educators. And that’s true. Unfortunately I’d argue that whatever workshops, playgrounds, poster sessions, etc. that focus more on better, deeper learning are still drowned out by those that are all about tools, tools, tools!

      I think the rough percentages I outlined in my original post are still true for ISTE too. Because of the size of the conference, though, there are maybe a few more opportunities to find some things that are different. Until you go into the vendor hall.

  17. Unless I read too quickly, I don’t see anyone mentioning the fact that many ed tech conferences don’t select session proposals unless they FOCUS ON THE TECH. That’s very frustrating for those of us who want to focus on “more substantive student learning.”

    My workaround for this has been to write proposals that seem tool-centered, but then present or facilitate more about the student learning with an “oh, by the way, these are examples of some tools that you can use.” Those sessions allow me to model, share methodology, discuss with the attendees how students are learning, reflecting, etc. So far, I’ve felt really good about these types of sessions, and so have participants.

    It’s just sad that we kind of have to trick our way into the ed tech conferences this way, right? Tech never comes first in my classroom, yet we use tech often.

    • I just said the same thing – as well as what Scott says below your comment – in my comment further down this page.

      We do have to sneak our way in — propose a tool-focused session and then sneak in content around pedagogy and effective learning practices.

      And — to Scott’s point — yes, what the attendees want is part of the problem as well. In my post I gave a clear example from my experience at ISTE 2013. Will and I even had a conversation about what we both observed in our sessions (compared to what we observed in the other sessions around ours that were in the same rooms but focused exclusively on tools) at some point later that day.

      From here on out, when I do propose sessions, I’ll be doing so in a stealthy ninja mode 🙂

  18. As I said on Twitter, I don’t think the conferences are the problem. I think the expectations of the attendees is the issue. If attendees wanted pedagogy and deep learning, then EduCon would be at convention centers and ISTE would be in a school building.

  19. The other thing is the sessions you are advocating are hard. People don’t want hard, they want quick and easy. Typically conferences can’t address “hard”. For many of the reasons I stated in my earlier comment. If I only have an hour, I want easy too. It’s why people like Twitter over blogging. Blogging is hard, Twitter is easier.

    • Here’s a session description that is sure to draw a crowd: “Come and have your beliefs and practices challenged toward the goal of more meaningful and relevant learning for all. You may get angry or leave uncomfortable, frustrated or even confused. That’s okay. Embrace the discomfort.”

      • I think this gets to my point below about our own inabilities as educators to facilitate deeper learning. If most schools are still fostering factory models of regurgitative learning, interest in (and a felt need for) sessions about richer, more robust, perhaps tech-infused teaching and schooling will be scant.

    • Completely agree! Seems to be human nature to want quick & easy. Who wants to be challenged?! I don’t get the impression that it’s too many of us.

      LOVE it Steve!

    • Agreed, Dean! When I ask colleagues for feedback as I prepare presentations or workshops, I get the entire range…
      “I’d like more tech!”
      “It’s just a tool!”
      “Teachers want something they can copy & implement right away!”

      I feel most folks commenting here are educators who always focus on the learning but just happen to be tech-heads too.

      As Eric Patnoudes put it,
      “… workshop focused on student outcomes and pedagogy as the driver for integrating technology.” #nailonthehead

  20. What percent of teachers/administrators attended an ed tech conference this year? Ever?

    While this discussion is interesting, it borders on being “dangerously irrelevant.”

    If we want to change what teaching and learning look like in our schools, conferences – ed tech or otherwise – are not going to move the needle very much. At the moment, I’m not sure what will.

    • Just before I left for Learning 2 last month I had a teacher say to me “I’ve never thought about attending conferences for PD.” I respect that teacher and think he’s actually pretty good. But really?! He’d NEVER thought about attending conferences for PD?! Blew my mind.

    • Which is why I don’t put a pile of stock in conferences anyway. They aren’t the route to big change. I think at best they can provide nuggets of support as well, I do know many people who have had their practiced changed by a big picture talk…like “Did You Know” for example.

      I think this is about recognizing the limitations and purposes of any conference. Certainly they aren’t the vehicle for system changes. At best they can spark change for individuals and provide a few ideas to keep them going. Is that so bad?

