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Learning at its Best

Disappointment With ISTE

1. The Social Vacuum: ISTE can easily slip into a technophiliac dystopia, where no one talks about the role of technology in social issues like immigration or poverty.  I didn’t see anything about service learning or using technology as a means for social change (like we’re seeing in real-time in part of the Arab world)

2. Not Enough Emphasis on Content: I expected to see something about social studies (and how we approach a subject in a transnational, globalized world where politics, geography, economic forces and social systems are in constant flux) or something on meaningful math (call it paperless, tech-integrated, etc.).

3. A Lack of Digital Ethics: By this I mean deep-thinking technology criticism.  What does it mean to think well about the medium?  How does a tool change how we think?  How does it change how we communicate?  How does it change the way we define ourselves, our space and our values?

4. It’s Too Structured: I didn’t sign up for anything, because I wanted to find the people I knew on Twitter. Then I start hearing about tickets and sign-ups and it’s third grade dodge ball all over again.  I might just stand in the corner and draw pictures.  It’s what I did twenty years ago on the playground.

5. CorporateFest 2.0: I get it.  People need vendors.  However, when the vendors define all of the space, it’s not about including them.  It’s about corporate hegemony.  The result is waste. I’d love to know the carbon footprint of ISTE.

The Solution: Find people you know and make it as close to an unconference as possible.  I hung out in-depth with David Wees and a little with Chad.  I met some of the people I know on Twitter.  Ultimately, that’s where the learning will happen – out of the techno echo chamber and in the human connection we share.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


11 thoughts on “Disappointment With ISTE

  1. John, I agree w/ most of your points, and I didn’t attend for other similar reasons. I am much more comfortable hanging out in small groups. However, hasn’t ISTE just started today (beyond the pre-conference)? I’m confused–is this post about this year’s ISTE?
    By the way, many people attended the TEDx and/or Edubloggercon events and then left Sunday. That might be a way to connect with friends but avoid the masses.

    Posted by Susan Carter Morgan | June 27, 2011, 7:37 am
  2. The structure and the corporatefest gel so strongly with me – they are a large part of why I have a negative response to so many conferences!

    Is there a strong backchannel at ISTE? I have found that I much prefer virtual confs such as #RSCON3.

    Partly this is because I am “remote” from most conf centres (I live and work in rural Western Australia). I had also become disillusioned with conference/corporate “hype” even at conferences in my own backyard.The time and costs for attending are often well outside the budget of my small regional college.

    For me the great advantages of online confs are: the built in backchannel in platforms like Elluminate; the ease of Tweeting at the same time; the option to view the recording (although definitely well below actual participation) means you can catch up on things you mis all or part of very easily; the ability to attend things far away and outside one’s timezone.

    Backchannels support the unconference feel. If you have good/experienced facilitators in Elluminate or other virtual platforms they will include sufficient interaction to keep participants engaged and will respond to the backchannel within their presentation.

    Jo Hart (@JoHart) (

    Posted by johart1 | June 27, 2011, 7:51 am
  3. Hi John. I’ve never attended #iste, and am unlikely to ever do so (living in Western Australia).

    I just wanted to share my experience with the Reform Symposium e-Conference (the only conference I’m familiar with); for I really must agree, that the true learning happens when you get a small bunch of people together in a ‘room’ or around a table, just talking to each-other. At #RSCON11 I spent more time chatting with the conference participants than I did listening to the presenters! And I speak as a first-time presenter at the next Reform conference in July this year.



    Posted by Michael Graffin | June 27, 2011, 8:29 am
  4. Ah, thanks for clarifying.

    Posted by Susan Carter Morgan | June 27, 2011, 8:37 am
  5. I’m not fortunate enough to attend ISTE11. However, your post has prompted me to send you a link to our Ning that advocates the dangers of texting and driving. My students collaborated with students in 6 different states via the Ning and Skype. If this isn’t the epitome of a “means of social change”, I don’t know what is. Our Ning, Join please!!

    Posted by Whitney Allen | June 27, 2011, 8:39 am
  6. John, I loved our conversation time, as well as our shared time in the Hack Jam. I think that if any major organization or conference wants to push itself or its members to challenge seriously “the way things are,” then they have to systematize social space and “dark side”/unconference opportunities around the “main event.”

