Whenever I attend an education conference, which I am doing with great frequency these days, I do so as an educator with an educator’s eye, and an educator’s attitude. It is through that lens that I view education conferences either as a conference for the education profession or the education industry. Sometimes conferences are a combination of both. An easy distinction is that the industry side is made up of the business side of education, while the profession side is composed of classroom educators. Of course the most effective conferences are a balanced blend of both. It is that balance that eludes so many conferences.
This balance in education conferences is also what we should seek in professional development. Instead of making it about the bells and whistles of the applications, we should ask the educators about their goals and methods and then see if that can be enhanced by technology. If the educator has an established goal and an established method that can be made easier and more efficient, and more effective with technology, most educators will move toward that technology addition. The alternative way to do this is to have an administrative commitment to the technology and then to tell teachers to work it into what they do in order to make curriculum better. If teacher acceptance and cooperation is required for success, I think one method might work better than the other.
SxSWEdu 2013 was different from many other education conferences. There was no vendor floor. There were no booths to pursue. There were still tchotchkes, but they were given out at sessions or special events at various sponsored suites used as workplace spaces or meet-up lounges. I was told that the attendance was in the area of 5,000 attendees with one-third of that number representing educators. The few educator speakers who attended were of the very best education has to offer. There were fewer educators however than those speakers provided by the education technology industry.
I attended one workshop by a featured speaker that I thought was described as gaming for learning. Of course this idea of gaming in education is getting a great deal of attention recently, so with my educator lens in hand, I attended the session. The bulk of the session was about a history and development of specific computer generated games, as well as a strategy for working them into education. Monetizing games for education was also mentioned. The topic of learning as it relates to gaming was never the focus or was it barely mentioned. Again it was a business perspective, which is great for the industry folks in attendance, and there were many.
Finally, the time for the closing keynote approached. People began lining up 90 minutes before the designated time. Bill Gates was speaking to represent the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. Many educators have strong feelings both pro and con about the Gates involvement in education and his influence on education reform. That however was not the issue here. He was at SxSWEdu to give an inspiring education speech. He chose to speak at the start of the allotted time and then bring on a panel for questioning to end his session. I was ready. I positioned myself directly next to the only microphone set up for audience questioners. The Microphone stand actually touched my chair. It was the perfect spot.
The Gates speech for me lacked passion or even enthusiasm. A highlight came as he extolled the almost national acceptance of the Common Core State Standards. He put a giant emphasis on his point with a huge map of the United States with all of the accepting CCSS States brightly colored-in and the non-conforming states in a drab beige color. Of course the audience began to snicker and chuckle when in the center of this display the most prominent of the beige outcasts stood out as a huge section of the map. It was Texas, the very state we were all seated in. The irony grasped and tickled the audience, but it ignored Bill who did not seem to get it.
Bill’s address came to an end and he then introduced his panel. The part that assaulted my educator lens at this education conference was the fact that he introduced his panel as three outstanding CEO’s. It was more business people addressing educators about education. He chose to bring them out and individually question them one at a time. The questions were prepared as expected, but even the follow –up questions from Bill in response to their answers were wooden and staged. The Panel included: InBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger, Dreambox Learning Inc. CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson, and for the Charter Schools, Summit Schools CEO Diane Tavenner.
Toward the end of the presentation I was mentally preparing to step up to the microphone that was standing at attention by my side. As Bill asked the last wooden question however, something sudden and unexpected happened. I looked down to my phone to tweet out a quick comment to the twitterverse, and as I looked up from the tweet, Bill and his friends were GONE! They literally ran off the stage. NO QUESTIONS FOR YOU! I was dejected all the way to the airport. I was a little lifted when I saw that the flight had Wi-Fi. I connected up and started seeing posts about the Gates Keynote already popping up. The first one I read referred to Gates inspiring the crowd and receiving a standing ovation. I was there and saw little inspiration, and absolutely no ovation. The only standing was when the panel fled the stage and the audience stood in confusion of the abrupt ending.
The emphasis of much of the conference, to me at least, was on data and content delivery. I guess they can be viewed as commodities and, as such, they are easily measured and more conveniently priced. After all, it is about the business. As an educator I tend to lean toward content creation, and formative assessment. Learning is not so easily measured and requires feedback and reflection and sometimes correction, or at least a restatement. After all, it is about the learning
None of what I have mentioned is meant as a negative, but rather just observation. People should understand the make-up and culture of conferences before committing whatever little time and money is available to them in today’s climate. Education is about learning, but it requires more than a slate and chalk to get it done in a technology driven society. If we are to really benefit from these conferences, we may need more education as an education profession and an education industry.