What Change Comes From ISTE?

The big ISTE conference (formerly known as NECC) annoys me and fascinates me in equal measures. It is touted as the biggest and best edtech conference in the world, although BETT delegates might disagree and it is now pushing its "internationalist" angle. Interestingly, it is not scheduled to be held anywhere except the US for at least another 11 years. Now I'm just a critic from afar in my own little insular country, unlikely ever to set foot in the Blogger's Cafe, but I have a serious question for anyone who is willing to answer it.

I'm not looking to be a smart aleck and poke holes in any responses but I would like to know this.

What is it that one gets out of a visit to ISTE?

What changes to practice and consequently, learning results from attendance at this conference?

Can this be clearly seen within a defined period of time, say a year or six months?

I understand the personal gains, "meet your PLN" and all that but after that buzz subsides, what remains?

How does going to a mega-conference like ISTE actually make a difference at the level that counts, in the classroom or with the learner?

I write as someone who is not even going across town to go to the local CEGSA conference this year. I feel like I have nothing worth contributing at present and my family priorities are doing exactly that at present - taking priority. But I am genuinely interested in any responses, either here in the comments or on your own blog.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

14 thoughts on “What Change Comes From ISTE?

  1. Dotty

    I have attended ISTE/NECC for the past 13 plus years. This year I found that I did not get as much out of it and have decided this will be my last year. I have attended some virtual conferences online and I have enjoyed them. I think the conference should be held every other year. I would like to see it truly be international. With social networking and virtual meetings, are face to face conventions going to be a thing of the past?

    1. Graham Wegner

      Don’t get me wrong – if it were possible I would love to have a week or two to go to ISTE and experience all that I read, hear and see about it online. But it would be for personal reasons as I very much doubt that it (or any other conference) could provide a turning point for me in my role as an educator. The new way of re-thinking learning and teaching comes from reading and considering disparate and scattered viewpoints, not from gathering thousands in one spot as some form of edtech nirvana. Actually as I am very lazy, how does ISTE Adelaide sound?

  2. Greg Carroll

    Good on ya Graham! Family first …. your kids v’s other peoples. Way more people need to get the significance of that choice. Life is not a dress rehearsal – for us or our kids.

    Research I have read shows only 1% of conference attendees actually change something as a result of the experience – that is subsequently a sustained part of their practice. I would think it is actually higher for self-selected things v’s simply being told to go but the point is still well made.
    Particularly for international conferences they seem to me to be more of a junket than a learning experience for many. I guess it depends on your motivation for learning overall though. Some people resist ANY learning no matter what the context and others suck the well dry at any opportunity. Some wouldn’t change if they go hit by the bus and some look for opportunities everywhere.
    With a PLN we tend to engage with the ideas rather than the people in my experience. I have found some very high profile people who are often quoted in the blogosphere to be 90% ego and self importance f2f, and very much ‘one trick ponies’ intellectually. Disappointing to say the least when you meet them in person and try to delve into their ideas and dig a bit deeper with them. People who write well do not always present well.

    We ask kids to ponder ‘so what?’ with their learning; we need to do the same with ours! Point well made Mr W!! 🙂

    1. Graham Wegner

      Your thoughts parallel mine so closely, it is unnerving! Greg, I do wonder about a lot of this “pie in the sky” learning revolution talk or maybe the American education system is that broken?? And then there is blog talk about what will be the big theme coming out from ISTE, as if progressive educators wait for some sort of green light signal from a once a year North American event. Actually, now I’m re-thinking ISTE Adelaide and maybe ISTE Dunedin is a better option?