      • It might be bad. You have to look at opportunity costs. What if we spent all the time we spend at conferences – and all the money – differently?

        Those individuals who may or may not be changed go back to their districts and . . . what? Sure, it’s always good for an individual to perhaps shift their thinking a bit, but if it doesn’t result in any kind of meaningful change, then I think it’s a waste of time and resources.

        Show me one instance where Did You Know? has really, truly, meaningfully impacted a large group of students over a sustained period of time?

      • Dean, you said, “I think this is about recognizing the limitations and purposes of any conference. Certainly they aren’t the vehicle for system changes. At best they can spark change for individuals and provide a few ideas to keep them going. Is that so bad?”

        No, as I said in my original post, not a lot of harm there. But it’s an opportunity cost. If you added up all the time and money that’s spent on ed tech conferences, that’s easily MILLIONS of dollars and personnel hours spent. What do we get out of all that? A few new Chrome extensions, some more drill-and-kill apps for our iPads, and captive audiences for vendor pitches?

        I think we probably can do better with all of that effort, energy, time, and money. But, as others have noted, we have to be intentional and purposeful and design for it. And that’s likely not 50-minute time blocks combined with messages from conference organizers that tools sessions are quite okay.

    • AMEN Karl!!!

  21. Great comment Dean and Karl. I totally agree with the lack of community being a barrier to deep learning about pedagogy. Maybe we should start by not calling them tech conferences. IMO there’s education/curriculum and technology don’t exist is silos anymore. This is modern teaching and learning. Seymour Papert has been talking about this since at least 1990 if not longer. “Why are we still having conferences on computers in education, we don’t have conferences on pencils in education.”

  22. I think there’s a major disconnect with people in education leadership roles such as administrators/curriculum folks and IT departments. Across the country there is a power struggle between these groups.
    Furthermore, admin are trying to lead something they don’t fully understand themselves. If they did, they would not buy thousands of devices without any consideration of student outcomes or budgeting the resources needed for PD. I see it on a daily basis. This article does a great job at unveiling some of the problems that the lack of strategic planning leads to.


    • Lack of planning/vision is happening all over the world. It seems like you can almost always bring tech implementation ‘failures’ (and by failure I mean not focused on learning) back to a lack of vision. The ISTE Essential Conditions (and other such documents) are out there for a reason.

  23. Amen! I am fairly new to the EdTech world (fully anyway, I’ve been a clasroom teacher for years). I went to ISTE this summer and truly felt like I was missing something. Very few of the sessions were truly about the teaching portion of it. A lot of IT, a lot of “product placement”, but very little about the effect it is having on teaching and learning.

    Here’s hoping this changes for the better in years to come!

  24. At the risk of alienating myself from a very important group (teachers), I agree, Scott. The comments here are helpful and I have attended interesting sessions at conferences but there does seem to be something missing. My colleagues and I teach a “tech lab” as part of the general methods classes in our teacher prep program. Everything–everything–we do is tied into teaching and learning. And, after each class/project, students write a blog entry, reflecting on the project–how might they might use in a classroom; how could or could not this project get to the purpose or goal they wanted to reach; how can this model enhance a lesson or engage students differently than a traditional paper-and-pencil activity? From mind-mapping to blogging to building a classroom website to Twitter for professional development, we remind the pre-service teachers that technology is a tool, just like a pencil. It’s not how the pencil works that matters; it is what the person using the pencil does with it.

    I appreciate this conversation. And I have wondered over the past week or two: what can we do in teacher preparation to best prepare teaching candidates? What can we do to advance them into this profession when there is such a disconnect between those who use technology as a pedagogical resource and those who don’t?


  25. Christy, it sounds like your program is on the right track. I love to hear how teaching and learning are the focus and that tech is a tool. I’ve had similar conversations with the university I attended about the best ways for preparing pre-service teachers for technology integration. IMHO it goes back the idea that tech and curriculum do not exist in silos. I’ll quote Chris Lehmann, “Technology should be oxygen, ubiquitous, necessary and invisible.” Rather than having a “technology for teachers” class, it should be so engrained into the teacher prep courses that it’s not even a topic of conversation. It’s simply the new way of doing things. However, do not mistake what I’m saying to mean that tech should be used 24/7.

