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. Saying there shouldn’t be edtech conferences ignores the great privilege that people like you and have in knowing how to use these tools in the classroom.

    Moreover, many of the projects and ideas I’ve had the privilege to work on can be traced back to relationships that I built from attending such workshops.

    Glad you put this out there in order to get us talking!


    • Thanks for the comment, James. I don’t think most of us are saying that there shouldn’t be ed tech conferences. I think we’re saying that we can do MUCH better with our sessions, time blocks, and conference formats to keep the focus on learning – particularly deep, meaningful learning, not traditional regurgitative/recall learning – rather than tools. Right now nearly all of our ed tech conferences fall quite short on this front. Thus my post…

  2. I’ve quit applying to present at ISTE because when I go to the trouble of proposing a session such as you propose, Scott, and get turned down, it is extremely frustrating. I once put together a proposal with 6 other folks from around the nation for a discussion, with us being the facilitators in a room where they were designed to be small group discussions that then come back to the large group, (sort of a jigsaw, but adapted) and the feedback I got from one reader was that it wasn’t concrete enough for ISTE…UM, that was the point–to make it about pedagogy, NOT tools…

    I have also served on those committees choosing the presentations–and when I score the more thought-provoking ones more highly, I catch grief from the person in charge–we need more hands on, I am told.

    The “system” does need to change–and that’s from the people choosing the presentations all the way up to the categories of presentations–even to what we call them–since they are still presentations, it’s all about a teaching wall and leader, right?

    I’d like to struggle with other educators on how much tech is too much and what are we trying to do in the first place (and why) and can we do it in a more meaningful way. I want to talk about the real issues of being in a room full of kids you have to “teach” reading to (and help them be prepared for the high stakes test) when all they want to do is read the dang book. I want to talk about choices that matter to kids-not whether it’s a powerpoint or keynote. I want to work with others to develop a unit based on some important concept–such as civil rights–that kids can not only relate to, but grow from, come up with ideas for change from, and do something with…and I don’t want the technology to lead that work–I want it to supplement and allow us to do things in ways we couldn’t before, but in ways that makes a difference in how kids look at future data or information, or stories, or whatever. I want kids to change because of the opportunities I provide them and opportunities they make for themselves..

    I recently had a conversation with a 26 year old former student who said “The lessons I took the most out of, though, were the ones I had the most freedom with. Projects where I had to follow a guideline but also come up with my own ideas caused me to think harder about the assignment, which helped with actually understanding the concepts.” He didn’t deny that we need a dictated curriculum to an extent, but also said that we need to have some degree of choice for students at all levels.

    I argue that choice has to be worthwhile choice. And, I agree the questions we ask need to be deep ones that make kids think and make connections.

    And, I’m off my soapbox….

    Yeah, you’re mostly preaching to the choir. 🙂

  3. We had the same impression with the conference in question, Scott. In our three sessions, we had 8, 10, and 8 participants. When I threw the word Google into the title last year, we had 60.

    We offered two out of those three sessions at a regional AEA conference the previous Friday, which had a fourth of the total participants. We had 26 and 45 participants. For the same sessions.

    We elected to go to this conference over two others that were at the same time, so this is a learning experience for us. My takeaway is that the popularity of the gadget-y sessions says something about the mindset of the attendees. They like hearing about Google and iPads. This is, of course, fine; it is my responsibility as a presenter to either draw their interest or not present.

    But, on a philosophical level, I agree with everything you have said here. Hypothetically speaking, if a conference committee’s goal is to transform education, I am interested to see if that committee is actively weighing proposals according to mission, or simply looking to keep attendance high.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Evan. Although the timing of my post was during a conference and I obviously had conferences on my brain, I didn’t have that conference or any particular conference in mind when I wrote this post. I think it’s important to clarify that. This is a problem generally across nearly all of our ed tech conferences, not a concern with one or two conferences in particular.

      Let’s all keep working on the mindsets of both conference organizers and attendees about what could/should be and hope we start to get some traction…

  4. Having attended and presented at a number of ed-tech conferences, what I want to hear about is technology. What you are describing is a pedagogy conference, and they exist. Perhaps the trouble is they don’t have 1000s off people signing up at $300 a head, but the people taking personal time and spending (often) personal money attending ed tech conferences do so because they want to learn about the tech. If they didn’t these conferences would not be so successful.

  5. I haven’t attended a great number of ed tech conferences outside of our state. That’s probably because, here in Vermont, we tend to be dangerously relevant.

    I checked our fall ed tech conference schedule and felt obliged to invite to Vermont Fest 2014 where, sprinkled in among the tools, apps and other low-level learning sessions I found these:


    Vermont Fest, Vermont’s Premier Educational Technology Conference

    Keynote: What is school? What can it be?, Chris Lehmann
    What is School 2.0? What are the pedagogical ideas that form it? Examine ideas of constructivist pedagogy and the use of 21st Century tools to create schools that are engaging, caring, and relevant places of learning for everyone involved. The history of the formation of the Science Leadership Academy will form the backdrop for this conversation.

    Transforming Schooling: A Systems Approach to Personalizing Learning, Dan French
    Technology has already changed the structure of both knowledge and learning. Transforming the structure of schooling to adapt to this technological context has now become “the work” of educational leaders around the world. BRSU Superintendent Dan French will share the work of his supervisory union in creating a systems approach to transforming the structure of schooling to better meet the personal learning aspirations of each student.

    Constructivist Learning through Web-Publishing, Mike Campbell and Steve Davis
    When using a mix of social media and web-publishing tools such as Google Plus, Blogger, YouTube and multimedia apps such as Pinnacle Studio for the iPad, students acquire Common Core communication proficiencies while publishing to an authentic, global audience. Web-publishing functions as a foundation for constructivist learning, helping students excel by responding to essential questions, researching, designing, editing, and reflecting, while giving students creative freedom to choose specific technology tools that engage them.

    Authentic Learning: Aquarium Design: Biological Engineering, Brian Slopey
    High school students are challenged to develop a sustainable aquarium design, using engineering practices encompassing skills and knowledge that extend what is meant by “inquiring” in science. This session will share the process used in guiding students through developing an aquarium design project using Next Generation engineering standards. Students are using computers, phones, & cameras to record and analyze their data. Will also discuss collaboration with the UVM Watershed Alliance, & Friends of the Winooski. Students that are involved in this project also monitor our local watershed and that data is electronically entered into the Watershed /Alliance web page.

    Building the Next Generation Digital Learning System, Gregory Connors
    First a state-of-the-state reality check on the Learning Management Systems (LMS), Student Information Systems (SIS), Virtual Learning Systems, and major educational software and hardware systems available or in use today throughout the state (or the world) – then, a collaborative, think tank, knowledge session on what is needed for education to evolve, the problems VT faces, and what the future systems can, and *should* look like.

    Science Leadership Academy, Chris Lehmann
    The myth of the single teacher, bucking the odds to be that one great teacher in a school may make for a great Hollywood movie, but it rarely — if ever — leads to lasting, effective change. We must examine the manner in which our schools and classrooms are set up so that the greatest number of students, teachers and even principals can thrive and learn and feel valued. This session is focused on looking at institutional change, so that attendees can explore what they value and then examine the systems in their districts, schools and classrooms that must change to reflect those values.

    Supervising 21st Century Instruction, David Wells
    Administrators have witnessed technology coming into their schools for decades but the presence of an iPad or “Smart Board” does not always mean technology is advancing learning. Learn how the SAMR model can be used to gage the effectiveness of technology use in the classroom.

    What’s the Value of a Blended Learning Environment and How Can It Be Implemented? A Discussion, Jamie Gallagher
    Blended Learning. The flipped classroom. Technology integration. Buzzwords for today’s classroom. This collaborative discussion session will focus on what blended learning is and how/why it should be used more consistently in all content and grade level areas to the benefit of our instruction and student learning. Participants are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings, fears, frustrations and successes in their path to a blended class. Come with your resources in digital format so all can access what you have already found (if you are willing!). If you are interested in developing your own blended class, you will want to join us for an hour to chart a path for success!

    Utilizing Evidence-Based Practices with Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental Delays or Intellectual Disabilities, Lynette Hofmeister
    In March 2014, the National Professional Development Center released a research study entitled Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. During this session we will compare and contrast the results against the 2009 National Autism Center’s National Standards Project as well as discuss how the TeachTown technologies can be utilized to support these methodologies.

    Taking an Agile Approach with Online Hands-on Interactive Science, Brian Slopey
    In this workshop we will take a look at how to organize a Hands-on Online course and look at some examples of the types of activities in which the students might participate. During this type of experience students may be involved in a wide variety of activities including but not limited to field and lab work, simulated lab experiences, forums, videos, and other experiences. This session will promote a model that can be used in multiple subject areas.

    Student-led Transitions, Elizabeth Emerson

    We would like to share our work around student led transitions, from 4th to 5th grade. We will focus on the student created products using 1:1 iPads, the partnership between the 4th and 5th grades, and ongoing digital citizenship work. We are continuing this work in fall 2014, while we continue the transition and partnerships built in the spring.

    Empowering Students in Cyberspace: Teaching Digital Citizenship and 21st Century Skills,
    Monica Cougan
    Today’s students are growing up in a digital world with potential for collaboration, critical thinking and creation, but how can we help keep them safe? Join us to learn about Common Sense Media’s free research-based, Common Core aligned curriculum that teaches students to be media-savvy digital citizens in an engaging manner. Curriculum is available online with interactive activities, videos, and assessments. You’ll leave with ideas and tools that you can immediately implement into your school.

    The Digital and Agile Principal, Larry Fliegelman
    Do you want to spend your time as a principal “creating agile schools that promote creativity”? Then you need to be agile yourself. Learn how to get into classrooms more (with documentation!) by having an empty email inbox, never forgetting that important to-do you promised, keeping your office clutter free, and automating more to save precious decision-making power. Bring your favorite device so that we can get started; you may want to be able to add apps during the session.

