The Problem With ISTE

This week I am attending the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference in Chicago. The first session I attended was a celebration of the life of Seymour Papert, the father of educational technology, with Gary Stager. The compelling story of Papert – as told with great passion by his former friend and protege – is one of possibilities, imagination, agency, learning from experience and making, non-judgmental inclusion, and the authentic power of technology. And while these ideas are obviously represented on the conference program this week, there is a sense that these core values are somewhat compromised at an event of this size.

The ideals Papert held so dearly – and the work that Stager continues – remain as pertinent today as they did several decades ago. However, ISTE, as an event, really doesn’t provide a forum for open dialogue on the challenges to these ideals that learners and educators increasingly face. Our students and teachers know better. They deserve better. There are some great educators presenting at ISTE and perhaps it is the very act of “presenting” itself that is part of the problem. Real conversations seem to be submerged, muffled, muted. With 20.000 enthusiastic attendees, that’s a lot of professional development dollars, but for how much return, one wonders? When you sit in a workshop session on a topic of interest with hundreds of other people, the dialogue can, at best, be superficial, even tokenistic. Repeated and excited invitations to turn to my elbow partner to share thoughts make me want to head for the bar. And here I sit.

Maybe the ISTE Annual Conference has simply grown too big. In fairness, the organization has acknowledged that change is needed and that it is difficult to have meaningful conversations at the main conference event. But perhaps my niggling sense that there really is a problem with ISTE resides in the overwhelming expo hall where countless vendors compete to sell their wares and from which there seeps a corporate ethos that seems to overwhelm the educational agenda. There are some worthy products featured, many that deal with the playful potential of hands-on learning and discovery, and there are some talented practitioners focused on real learning. But there is a bigger theme here that hits you head-on as you stroll through the vast expanse of this product propaganda playground filled with long lines of professional educators hoping to pick up a free charger or tee-shirt. I made a short list of the kinds of messages that the edtech industry is making noise about these days and they paint a disconcerting picture of the growing narrative that surrounds contemporary education. Among the catchcries of unleashing innovation and empowering digital learners, these headlines and taglines stood out in a room festooned with bold technological promises:

  • There’s Strength in Numbers
  • Management Made Simple
  • Powerful Lesson Delivery
  • Digitally Enabled Schools
  • Suspicious Behaviour Reporting
  • Control Your Data Destiny
  • Reduce Disruptions
  • Peace of Mind
  • Instant Grading Instant Feedback
  • Innovation Out of the Box
  • Measuring What Matters.
  • Check Your Device at the Door
  • Identity Governance & Administration
  • Increase Student Success With Data-Driven Decisions
  • Keep Students On-Task
  • Integrated Control Solutions

The message is not so much about learners or teachers as it is about making delivery easier, managing behaviours, locking down internet access, and crunching numbers. In many ways, these are the very antithesis of the ideals for which Seymour Papert is celebrated. It all left me somewhat disheartened and dispirited and called to mind Stager’s parting words to teachers: “Thank you for standing between students and the madness. If you don’t do it, no one else will.”

Here’s to those who continue to stand in that vital place.