Educational Conference or Boat Show? Revisiting a 2007 article

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I first published the blog post below in June of 2007. In that post, I shared my concerns about how commercial interests were being given priority over powerful ideas or professional dialogue at the NECC (now ISTE) annual conference.

Such concerns have only grown during the intervening five years. Keynote speakers have been selected based on popularity contests and a greater emphasis is being placed on fads than reflection.

I love ISTE and want the annual conference to realize its potential as a place where serious issues and policies are debated – where minds are blown. The June 2012 ISTE Conference will be my 25th NECC/ISTE as a presenter. I go at my own expense because I think it is critical to be part of the largest gathering of colleagues in my chosen field.

However, how is it possible that such an enormous educational event has failed to announce its keynote speakers two months before we all travel to San Diego?

Does this demonstrate organizational chaos? Insecurity about the selection? Or, does ISTE just take for granted that we will schlepp to the annual conference regardless of the program quality? If the latter is the case, then the ISTE Conference is indeed a boat show.

NECC: Educational Conference or Boat Show? (thanks to the Wayback Machine)
June 24, 2007

I have a long history of queasiness about the National Educational Computing Conference. I go because it’s the largest event in my field and to catch-up with old friends who too are attracted to NECC like a moth to a flame. NECC and its sponsoring organization, the International Society for Technology in Education, suffers from an epic struggle to serve two masters – it’s members and the companies from which it receives large sums of money. The members want ISTE to represent their needs for inspiration, advocacy and promotion of best classroom practices. The corporate sponsors want to sell products to the ISTE members.

Educational technology “conferences” are unique in education due to the size and dominance of the exhibit hall. Ed Tech success seems to be based more on what you buy than what kids do. The technology director with the most toys wins and gets to go to all the best parties at NECC. Everyone loves to see the latest and greatest gizmos at a conference, but I fear that the balance between the educational mission of a conference and the crass commercialism of a boat show.

For the youngsters out there in cyberspace, it was not many years ago that you could not appear on the NECC program without writing a peer-reviewed paper. The NECC program rules used to explicitly ban corporate speakers, even if that prohibition was often ignored. In 1992 I leafletted NECC when all three keynote addresses were by the corporate vice presidents of sponsoring companies. I’m so glad I invested an hour in listening to Tandy’s vision for the future. Apparently that future didn’t include the company’s own demise.

Has NECC sold it’s soul?
To its credit, ISTE labels its commercial NECC sessions. However, each program slot set aside for a corporate spokesperson denies one or more practicing educators the opportunity to share their ideas with colleagues in a professional setting. Some sessions are difficult to categorize. Take this one for example…

ISTE President’s Panel at Educational Computing Conference to Discuss Technology Use in Classrooms

WHAT: ISTE will sponsor a one-hour roundtable discussion between top business and education leaders on technology in schools.
Among topics to be discussed: How can we lead local and national dialogue toward tools that positively change the K-12 learning environment, encouraging innovation, creativity, and critical thinking skills? What is the best way to engage governors, state legislators and higher education officials to alter the course of teacher education?

WHO: Kurt Steinhaus, outgoing president, ISTE
Don Knezek, chief executive office, ISTE
Gary Bitter, Cheryl Williams, Jan Van Dam, Cathie Norris,
and Paul Resta – ISTE past presidents

Cheryl Hewett – Education Marketing Manager, Hewlett Packard
Megan Stewart – Director of Worldwide K-12 Education, Adobe
Karen Cator – Director, Education Leadership and Advocacy, Apple
Dan Meyer – CEO, Atomic Learning
Helen Soulé – Executive Director, Cable in the Classroom
Paige Kuni – Worldwide K-12 Education Manager, Intel

WHEN: Wednesday, June 27
1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.

WHERE: National Educational Computing Conference Georgia World Congress Center, Conference room B203

This session could be great. Whether I agree with the past ISTE Presidents or not, assembling six of them in one room for an hour could make for fascinating conversation. History is important.

The only question is why would ISTE choose to add six corporate representatives to a panel already comprised of seven educators? Thirteen-member panel discussions do not allow for much conversational depth. Why are marketing executives being asked to address the “course of teacher education?”


Read a similar blog by Sylvia Martinez, NECC – Buyer Beware.

Read Gary’s interview with ISTE CEO, Don Knezek and commentary about the new ISTE NETS, Refreshing the ISTE Technology Standards in District Administration Magazine.

Read the February 2003 column, The ISTE Problem by Gary Stager in District Administration Magazine.

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