ISTE2012: Where do we go from here?

This year’s conference sprawled.  Perhaps it was the venue – San Diego, next to the ocean, conference center wrapped around a huge quasi-outdoor “Sails” pavilion with tent roof like Denver airport.  Perhaps it was the ambiguous theme “Expanding Horizons.”  Overall, I found it hard to pin down specific big learnings.  I had a lot of good individual takeaways and many interesting conversations, some of which I’ll relate over my next few blog entries.  But which way are the prevailing winds blowing?  Not sure.

As a business venture, ISTE2012 indubitably succeeded.  Attendance topped 13,000 for the third year in a row, though the claimed “record” of 13,500 may have been inflated by the number of schoolchildren who came for different events, each of whom wore a registration badge.  Traffic on the extensive show floor (~500 booths) was good but unexceptional.  Most exhibitors I talked with put booth activity on a par with last year in Philadelphia (also claimed at a bit over 13,000).

Still, given the usual drop in attendance for remote locations like southern California, just staying even year-over-year counts as growth.   As usual, show management provided a rich array of presentations, workshops, poster sessions, meetings of Special Interest Groups, and social events without apparent hitches, and with a professional polish often missing at educational conferences.  There’s no reason to believe that ISTE won’t continue to be the best-attended conference in education for some years to come.

One reason ISTE grows while other conferences shrink is that technology has become a sort of common denominator.  Across grade levels, subject areas, and job functions, technology is increasingly the means of choice to access and deliver educational content, assessment, and services.  Besides which, technology is fun.  Kids aren’t the only ones who show higher rates of “engagement” when material is delivered on a screen.

But it’s a general rule in communications that when you aim at everybody, you connect with nobody.  In my admittedly unscientific survey of educators I met, fewer enunciated clear goals for the conference than I used to hear, other than “seeing what’s available for iPads.”  On the other hand, some clearly articulated hungers were going unsatisfied.  Little on literacy.  More on writing than in previous years but still not much.  The hot topic of STEM – seemingly an obvious “technology” theme – unrepresented by either a strand or a Special Interest Group.  One “birds of a feather” session on starting a Science SIG garnered about 10 attendees, even though science teachers are the largest single discipline represented in ISTE membership.  Keynotes, which usually focus on a theme, seemed oddly unfocused.  The opener, for instance, featured Sir Ken Robinson, expert on creativity.  Fascinating for about 10 minutes, after which he was joined by a panel that broadened the discussion to cover digital natives vs immigrants, education initiatives from a (sponsoring) mobile carrier, and how a TV actress was inspired to earn her PhD in neuroscience.  Contrast last year’s opener: an intensive review of brain research as it relates to childhood learning.

Maybe it all reflects the times.  So much is changing at once in education that no one really knows which way to jump.  Budgets are in doldrums; textbook purchases this year are estimated at $2.3 billion vs $3 billion 5 years ago, and there’s increasing pressure on staff salaries – though one impoverished district I encountered just bought iPads for one entire school because it’s a Title I concentration school and the funds had to be spent.

Preposterous as that contrast may seem, it does point out one clear trend from ISTE (and elsewhere).  iPads are definitely happening.  Schools may not be sure how they’re going to use them – similar to the way they acquired interactive whiteboards a few years ago – but buy them they will.  Anyone developing digital content had better make sure it runs on IOS – and it won’t be too long before schools will be looking for Android content as well.  And that platform agnosticity will serve developers in good stead as more schools adopt “bring your own device” (BYOD) – another trend that has gone from inconceivable to undeniable in a bit under 2 years.

The Doonesbury comic strip used to feature a TV news anchor whose vapid commentaries always ended: “One thing is certain. Life goes on.”  Maybe that’s actually a serious takeaway from ISTE2012.  13,000 working educators came, hoping to make sense out of change, and seeking new ways to get on with their business of helping kids learn.  Schools will reopen in a couple months despite funding cuts, political debates, crowded or diverse classrooms.  And those educators will look to technology for the help they need.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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About mhbaumk12

Mike Baum has 40 years of experience with all types of direct marketing, has run several companies, spent 25 years as a consultant in franchising and in K-12 education, and currently helps companies find solutions to growth challenges.
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