    Leveraging Learning Management, Eric Hall
    What are the advantages and challenges of “paperless classrooms?” How can Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Schoology increase efficiency, improve communication between teachers, students and parents and allow teachers to personalize learning? Mount Mansfield is in it’s second year of school-wide LMS implementation and we continue to learn and grow. Come hear our experience and learn some of the strategies we have developed along the way.

    Real-Life Success: The Impact of Universal Design for Learning with Students with Intensive Special Needs, Angela Dougher
    Meet a group of students from the Hartford Autism Regional Program. Follow their educational journeys and learn how to provide Universal Design for Learning. Follow the yellow-brick road using research-based, instructional lessons, aligned to the Common Core Standards, which “connect-the-dots” in creative classroom lessons. Get a multitude of ideas of how to successfully bridge the gap between learners – making your curriculum planning easier while guaranteeing meaningful inclusion and learning for ALL.

    Take the Different out of Differentiation: Chrome for the Inclusive Classroom, Jean Chute
    Chromebooks are a popular and inexpensive choice for a one computer per student in the classroom. As a general education classroom teacher, you want to be sure you consider the variability of all students while planning materials and resources for your lesson plans that include the use of the Chromebook and choose apps that provide the best access for all students. This workshop will cover Chrome apps that address vision, reading, writing, and organization to name a few. Installing apps to individual chromebooks is easy. Students will have the tools they need but won’t feel like they “stick out”, a common concern for students with special education needs and their parents.

    Closing Keynote: Education in the Age of the Internet, Matte Dunne

    Communication, access to information, and education itself are changing rapidly. These advances have the potential to allow Vermont’s rural schools to deliver a better education than ever before, but not without having to rethink the classroom, the expert and the skills necessary for a 21st century citizen. Matt will offer his observations as a recovering state legislator, graduate of Hartland Elementary School, and Head of Community Affairs at Google on how to how to leverage the information age to transform education in the Green Mountain State.


  6. A couple years ago I sent in a couple proposals for sessions to my statewide tech conference but both were rejected. The first session was designed to be a panel based session with tech personnel from 1:1 laptop schools discussing and answering questions based off of our experiences. The other session was designed to be round-table discussions for school tech personnel to discuss what was and wasn’t working for their 1:1 laptop programs. Both were denied, because the conference wasn’t interested in having any sort of networking sessions at that time. They wanted tools, apps, smoke and mirrors – not sessions that would help us get better at what we do.

    After much complaining to the conference organizers, I decided to submit my proposals again the following year. One session ended up being a “featured session” at the conference and the other was approved. Both sessions had more guests than I expected.

    I think that this conference team got the message, and have since focused more on networking and best practices sessions – even though we still have gadgety sessions. Let’s face it, we all need some of those sessions as well.

  7. I agree, and that is why we trialled a new form of Conference this past month in Sydney and Adelaide in which we took participants on “deep dive” experiences where they learned why (amplifying learning outcomes, explicitly shown) and pedagogy, and entire implementation strategies from rubric building to classroom management to assessment alternatives, along with becoming experts in several tools. Participants walked away ready to implement “sticky change” in practice. Fantastic results and not just hype around tools.

  8. I found this article to be very thought provoking. As someone who presents sessions on extension, apps, and other tools I wonder what will the impact be on education. I always try to share how the tools can be integrating into the learning of the classroom – but in 50 minute sessions it can be a huge challenge.

    One thing I would say about showing teachers tools – they can help teachers off load some of the tasks they are asked to do. Once these tasks are dealt with, I believe teachers are better able to tackle some of the larger issues regarding pedagogy. Hard to think big when you’re dealing with the minutia of daily classroom instruction.

  9. I love this post and the ideas behind it. It is also about how a person attends a conference and if they go with the thought in mind to take those ideas deeper and figure out how to apply them to their unique teaching situations. It’s about the evening conversations with the people who attend the conference with you or even the ones sitting beside you. It is the car ride home. That is why it is important for me to attend conferences with my colleagues. It is why I think it is important for students to be included in conferences … as presenters. (ISTE is the best at doing that!) I too, would like to know more about the conference that Karin described with “deep dive” experiences and being ready to implement “sticky change”. I can’t attend ISTE in person this year so I also look for those tweets that share that deeper level thinking. “Great session!” … isn’t enough for me. That’s how I found this post. You made me look. I’m going to give a shout out to a person whose tweets do make you think and inspire ideas. I just discovered him… @Tfley I don’t know him … but those are the kind of tweets I’m looking for. Thanks for this great blog! I enjoyed all of your comments. You made me “think”! @time2tell

  10. This blog post resonated with me. When supporting and coaching educators I find many still see technology as a silver bullet instead of focusing on building the teacher capacity for lesson design using the technology. The schools buy the gadgets but don’t make a shift in their pedagogy and these are the discussions we need to have at conferences. Districts and schools still struggle with true tech integration. Understanding the SAMR model and its relation to Blooms and DOK would save a lot of districts money on trying to constantly buy the latest and greatest.

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