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Dear Dr. Williams:

Thank you so much for being the first ISTE executive or board member to address the sad state of affairs expressed by my old friend and mentor David Thornburg. It is disappointing that David’s proposal was rejected. Dr. Thornburg is a pillar of educational computing.

I am grateful to David for bringing attention to ISTE’s non-existent response to the life and death of Seymour Papert. It is worth noting that the father of our field, Dr. Papert, was never invited to keynote ISTE or NECC; not after the publication of his three seminal books, not after the invention of robotics construction kits for children, not after 1:1 computing was borne in his image in Australia, not after Maine provided laptops statewide, not when One Laptop Per Child changed the world. This lack of grace implies a rejection of the ideas Papert advocated and the educators who had to fight even harder to bring them to life against the tacit hostility of our premiere membership organization.

One would imagine that a conference dedicated to linoleum installation would eventually have the inventor of linoleum to address its annual gathering. Last year (2015), ISTE rejected my proposal to lead a session commemorating the 35th anniversary of Papert’s book Mindstorms and the 45th anniversary of the paper he co-authored with Cynthia Solomon, “Twenty Things To Do with a Computer.” See the blog post I wrote at the time.

Such indifference was maddening, but the failure of the ISTE leadership to recognize the death of Dr. Papert this past July, even with a tweet, is frankly disgraceful. After Papert’s death, I was interviewed by NPR, the New York Times and countless other news outlets around the world. I was commissioned to write Papert’s official obituary for the prestigious international science journal Nature. Remarkably, unless I missed it, ISTE has failed to honor Dr. Papert in any way, shape, or form. I have begged your organization to do so in order to bring his powerful ideas to life for a new generation of educators. These actions should not be viewed as a grievance or form of attention seeking. ISTE’s respect for history and desire to provide a forum for the free exchange of disparate ideas are critical to its relevance and survival.

Dr. Papert himself might suggest that ISTE is idea averse. In its quest to feature new wares and checklists, it neglects to remind our community that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Earlier this year, I was successful in convincing NCWIT to honor Papert’s colleague, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, with its Pioneer Award. If only I could be so persuasive as to convince ISTE to honor the “mother of educational computing” before it’s too late. As we assert in our book, Invent To Learn, without Papert and Solomon there is no 1:1 computing, no Code.org, no CS4All, no school robotics, no maker movement.

In light of Papert’s recent passing, and the remarkable 50th anniversary of the Logo programming language in 2017, I submitted two relevant proposals for inclusion on the 2017 ISTE Conference Program.

You guessed it. Both were rejected.

Anniversaries and deaths are critical milestones. They cause us to, pause, reflect, and take stock. In 2017, there are several major conferences, including one I am organizing, focused on commemorating Papert and the 50th birthday of Logo. Sadly, ISTE seems to be standing on the sidelines.

It is not that I have nothing to offer on these subjects or do not know how to 1) write conference proposals or 2) fill an auditorium. As someone who has worked to bring Papert’s powerful ideas to life in classrooms around the world for 35 years and who worked with Papert for more than two decades, I have standing. I edited ISTE’s journal dedicated to the work he began, was the principal investigator on Papert’s last major institutional project, gave a TEDx talk in India on his contributions, and am the curator of the Seymour Papert archives at dailypapert.com. I worked in classrooms alongside Seymour Papert. Last year, 30 accepted ISTE presentations cited my work in their bibliographies.

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I am often asked why I don’t just give up on ISTE. The answer is because educational computing is my life’s work. I signed the ISTE charter and have spoken at 30 NECC/ISTE Conferences. It is quite possible that no one has presented more sessions than I. For several years, I was editor of ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal and founded ISTE’s SIGLogo before it was killed by the organization. I have been a critical friend for 25 years, not to harm ISTE, but to help it live up to its potential.

For decades, David Thornburg and I have spoken at ISTE/NECC at our own expense. This is just one way in which I know that we are both committed to what ISTE can and should be. I have also written for ISTE’s Learning and Leading with Technology.

It would be my pleasure to discuss constructive ways to move forward.

Happy holidays,

Gary

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
CEO: Constructing Modern Knowledge
Co-author: Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom

PS: Might I humbly suggest that ISTE hire or appoint a historian?

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.