  26. I could not agree more. I stopped attending and presenting at ed tech conferences a few years ago for this reason. I have attended and presented at instruction based conferences. The focus needs to be on instructional best-practices. Topics of presentations needs to be on formative assessment, data driven decision making, questioning, instructional strategies, differentiating instruction,critical thinking and problem solving. Only then should we explore some tech tools that provide us opportunities to improve our implementation of the above mentioned.

    The schools that make a difference and evoke change improve in these areas. They are not the ones that utilize the newest Chrome apps and Tweet about it.

  27. Scott,
    You’re correct on so many levels; it’s just so easy to be pulled aside by the bright and shiny, and miss the fact that the technology is (should be) the vessel that facilitates learning instead of the end goal. And, at least at the Middle level, one cannot discuss technology without also discussing Social Media and its place, and then there’s Assessment/testing and grades, all of which need to re-examined in the light of new tech. Unfortunately in these cases it seems that McLuhan was right in that the medium is the message. At the same time, there are so many teachers that need help with the very, very basics. I just came from a two day teacher’s conference, and one of the most popular workshops was on how to navigate Apple’s suite of Pages, Notes, and Keynote. It was packed with teachers who had no idea. It was the same in other workshops. So the challenge, as has been so eloquently stated by others before me, is multi-faceted; visionary leaders creating opportunities in their schools; making the right tech available and providing inservice for teachers; finding champions in the school to support and mentor those behind; and keeping the main thing the main thing where pedagogy is concerned.

    • I’ve got no beef with some sessions for folks who, for whatever reason, still don’t even know the basics (like your sessions that you mention here about a tool like Keynote). But we can ground even those in authentic learning purposes. Keynote for the purpose of what? Keynote? Or helping students become powerful presenters?

      A session on Keynote focuses on the features of the software. A focus on helping students become powerful presenters focuses on effective speaking and presentation skills and how to captivate an audience and how to get beyond stupid bullet points and, oh, by the way, here’s how Keynote can help with some of those. That would be a much better session, right?

      • Scott,
        Replying to this in light of the heartfelt apology you posted this morning, the subject about which you are still totally correct. And yes, the sessions SHOULD be about the ‘higher order’ uses of Keynote(and the like) to make our students global collaborators and masters of their own brand. I was, before my middle school days, a high school English teacher, and although there would have been a time when my students would have needed to learn how to hold and use a pencil or pen, but I didn’t spend my time on that. I tried, rather, to inspire them as to how the implement could give poetic voice to their inner selves, write their narrative, and wield it as a tool to be change agents. Can you imagine a conference where we taught teachers how to hold writing tools better? The best pencil cases? Why a fountain pen is better than ball point? Ok. That’s the Monday morning rant. Apology accepted and lets keep pushing for better Edtech conferences because you can’t really talk about Edtech withough talking about the pedagogy that should be driving it’s uses.

  28. Yep, I agree 100% and voiced my concerns about it too here…


    I agree with Dean that this is a hard idea and requires thought…lots of it. I also agree with Scott Floyd in that the expectations of attendees are so low however I do think that we can come to some sort of happy “not so medium” and tier conferences for low to high level thinking. I’m just thinking about the schools that are still waiting on the conference to learn and aren’t seeking deeper thought outside of attending a conference.

    With that said, when we put more emphasis on “creative titling” than actual deep thinking content, we aren’t helping at all and that is from the conference planning phase.

    I haven’t submitted this to Educon yet even though I thought about it. I’m wondering where and how we can change this when the big state conferences are very much in the mindset of “The more google/ipad the better”.

  29. The first NECC (National Educational Computing Conference) — the conference was eventually taken over by ISTE — was in 1979. The first CUE event (Computer Using Educators) was held that same year. So we’ve been doing this “let’s introduce people to ed-tech by showcasing tools” thing for 35+ years now.

    How’s it working out?

    • If I had to say ‘amen’ to any comment in this thread, this would be the one. Well said, Audrey.

      How are our current ed tech conference models working for us? Are we getting the outcomes that we’d like? Because we are sure getting the outcomes that our conferences are designed for… Is variable, sporadic, primarily low-level tech integration all that we’re aiming for? And if not, can’t we at least try to focus on better learning and integration at our conferences instead of conceding to the relentless stream of tools and apps?