    The Blogger’s Cafe, which is too small and not dedicated to writing, is spoiled by the live-cast and recorded play back of talks at volume 11. Token efforts at community-building don’t work any better at conferences than they do in schools – in fact, given the amount of material wealth on display and the naked intent to network educators with vendors, I’m surprised there are these conflicted social spaces at all – I don’t get what the conference gets out of it – another place to sell food? To keep people in the hall? To provide a meeting space?

    On the other hand, it;’s also up to us, sometimes, to set up our own events, conversations, and spaces apart from these provided spots. I think we’re starting to do that well as a community of catalysts – I’d love to see us think and write about offering a presence and invitation in a problematizing way at a future conference.

    What do you think?

    Let’s talk more about it today 🙂


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 27, 2011, 9:06 am
  7. John, Powerful critiques of real issues, and for all of us who go to way too many conferences, really familiar. How about a long-term goal at the COOP to create its own unconference, in response to many of these important observations?

    Complexifying the work, critiquing the way we do things, having real conversations without “experts.” That sounds like the beginning of a model.

    Wish I were there to see everyone, but am off to another conference of my own, where unfortunately, I act as a talking head.



    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 27, 2011, 10:04 am
  8. John,
    You and I talked some face to face about this, but isn’t this partially about our human need to belong? As a newbie to ISTE, unless someone takes you under their wing, you really wouldn’t know about the socials that happen in the evenings–the vendors that offer drinks and hors d’oeuvres, or the gatherings of groups like the Google Certified Teachers or state affiliates of ISTE or whatever. There are groups of people that gather at conferences like this that only see each other here –or at a few other conferences– and the fact they talk about it over twitter can’t help but feel a bit exclusive to those of us who aren’t included.

    AND, on top of that, to those of us who are introverts, all of these gatherings that we are left out of must intensify that feeling of not being in the loop.

    But, the fact is, as adults, we must own our own learning–and interacting–and we must choose our paths in conferences like these that are so huge as to be overwhelming….you said it in your last paragraph–

    “Find people you know and make it as close to an unconference as possible. …. Ultimately, that’s where the learning will happen – out of the techno echo chamber and in the human connection we share.”

    It IS about the human connections–and we need to make those when and where we can and nurture those as much as we can–both within our peer groups and with our kids. And we need to help our kids understand ALL people have those feelings of insecurity–of not being part of the in crowd–of not belonging–and those are feelings we as individuals control–that we CAN walk up to the Scott McLeods and the Lisa Thumanns and the Will Richardsons and the Shelley Terrells and we’ll find that they are real human beings who just want, as we do, to talk to other educators and who want to find themselves in real conversations with nice people who will stretch them and help them grow just as much as we want that. (I’m not meaning to pick on Scott or Lisa or Will or Shelley, but these are a few of MY edu-guru/heroes, whom I HAVE found to be extremely approachable and just plain nice.)

    I said before I came that I was going to hang out in the Blogger’s Cafe–because that, for me, is where those connections happen. I want, more than anything here, to connect with people face to face that I tweet with regularly–I want time to pick people’s brains in more that 140 characters. I want to talk F2F with people like Monica Hardy, whom I am dying to meet–because she SO stretches my thinking. I want to spend more time listening to you–and Shelley, and David Wees, and Chad, and Mary Beth and Devin, and all the other members of the coop that are here–and all the other members of my PLN that are here as well. For me, ISTE is a time to connect and talk and find the questions that will niggle at me all summer–or that will spark a whole new way of thinking for me, or that will keep me awake at night as I struggle to do right by my kids. AND I want to add to my PLN people who I don’t know yet–so if you’re reading this and we haven’t met, please come talk to me tomorrow in the Blogger’s Cafe. I’ll ask hard questions and hope you do too.

    You’ve nailed so many things in your post–but most of all, you NAILED the point of finding time to talk in ways that matter. Thanks for this post and for your time today–and let’s talk more tomorrow in the Blogger’s Cafe. I’ll be there–but not early. 🙂

    Posted by Paula White | June 27, 2011, 11:13 pm


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