  3. Mark Moran

    My company, Dulcinea Media, provides free content & tools that helps educators teach students how to use the Web effectively. We’ve attended a dozen conferences in the past year as part of a continuing conversation with educators. I also spend a lot of time in schools, visit physically & virtually through Skype, and have worked directly with librarians, tech directors and teachers to integrate the Web into their school. I’m also a parent of 3 teenagers, and employ lots of recent college graduates, so I see the “end product” of our education system. ISTE is much different than other conferences. There is a nucleus of passionate, dedicated educators at every conference, but I also always meet a good number of indifferent educators at other conferences who are there because they need continuing ed credits and get 2 days out of the classroom, and few people had to travel very far to attend; even the national conferences were attended mostly by people from the home or neighboring states. At ISTE, no one is missing school; nearly everyone traveled a long way to attend; and nearly everyone seems passionate and sincerely dedicated to advancing their own learning, so they can do the same for their students. Edublogger on Saturday – an uncredited “unconference” – was alone worth the trip. This was comprised entirely of people who showed up 36 hours before the conference kick-off, before 8 am on a Saturday, to suggest and vote on topics to be discussed throughout the day. I attend discussions about Web evaluation skills, best practices for student blogging, how to get parents involved in class, how to work with a school district as a consultant, and a “smackdown” in which several dozen new tools were previewed; everyone was taking notes furiously at each session. It is inconceivable to me that people didn’t come away from this with a good number of immediately actionable ideas they will implement in September. For the conference, I spent a lot of time in the Exhibit Hall, showing off our products and the integration of SweetSearch with Yolink; I met scores of educators; virtually everyone was keenly interested in our offering and seemed determined to put it to use in the fall, whereas at many conferences, too many attendees seem only mildly interested in even using the Internet in class, even though it means they are failing to teach their students how to use the medium they will use to find information for the rest of their lives. And further developing my PLN was also a critical part of the trip; I have learned so much on Twitter in the past 6 months from people I met at ISTE; I expect our exchanges will be more frequent, more honest and more insightful now that we’ve spent some face time together. I’m been wanting to get educators directly involved in developing our products for some time now; in the wake of ISTE, I am doing so.

  4. Graham Wegner

    G’day Mark and thanks for such a thoughtful and detailed response. I appreciate every thing that you’ve mentioned in your comment but I do wonder about the lasting change that comes out of even an engaging and participant driven event like an unconference. Teachers may well be taking away “immediately actionable ideas” but that happens on a constant basis on the internet, and I think that deeper, most sustainable pedagogical change is beyond one conference to achieve. Maybe it gets some people thinking along new lines and they go back to their educational community to plant some new seeds but as you pointed out, attendees at ISTE are typically passionate self motivated learners in the first place. My own school has been remaking itself through the use of co-planning teams, inquiry learning, assessment for learning and other learning based focuses. My own practice has dramatically changed over that period of time, and I’m meant to be the ICT leader! I want to know if ISTE has spawned that sort of change in educators where as Dean Groom said somewhere on the web (Sorry, Dean, can’t find anyway at the moment) where educators need to be talking about how they changed, not about the need for change. Hope this makes sense. Not for one moment am I taking away from your fruitful time – I suppose I’m hoping that someone like me ( a regular classroom teacher) will write here or anywhere on the web where I can easily find it about how ISTE has spawned the meaningful change that has transformed their pedagogy and the learning opportunities of their students.

  5. Paul Wilkinson

    ULearn http://www.core-ed.org/ulearn/ is our own NZ equivalent. Over the last 8 or so years I have had the privelege of attending a number of these events. But you know what? I agree with you. Not much that I have heard or seen has really changed my classroom practice.

    I would hold up four conference speakers though who have left a lasting impression. Tony Ryan, Guy Claxton, Art Costa and David Hyerle. Of all the people I have heard speak at conferences these are the ones who have sparked enough interest in me to buy their books, read their websites and discuss their ideas with others.

    Actually I could add two more great Australians. Joan Dalton and Julia Atkin. These two have challenged my thinking over the years. But again you are right. One of conference sessions have not been enough to achieve this. I have worked in repeated workshops with both Joan and Julia and it is the repeated exposure to their ideas and the opportunity to discuss that has been the difference.

    As I reflect now though. The two main things that stand out for me with all these people is that they shared practical ideas that I could take back to the classroom, and they all showed tremendous respect for teachers.

    Saying all that though… I’m not going to ULearn this year. I’m HOLIDAYING in Rarotonga instead.

    To answer your last plea. Personally the thing that challenges my pedagogy the most has been the fact that I am team teaching and that on a daily basis I meet with my teaching partner and we discuss how we are going, what is working well and what we need to do differently. It is like having permanent ongoing professional development.

  6. Graham Wegner

    I’ve been lucky enough to work with Joan Dalton as part of our department’s change leadership program a few years back, and I attended a whole day cluster workshop with Julia Atkin about ten years ago which was also very useful. So, I agree with your statement that one needs to work with change experts over an extended period and no conference session is going to do more give you a taste.