  30. There are numerous, amazing comments and insights in this discussion thread. Thank you, everyone.

    Is it possible (probable) that many/most of the presenters at ed tech conferences are tool-savvy but are not very skilled at non-regurgitative learning? To say this another way, do most ed tech conference presenters have the capacity to facilitate / showcase deeper, tech-infused learning for students? Can they walk the walk themselves? It’s hard to facilitate what you don’t know how to do yourself…

  31. Coming to EduCon this year, Scott?

    Proposals for conversations are due on Nov. 1st. 🙂

  32. Great post and comments. I would add that I’ve sat in a couple of those 60 apps in 60 minutes presentations and noted the wow, excitement they generate. But I’ve also asked folks around me, so what will you do with any of these apps in your teaching/learning? Answers are usually shrugs of shoulders. But it was a fun presentation! Its a kin to the wow of tech in general and the apparent assumption that if you use it the learning will come. How long have we been doing that?

  33. Thanks for this post, Scott! As a teacher librarian who’s supposed to have something to do with tech integrations in my assigned schools, I’ve had similar feelings and find myself defending why I choose not to attend some of these conferences (I won’t mention the one ending today by saying ITEC2104). To most of the “tech integration” I’ve seen lately, I have to still ask, “Why?” and “How will this improve student understanding?”. I love my iPad but am tired of iPad apps what are used for “learning centers” by classroom teachers. And, I’m tired of hearing about Skype sessions that do not do anything to enhance student learning. You hit my nail on the head.

  34. Agree with a lot of what is said here on both “sides.” I think the question ultimately is one of context. EdTech conferences must ultimately concern “tools” to some degree. Any EdTech conference is an answer to the question “what are some ways I can use technology in education” the issue is that this question is very broad. What do we mean by “education”? do we mean exam driven education or “project based” education? Do we mean K12 education or Higher Ed? The broader that education term the more unfocused the audience is, the less community the conference has and consequently the less personally connected to the conference a participant will feel.

    The reason why some conferences bring more meaning to educators than others is because those that attend have a somewhat shared concept of what “education” should be. There is a sense that they are joining together to just “use technology better” but to “make learning better” there is an alignment between their vision for learning and their belief that technology can support that vision. These kinds of events can be powerful, transformative and renewing for educators.

    Other conferences such as ISTE and perhaps some of the tools focused events don’t really presume such a specific audience with a shared vision. However, I don’t think it doesn’t mean they don’t have value. At an ISTE session I might be sitting next to a college professor who is a big supporter of testing regimes and “teacher proof curriculum.” We are not going to have a lot in common and may even disagree on most things in education. He’s not a member of my “tribe”… But – we can still learn a thing or two about Google Spreadsheet mailmerge – and that might be just the thing I’m looking for.

  35. I agree with you completely Scott. Just had a short chat about this on Facebook recently with a few other folks… It frustrates me as well, and while many of us can and do try to take the conversation to a higher level when we do have the opportunity to speak at conferences, we have to contend with:

    1) Conference organizers accepting any and all “60 free apps in 60 minutes!” types of sessions and rejecting sessions that might focus on bigger questions or conversations… I know I’ve personally had more of those kinds of sessions rejected and more tool-focused sessions accepted to conferences.

    2) Attendees who want the tool-focused sessions. Example: ISTE 2013 — Both Will Richardson and I had sessions in ballrooms and both of us were presenting sessions that were not focused on tools exclusively. I think Will’s session was one of his more recent ones on why school’s must change and mine focused on effective pedagogy and tech use… Neither one of us had a large audience. Both sessions could have been held in one of the smaller session rooms and we both would have still had empty seats. On the other hand, at the same time that my session was on there was one of those “100 Free Apps for Educators” sessions in the ballroom next to me… When my session ended I walked out to see people streaming out of that one — it was standing room only.

