This past Saturday was the 2013 Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Technology Conference at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, RI. It promised to be and, through the intervention of several individuals, became a unique forum for highly interactive ad-hoc discussions between educators and technologists.
In the days leading up to it, the logistics of the event sounded downright awful: 700 teachers already signed up for sessions parallel to the discussions, uncertain wifi, no electrical outlets, and we would have to close down our table for lunch, because the discussions were to take place where everyone was going to be eating and trying to watch the lunch panel.
It’s worth noting that at Ponder we have long since learned that trying to talk to a teacher meaningfully about their classes and students while mousing around on a tiny laptop screen really doesn’t work. Instead, we have a screencast that walks through some of the core functionality of Ponder on a fairly short loop, which we run on a 24″ display. This way, it is possible to have a conversation with someone and point out functionality to answer their questions when it comes around on the loop. So, the whole no-electricity issue meant that the conversations would be much less productive.
Even my educator friends who long to bridge the gap between educators and technologists asked me why we were bothering to go.
I explained that as crazy as it sounded, this was one of the best opportunities we had gotten to meet with a lot of teachers in a setting where we could actually learn about their classes and try to brainstorm how Ponder could fit into them.
Optimistic, I ordered a big battery pack from Amazon that promised 3.5 hours of running the screen, which was more than my dying laptop battery promised, and hoped for the best.
When I arrived, I walked around the third floor of the convention center, which featured the big company vendors’ displays, some schools talking technology integration, and the main “keynote” stage and seating area. Teachers were seated with coffees listening to the first panel. The wifi was working despite expectations to the contrary, but the seating was in a giant open convention space, no walls or power outlets in sight.
At the end of that first panel, Shawn Rubin from the Highlander Institute made a valiant attempt at explaining that if the teachers stayed where they were, they would get the opportunity to provide feedback to the edtech companies that had come to talk to them. Sadly, when he had finished, almost all of the teachers stood up and left to go to the workshops upstairs they had previously signed up for. Disappointing. There were a few hold outs who had us to themselves, and some teachers who waited at the periphery of the hall, seemingly unsure of how to engage.
To an audience of largely other edtech companies, the first half of the companies took turns giving three minute presentations about their technologies.
But then the organizers stepped in to fill the gaps and things started to turn around.
As lunch approached, Dana Borrelli-Murray from Highlander Institute came around to the companies and told us to ignore the plan to shut down our tables for lunch. This was a huge time saver, and allowed us to engage teachers in the gaps during lunch and the lunch panel.
The second half of the companies, which we were lucky enough to be part of, were scheduled to present after lunch, and due largely to another impassioned plea from Shawn to the crowd of teachers, many more teachers stayed to listen. Also helpful was EdSurge bringing up one of the few teachers who had met with many companies in the morning to speak briefly to the crowd about her (positive) experiences meeting with us.
Working from what he had seen in the morning, Shawn and spent the second half of the day personally corralling and categorizing teachers, then bringing them in small groups to see companies that were appropriate to their subject areas, grade levels, etc.
For the remaining 2-3 hours of the day, every company was engaged in discussion with group after group of teachers. HUGE SUCCESS.
And as luck should have it, I found an outlet inside the stand for some nearby speakers and snuck an extension cord to it to extend my power setup.
In the end, the event worked so well, that combined with the learnings around the logistics, I think EdSurge RIDE provides a template for future events. (Perhaps even the upcoming EdSurge Silicon Valley Summit.)
Here is my template:
Dedicated time in the conference schedule for company-educator conversations (ideally not in competition with PD workshops)
A large room with discussion tables for each company clustered near the rear, with a presentation stage at the front and rows of audience chairs facing it
Each company table should have a sign visible at a distance
The tables might even ideally be organized by subject area and/or grade level
Lightening-talk style presentations to the audience chairs at the front of the room, with volume adjusted to not stifle the discussions in the back.
Power outlets at each table and working wifi
Last, but possibly the single most important: A troop of Shawn Rubin-style matchmaking valets to take uncertain teachers from the audience chairs or the edges of the room to specific, appropriate companies.
And yes, the EdSurge RIDE Summit was absolutely worth attending. I met with teachers from at least a couple dozen schools, some of which were great fits, others that were not. I usually had several minutes to explain to 2-3 teachers at a time what Ponder does and what sorts of schools, levels, and subject areas we were looking to collaborate with. The teachers then took 5-10 minutes to ask questions and talk about their classes and the tools they had tried using.
Key pieces of intelligence from the field:
There are still Internet Explorer only schools (I tried to give teachers some arguments to provide to their IT departments for trying Chrome or Firefox.) Internet Explorer no longer allows most types of extensions, and developing extensions for older versions is a huge pain.