Monday, July 08, 2013

Reflections on EdTech Conferences

This was the second year in a row that I didn’t attend ISTE. I really miss it but events conspired against me. But I’ve been reading a lot from people who did go and it has gotten me thinking quite a bit. Over the last 15 to 18 years I have attended ISTE (starting back when it was NECC), TCEA (Texas’ wonderful and huge ed tech conference), FETC (also huge but in Florida), the Christa McAuliffe Conference (New Hampshire's much smaller more intimate ed tech conference), SIGCSE (the big conference for computer science educators at the post secondary school level) and of course the CSTA Annual Conference (Hope to see a lot of my readers there next week.) I’ve attended them both as a full-time teacher and as a full-time Microsoft employee. Two different perspectives.

Audrey Watters (Possibly the best independent journalist covering education technology) was the first person I saw who pointed out that there were one  industry person at ISTE to every 3 or 4 teachers. (On (Not) Missing ISTE 2013) Is that a bad thing? I think some think so. This forces me to look at my involvement in ISTE (and other conferences) over the years I worked for Microsoft.

What was my reason for being at these conferences? Was it positive or negative? I like to think it was positive. I like to think that my purpose at those conferences was to learn as much if not more than to sell. I sure have learned a lot at these conferences. Microsoft paid my way to promote the use of Microsoft technology in the classroom. That was my job. I liked to say that I was mainly in the “make friends and influence people” business rather than sales. I gave away a lot of software over the years. I didn’t sell in the sense of looking to exchange money for goods and services. That’s a lot different from most industry attendees at ISTE of course. Even most Microsoft people manning booths at ISTE are hoping to sell products. Although they too give away a lot of software. And this year thousands of Surface devices.

So what does industry contribute to these conferences? Money for one thing. Many of these conferences could not take place at affordable rates for attendees without the income from the exhibit hall. The CSTA conference does not have an exhibit hall but the generosity of several industry sponsors is critical to funding the conference. We’ll talk more about CSTA in a moment. I noticed that the exhibitor badges at most conferences are distinguished by a black band. A warning of sorts. I once joked that they should be green because exhibitor money was so important. Either way it sometimes feels like an use v. them situation. Predatory exhibitors paying to prey on unsuspecting educators. I don’t think that is the reality though.

Speaking for myself at least I never pushed/promoted anything I didn’t honestly feel had real educational value. I suspect that some people working in industry don’t know if what they are selling is great for themselves but they have been told it is. I doubt many people sell things they don’t think are helpful and productive. While many products have their critics most also have their own staunch defenders among educators. Are these companies trying to kill education? I doubt it. They may or may not be wrong about the value of their products but I think most of them think they are doing good.

ISTE and TCEA, FETC and similar ed tech conferences are the most dependent of exhibitors and have more of a separation of sides than the SIGCSE conference. Yes there is an exhibit hall and yes there is some selling going on. But it always feels more collaborative. Microsoft typically sends a bunch of people from Microsoft Research who show off tools that are a) mostly free and b) leading edge looking for research and teaching partnerships. The products shown are generally also available to educators for free or very inexpensive. It is more collaborative (at least to me).

I always enjoyed showing off new things that I thought were useful for teaching at SIGCSE. I also spent a lot of time listening. I sure did learn a lot about what was being taught, how it was being taught and even why it was being taught. SIGCSE was always a conversation to me. I wish ISTE could be more like that. Maybe ISTE is too big and SIGCSE is small enough that we can all just be friends?

CSTA’s annual conference has no exhibit hall. It does have industry sponsorship though and that has generally meant that there were some industry speakers. There was not a specific quid pro quo though. Sponsors presented proposals and the committee generally picked the suggestions that had the most perceived educational value to attendees. So we have had some Google talks on App Inventor and Google Scripting. And we’ve seen some Microsoft talks on XNA and similar technology. But all good stuff that teachers have found value in. (I hope)

By and large though CSTA is all about teachers showing and talking about what works for them. Industry speakers have come and gone (except for that Thompson guy with the hat who seemed to be butting in everywhere). It’s a conference by and for educators. Industry in there mainly via their logos in exchange for money. Perhaps because it is small (roughly 200 attendees) this works. There isn’t the value for most companies to pay to send someone for that size audience without even an exhibit section. Google and Microsoft (and previously Intel and IBM) have been willing to support it out of concern for computer science education rather than real commercial gain.

This is not a model that scales though. The more money a company pays the more they have to get out of it to justify the spending to higher management and stockholders. Right now industry needs to help support computer science education. More companies in the computer field should support CSTA (and probably SIGCSE) as an investment in the community or environment that they live in and need. But it is always a fine line between helping the community and helping oneself. We need to find the win win in these conferences.


Jake said...

I agree with most of this. I do normally avoid the exhibit hall at TCEA and at ISTE this year. The biggest reason for this is a lack of value for someone who is not a technology support/integration person. I teach CS, and honestly there is little value other than looking at new toys in the exhibit hall.

I think the real problem with these conferences from a CS teacher perspective is the lack of quality sessions. These conferences are more about integrating technology, and not about teaching students to create artifacts through CS.

I have never been to CSTA, but am going this year. I have been to SIGCSE and found that conference very valuable (although I do wish there was a little bigger focus on K12). I went to the K12 section of Grace Hopper a couple years ago, and also found that to be very valuable.

One thing I am going to try to pursue is running more workshop type professional development for CS teachers. Maybe even an Edcamp type conference. I am not sure about attending ISTE again...though it might happen. I always struggle with TCEA for the same reasons, but it is in my backyard.

Alfred Thompson said...

For a computer science educator the big two conferences are clearly CSTA and SIGCSE. While I hear there was a lot more CS at ISTE this year there still isn't enough for my tastes. TCEA could also use more CS but it is head and shoulders above FETC in that area.

Anonymous said...

We need to get you gents to come north of the border to

Alfred C Thompson II said...

Doug I really do have to get to one of your conferences north of the border. There is a lot we in the US can learn from what is going on in Canada.