1989 Charter

ISTE’s Dopey Dystopia

Just returned from speaking at my 31st ISTE/NECC Conference. I signed the ISTE charter. As the purported premiere educational technology conference, my chosen field, I have fought for two decades to make ISTE more responsive to its members and better serve the children in our care. I must admit that I have mostly failed in these attempts (see list of publications at the bottom of this piece). Despite that, ISTE is a dysfunctional family I cannot seem to quit.

As the cost of conference registration has soared, membership services dwindled, social events eliminated, and workshop revenue sharing disappeared, I have spoken out against the organization having two offices on both coasts and urged them to rein in their profligate spending. This year, the customized furniture and color coordinated walls in the convention center were joined by a ballpit in the presenter’s lounge.

In addition to the waste accompanying the caviar and champagne decor at this year’s boat show, ISTE kicked creepy up a notch by placing surveillance tags on attendees.

Others, notably Doug Levin & Mike Crowley, have done a fine job of detailing technical aspects of the pernicious “Smart Badge” and discussed the privacy implications — for and against.

The privacy risk of the “Smart Badges” is not my major concern, because although I am creeped out by ISTE tracking me, my experience suggests that the organization lacks the competence to actually make use of the data.

From Doug Levin’s blog https://k12cybersecure.com/blog/hacking-the-iste18-smart-badge/

I do however have major concerns regarding deeply flawed views of education and the governance of an organization I am compelled to join if I wish to speak at their annual conference.

Buried amidst the pro-corporate spam being sent by ISTE to its registrants prior to the conference, there was apparently an email announcing the exciting new “Smart Badges” that included opt-out information. I vaguely remember seeing it. When I went to the registration counter to pickup my badge and all-time crummy conference bag, the woman behind the counter began affixing the tracking probe to my badge holder. I asked her not to do so and was told that I could not opt-out. I then said that I would just remove it myself and was told that was prohibited. Somehow, mine broke just minutes later. I have no idea how that could have happened.

My greatest objection to being tagged like livestock was that it would only be a short matter of time before some bonehead referred to the fantabulous “Smart Badges” as educational technology. When I mentioned this to my friend Chris Lehmann, he told me that it already had.

Q: Why is ISTE using smart badges?
A: ISTE recognizes the value of personalized learning and wants to do all we can to create custom and individualized educational experiences for each of our attendees. Smart badges will allow us to provide you with your own “ISTE 2018 Journey” post conference. The journey will detail the sessions you attended and the resources you collected. It’s like taking notes with your feet! Additionally, this data will allow the ISTE team to further personalize the conference experience now and in the future. This aggregate data, combined with registration information, will provide more comprehensive insights into attendee patterns and activities.

Therein lies the problem. Tracking students’ legs, bums, or corneas is not education. It is not personalization, a fantasy that after decades has produced little more than dispensing a multiple-choice question based on how well you answered another multiple-choice question. Personalized learning is at best machine-based testing. It has little to do with teaching beyond automation and nothing to do with learning. Yet, ISTE’s largest corporate overlords pimps sponsors profit greatly by this hideous handful of magic beans.

The greatest threat of the ISTE “Smart Badges” is the denaturing of educational computing’s powerful potential and the organization’s misanthropic service of corporate sponsors, often in ways detrimental to its members — the ones who justify its tax-exempt status.

Here are the questions I asked ISTE about the “Smart Badges” on Twitter. If history is precedent, I do not anticipate answers. The governance structure of ISTE allows for remarkable plausible deniability. The most frequent answers I receive to my questions are along the lines of, “I don’t have any control of that.” “It’s not within the purview of the Board.” etc…

  1. Why was I explicitly told by the registration booth that I could not have a non-tagged holder and that I was prohibited from removing the #iste18 surveillance device?
  2. Who paid for the tags and beacons?
  3. How much was paid?
  4. If #iste18 did not pay, what was the value of the sponsorship?
  5. How does ISTE imagine using the data to “personalize the conference experience now and in the future?”
  6. Who will decide how the data is used?
  7. Will popularity be used to exclude high-quality presentations from future programs?

There are lots of issues people have with the “Smart Badges.” It’s not worth ranking them. I just shared mine. Perhaps others will join me in “following the money” by seeking answers to these questions.

As someone who has been told repeatedly since the formation of ISTE, “I don’t have any power,” I am trying to get to the bottom of their structural deniability on all matters. This is a member organization betraying its membership. I care a lot less about privacy than the fact that a person or group of people at the organization think tracking devices should be considered educational technology. Such nonsense jeopardizes not only kids, but diminishes a field I care about.

Previous publications by Gary Stager about ISTE

From 2007 — Educational Conference or Boat Show? Revisiting a 2007 article

From 2007 — Refreshing the ISTE Technology Standards

From 2008 — Ask ISTE a Simple Question

From 2016 — Obviously Irrelevant (how ISTE rejected the powerful ideas of Seymour Papert, father of the field)

From 2016 — Technology is Not Neutral (#asugsv edition)


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.


Originally published at Stager-to-Go.