    I’m not sure what can be done about conference organizers/judges who are selecting sessions and attendees who flock to those low-level sessions… but I’ll continue to do my part in trying to elevate the conversation, even if it means I am submitting tool-focused topics and then incorporating content that gets people to think carefully about how, why, and where tools are being used. I’m starting to get pretty good at that stealthy move 😉

  36. Okay — I was multi-tasking and typing too fast… sorry for the typos in my comment… “why schools must change”

  37. Scott,

    I think you raise an important question. I have wondered this, along with a similar question: are the right people at these conferences? It always seems like the large majority of attendees already innovate, already possess median technology skills, already understand the stakes of teaching and learning in the global world. Seems like a lot of people with similar skills nodding along at each other. I would like to see the push for meaningful “why” sessions about higher level learning paired with more attendees who are inherently fearful, skeptical, negative, or outright ignorant about digital-age education.

    • I’d argue the opposite. I’m not sure that I’d agree with your statement that our ed tech conferences are attracting the folks who “already innovate, already possess median technology skills, [and] already understand the stakes of teaching and learning in the global world.” But let’s assume they do. Wouldn’t that mean that those attendees are in the best position to go further and deeper, to wrestle with deeper learning and how to make it happen, because they have less of a need for basic exposure and ‘how to’ sessions? And yet these sessions still predominate…

  38. Scott (and many others leaving comments),

    I have been struggling with this one for a while as well. There are so many tools, apps, shinny new toys that I rarely feel participants get into deeper conversations based in learning/leading or system change. In fact, how can we expect people to do that when a large focus is focused on the latest and greatest in everything…consumerism.

    This fall, I had an opportunity to go to FL for a conference. I turned it down and feel that I turned it down largely because of this reason you brought up in your blog post.

    I also wonder if folks have figured out the recipe for a very effective fund raiser for organizations: ED Tech conferences.

    Might we be at a turning point of critical mass to really get after some of these higher level conversations?

    I see you are going to SLATE in December…will this be part of your goal for the keynote and event?

    Thanks, as always, Scott for sharing your thoughts.

  39. The dirty little secret, is many educators attend conferences as a “break” from their job, and find it to be a nice getaway. Look how many people are not invested at the sessions.

  40. Scott, your premise is flawed. These are Tech Conferences. They aren’t Leadership and System Change Conferences.

    And a lot of those sessions about apps and extensions just might change a student’s life, if they are used in creative, collaborative, thoughtful ways. Did you listen to Peter Reynolds’ keynote at all? You don’t know what things will change a student’s life–it might just be one of those apps or extensions used in a creative way by a great teacher.

    You focus so much on top-down leadership that I think you miss what can happen between a student and a teacher.

    • Actually they’re educational technology conferences, not technology conferences. So we should be focusing on learning, teaching, and schooling too (hopefully with 2014 and beyond in mind rather than our century-old factory models), not just the tech.

  41. I have the utmost respect for you, Scott, and you raise some great questions. However, as Dean and others pointed out, you may be missing the context of an “Ed Tech” conference. Yes, the focus is going to be on the tools, it says so right in the name.

    It’s also interesting that you mention systems change. If you’re at a conference — any type of conference — and throw together a bunch of strangers with varying philosophies from diverse educational systems, you shouldn’t expect much more than a good conversation about change.

    Think about what Knoster says about managing complex change. You need a lot of elements to create the kind of dynamic shift you’re talking about: vision, consensus, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan. I would argue that even the best conferences (including the one we just attended) can only brush the surface of these elements and might dig deep in only a couple. Leadership conferences will really hit vision. EdCamps do a great job at building consensus around ideas. And yes, EdTech conferences will tend to be heavy on the skills and resources. The real work — the stuff that requires a deeper level of cognitive complexity — will happen back in the district with strong leadership and a collaborative PLC. Conferences are but an ingredient for change, and they can be a valuable one at that.

    • Steven, are you saying that there’s no way that we can rethink or redesign ed tech conferences so that they focus on the powerful potentials and affordances of digital technologies to help with deeper learning, better teaching, and/or school redesign and that instead we should just throw up our hands and give in to the inevitability of tools-dominated conference sessions?

      We should save conversations about vision for leadership conferences, not ed tech conferences? We should talk about important ideas at edcamps, not ed tech conferences? We should talk about powerful learning and teaching elsewhere, not ed tech conferences?

      I don’t think the focus of an educational technology conference should be on the technology. I think it should be on education.

      • We can certainly rethink or redesign, but you’ll only accomplish so much in the format of a conference. “Deeper learning, better teaching, and/or school redesign” takes time and must (for better or worse) take into account the unique political situation of each participating district. As I said originally, you can only scratch the surface at a conference.