    And SNAP! Working with my two offsiders, Kim and Maria over the last two and a half years, has done more for my improved pedagogy in the same vein as your team teaching. Bouncing ideas and developing new strategies is something that cannot be done in isolation.

  7. Joe

    ISTE is an amazing conference, been going for years. When you have the opportunity to get around that many like-minded people who are all pushing in the same direction as you, the social momentum alone is worth attending. Technology does connect us, but differently than face-to-face. The ROI of a conference is difficult to compute because it can take months to get a new idea off the ground that you heard about or to foster the relationship you started through a conversation. I suggest that you try the conference next year and see how you like it.

    1. Graham Wegner

      Cheers, Joe, thanks for the comment. Actually, one of the benefits of not learning F2F is to avoid the like-mindedness that can actually be a barrier to meaningful change. Plus it would cost me quite a bit of dough to fly half way round the world – I hope that one day I’d be able to go but I’d have to say financially and family-wise, attendance at ISTE is unlikely in the near future.

  8. Colin Becker

    Graham, I know what you mean.
    I went to ISTE in 2008 with a study tour group and have followed it online for the past 2 years.
    The study tour was excellent. We visited schools in NZ and a few companies in the USA and every time we were on the bus we had conversations about technology. It was like having an instant PLN – and in real life not a virtual one.
    ISTE is definitely a buzz – like going to a football match is a buzz. There is lots of excitement. People seem charged and motivated and you can have some great conversations.
    The down side for me was: too many sessions to choose between; choosing a bad one when there were several others you could have gone to; not getting into a session because the dmand was too high; and making time to refelct on each day when there were still more things to do and see.
    Having said that, I’d still love to go back. I’d set a few clear goals and focus my efforts on achieving them.
    I’d also like to take half a dozen colleagues with me in the hope that they would get enthused by what others are doing.
    Conversely, finding a great practitioner in a local school could be a better solution – and a cheaper one.

  9. Mary Beth Hertz


    I definitely appreciate your viewpoint. This was only my second ISTE, and honestly, I only went to about 3 sessions over the course of 3 days. This is mostly because I had already learned the tool or heard the argument or participated in the discussion through Twitter, blogs or a Ning discussion.

    However, I try to remember that I am in the minority. Most who attend ISTE find everything exciting, a bit overwhelming and energizing (yes I eavesdrop!)

    If anything, I think ISTE allows for connections–connections that make my online PLN that much more powerful. It has also fostered new connections that have turned into collaboration of ideas.

    That said, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves that difficult question of ‘why bother?’ I have been hearing the chorus of ‘where’s the action’ in many different venues both f2f and online.

    Maybe it’s a sign…or a call!

    Thanks for your thought provoking post!

  10. Paul McMahon

    Hey Graham,

    Thanks for this discussion. As the key person behind organising a 21st Century Learning Conference in Hong Kong each year, it really struck a chord.
    In my experience it is often the wrong people who are encouraged to attend this sort of event. I get sick of setting straight Principals who have received my flyers addressed to them and the Curriculum Coordinators who tell me when I ring to see if they have it that they have passed it to their “IT Person”. Any wonder we are not seeing change come from these things!
    Last year we got cheeky and invited every Principal in Hong Kong to the event as a “Guest of Honor”. We gave them a complimentary pass, put a special catered sharing session and a harbor cruise on for them and told them that we needed their exceptional Leadership abilities to chair some forums. Wow! did that make a difference! I lost count of how many Heads said it was the most transformative event they have ever attended. Out of the event we have some Hong Kong schools setting up Moodles and going 1:1 for the first time ever directly as a result of the event and the follow up.
    I will also put my vendor hat on and say that I now work as the Asian Regional Manager of a Mathematics learning portal that Aussies like you know really well. Our model is to get in and work with schools to support the use of the resource. Schools constantly tell me that they are too busy to have me come out. When the same schools see the resource at a conference and realise that it really does save the teachers time, they are very keen to take it up.
    I would again argue that change has come from this opportunity.


    1. Graham Wegner

      Thank you, Paul, for your thoughtful response. Our formally designated leaders are indeed an important demographic and descriptions from their tech savvy coordinators (or equivalent) often don’t really paint the full picture.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *