My First ISTE

I came to my first ISTE expecting to find educators sharing stories of inspiration and struggle , because ISTE is presumably a conference for teachers — and those are usually the kinds of things that teachers talk about. Sure, I expected to preview the latest gadgets and gizmos, and to navigate the alternatingly explicit and surreptitious — but always ubiquitous — corporate sponsors. But I also expected to find at least a few critical conversations. Some attempt to deflate the mile-high rhetoric that implicitly ingrains the causal link between consumption and learning. Or at least that they’d share my cynicism toward drones in education. I was disappointed.

As my friend Sherri Spelic helped me realize, ISTE is not an educational or reflective or collaborative environment. ISTE, more than anything, is a sales environment. I was ashamed of my naive expectations. Then sad that I might be wasting my time here. Then, finally, angry that nearly 15,000 educators might be wasting their time here, and that we were all potentially letting down the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of students we represent.

What makes ISTE a “sales environment?” To start, the corporate forces aren’t exactly hiding. Last year Audrey Watters called out that massive shit-show called the Expo Hall. This year, Jim Siegl earns highest literary praise for predicting the “edtech TurDuckEn” — inevitably some kind of VR-learn-to-code-wearable which can be 3D printed in social studies class. Even in “regular” sessions, it was difficult to find conversations that didn’t center around discrete products. As a result, the prevalent mode of framing problems and solutions is to begin with a set of technical features and then seek or invent corresponding educational needs. The problems may be real or not, but one’s perception of their realness is more compelling in light of such well-packaged solutions.

Why does it matter that ISTE’s a sales environment? What’s lost in a sales environment is the space for educators (let alone students themselves) to reflect on real problems and conceive independently the features that authentic solutions would have to offer in order to be good enough for their students. What’s lost in a sales environment is the cultural permission for skeptical but disempowered teachers to call out the endless parade of useless tech that threatens to consume their time, budgets, and energy. What’s lost is the opportunity to convene 15,000 professional educators to collaborate on evolving pedagogies in order to harness and drive (rather than be driven by) evolving tech.

In short, as my friend Bill Fitzgerald said, “there’s a troubling lack of critical thinking here and it needs to be deconstructed.” So what are we going to do about it? If there are enough people out there with the right mix of cynicism and stubborn optimism (i.e. people who work in education) then I propose a series of workshops at ISTE 2017 whose collective aim is to create the conditions for critical conversations about technology in education. For example: What problems are we hiring edtech to solve? Does the edtech industry reflect our students and does it matter? If all of our edtech vendors were wildly successful, would that be good for our students? (We’ve also got to get more students in the rooms. All the rooms.)

See you in San Antonio.

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