        Personally, I was very satisfied with the offerings at ITEC. I attended sessions on building capacity for technology leadership teams (resources), heard two awesome keynotes warning us against killing creativity (vision), and yes, listened to a vendor demonstrate best practices for Google Apps management (skills). Will any of these alone result in a dramatic shift in schools. No, but taken together (not to mention the networking and idea sharing with so many like-minded people in one place) has made me a better educational leader.

        • We surely can have sessions and formats at our ed tech conferences that help with the rethink/redesign work back home in our districts rather than throwing up our hands and saying we only can do tools…

          I thought ITEC was better on this front too. Not where I’d like it to be yet (I have a high bar!) but definitely better than many ed tech conferences.

  42. SHEESH…look what happens when I take a day to actually work 😉 GREAT conversation, but I need to do a little more pushing back

    What I think many folks are ceasing to recognize the changes that HAVE been made in large conference arenas such as ISTE. I am going to pull right from the ISTE site
    3 inspirational keynote sessions
    175 provocative and informative lecture and panel sessions
    65 hands-on BYOD sessions focused on skills or resources
    325 poster sessions focused in lesson, project or technology implementation
    50 exemplary student-presented showcase sessions
    10 interactive playgrounds
    150 in-depth workshop sessions (additional fee required)
    590 individual interactive sessions to 170 “lectures” of which it has been identified that INTERACTIVE lecture is a LARGER strand which leadership is addressing. As far as judges..most of the reviewers are folks who are invested in the conference…SIG leaders, etc… OH and those numbers don’t include the playgrounds…which I have presented in and have have VERY little turnout. I think people still go to large conferences and EXPECT to sit in session more than they EXPECT to sit in deep level of pedagogy..the latter group is just the LOUDER group. Maybe if folks did LOOK outside the box in places like ISTE they would find the opportunities they were looking for….

    • I haven’t been to ISTE but they sure do have a gift with language. That’s a lot of adjectives!

      So maybe it’s more about the attendees than the presenters or organizers. But I guess maybe it’s a chicken & the egg type situation – is it about what’s being offered or about what is being attended?

      Like I mentioned above…how do we change any of it? If it’s the attendees, how do we change the attitude of educators so they want to be challenged, so they want to look outside the box, so they are interested in not only tools but also pedagogy?

  43. Really thoughtful dialogue here and a couple of great points that I’d like to pick up.

    What surprises me most about so many of the education conferences I’ve attended is the prevalence of classic lecture-style presentations or classrooms. Conferences can do a better job of modeling the kinds of learning environments we say are powerful. (Think Edcamps and other “unconferences.”) Second: Meetings that become a friendly gathering of long-time friends are great social environments but only accidentally learning environments. How about meetings that challenge us? Introduce us to new people who have a different perspective? Nudge us outside our comfort zone? Spur us to ask questions? Third: I’d agree that expertise and knowledge about the most appropriate edtech tools for different parts of the “teaching” experience is still very uneven. Teachers who have had the privilege of going to national conferences may be tech wizards. But many more haven’t had the time or opportunity or encouragement to become experts and they feel intimidated by what’s going on. Environments where they can learn—and not just get “pitched”—are crucial. A lot of edtech tools support the “work” of teaching—managing gradebooks, communicating with families, etc. I wouldn’t want to do my taxes with a paper and pencil—is a paper gradebook “better” for teachers or just more familiar?

    Full disclosure: I do run a series of edtech conferences. They’re free for educators. We’re trying to put the above ideas into practice: Our “summits” feature only one “panel” (kids) and typically only one keynote. Most of the day is about investigation and dialogue, about encouraging teachers to ask questions and challenge what they hear. We’re trying to support conversation between the builders and users of tech—so that both teachers and entrepreneurs learn from each other. We ask teachers to reflect on their practices—then to ask entrepreneurs how their products can support their teaching practices. We are trying to bring these sessions to the teachers who don’t have the opportunities to go to national conferences.

    Great photographers talk about the art of photography and how they use available tools to help them achieve those works. Teachers should be leading the conversation around how to inspire students and student learning. They also deserve opportunities to explore what tools are available to help them achieve their mission. That means understanding what tools are available, along with their abilities and their limits.

    • I really appreciate your last paragraph Betsy. Personally I don’t have a problem with sessions that start with the pedagogy/objective and then eventually get to the tool. That makes sense to me. But it’s the sessions that are just about tools. Too many teachers that I work with are focused on the cool app they heard about. They had to learn that from somewhere. Maybe all the blog posts & conference sessions that are simply a ranking of “cool tools.” We need to be helping teachers figure out the purpose first and then seeking out the tools.

  44. I recently attended a conference in Ethiopia that accomplished what your last paragraph hints at. A conference is really just a dialogue and should never be a presentation. This experience made me forget about the subject of your rant. Hey Scott, ever get the feeling you’re preaching to the choir?

  45. Full disclosure – I was on the organising committee for Learning2Africa in Addis Ababa last month, so I have a biased view on this. But as Trevor and Lissa have said already, you should check out #Learning2 as this is a conference for teachers, by teachers (with a bend towards technology). The conference set up is specifically designed to help foster connections and conversations about teaching and learning, and many of the workshops and extended sessions are focused on pedagogy and institutional change. For example, at Learning2Asia two weeks ago, one of best extended sessions that I went to was about creating an Innovation/R&D Team in your school, run by Tico Oms from Singapore American School. And in response to Karl’s comment about affecting change in your schools, Learning2 conferences are attended by Pre-K teachers on up to senior administration – not just the geeks and techies. Granted, I am talking about international schools rather than public schools back home, but real change does come out of these conferences – some of it immediate and some of it long-term. I have never been about the cool factor or using tech for the sake of using tech in the classroom – in fact “cool” has become a bit of a four-letter-word to me as I hear it so often with respect to purported educational technology. The first question should always be “why use it?”, rather than simply stating “isn’t this cool!”

  46. Remove the word “tech” from your post and it’s still relevant.

  47. I agree. The traditional edtech conference rarely allows time for deep learning. It’s the same sit-and-get situation, an “excuse to get out of the office” as I have heard. What I learn at these conferences is that many educators behave in a way they want their students to behave: sitting quietly neatly in rows, attentive and taking notes. We are set up as consumers in this model and not creators.

  48. Scott, have you checked any of the conferences organized by the International Society of Learning Sciences (http://www.isls.org/) — plenty of ed tech, but a lot more focus on learning.

  49. I think it’s very easy for those of us lucky enough to attend many conferences to say much of what has been shared here. We start the get that “been there done that” attitude a lot.
    While I appreciate these comments as they cause me to reflect on my attendance at conferences, most classroom teachers that I work with have never had the opportunity to attend professional events outside of our district. Often, conference attendance is reserved for those that don’t need a substitute or that are able to be out of a district more easily than classroom teachers can.

    I make it a point to send teachers that never get to attend conferences to as many as I can and love the excitement and re-energized focus they come back with. To be honest, I don’t care which sessions they attend. Most have never had the opportunity to attend any professional events and take every opportunity to reflect and to share what they learn when they return. Don’t sell teachers short. Even when they do attend the “60 in 60” sessions, MOST spend time reflecting and questioning how to make what they do for and with kids better. The best conversations on how to shift our thinking about teaching and learning have taken place when a teacher returns energized from attending a professional event. I will take that anytime….those are the conversations that are impactful to our students. Those are the discussions that are changing what we do as a district.

    • Hi Tammy,

      Thanks for chiming in and reminding us to remember the novice perspective.

      I am sympathetic to the rarity of conference attendance for most teachers. But that’s why I think it’s even more important for their experiences to be as relevant and useful as possible. And I don’t think that’s tools-tools-tools but rather tools within a context of the kind of learning we want to foster. If they just want tools tutorials or lists of apps, we can send them to countless YouTube video channels and blog posts. How about if we used our time together to talk about important stuff like using tech to make students’ learning experiences deeper and more meaningful? Can’t we do that even with teachers who a) may be tech novices and/or b) don’t get to attend conferences very often and still maintain those high levels of enthusiasm and energy?

      If your teachers are coming back from ’60 in 60′ sessions and actually implementing in a substantive way more than a few (or any) of those, your school is the exception. So good on ya.

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