Give Educators the Drawing Board

By Gina Sipley and Mercer Hall

Edtech conferences are by definition idiosyncratic spaces, because they bridge two professions – educators and product developers – whose needs are sometimes difficult to align. Most traditional “teaching” conferences focus on pedagogical practices. Edtech conferences, however, criss-cross between vendors, devices, interactives, and workshops. At the center of both events are digital tools, the intermediaries that link the spheres of school and business. Unfortunately, edtech gatherings can at times feel more like shopping malls of innovations, rather than conclaves of educational expertise.

Currently, two basic tiers of edtech conferences prevail: major industry events such as SXSWedu, the Education Innovation Summit, or the New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference, which evangelize technological innovations, and smaller academic conferences like EdCamps or regional tech summits, which foster professional development.

The ideal edtech conference of the future would be a hybrid of industry and academic models. Entrepreneurs would pitch their best products, and teachers would present their best practices.

Based on suggestions from teacher-leaders across the country, here is a blueprint for how teachers can become major stakeholders in edtech conventions:

1) Creative Outreach 

Because many teachers have never heard of ISTE or TED, and, more importantly, neither have their administrators who allocate professional development funds, the best way to put these conferences on an administrator’s radar is through direct outreach and clearly defined teacher strands. 

Abby Cleveland of Cooperstown High School asserts that too often small rural districts like hers are underrepresented at the major tech conferences. To ameliorate this rural divide, administrators need to understand the clear benefits that attendance can offer. Basil Kolani, the Director of Technology at The Dwight School, explains that, “if a teacher could easily see a progression of classroom-first sessions that were curated as an experience in and of itself, it might be easier to make the case for attending the conference.”

2) Prototyping Playgrounds 

Rather than highlighting ready-for-market products, conferences could pair educators with entrepreneurs for collaborative, rapid prototyping sessions. Based on his or her area of expertise, a teacher would participate in a feedback group for a specific, in-progress app. Small startups would likely value the seasoned input from on-the-ground teachers, and classroom educators would lend their leadership in shaping the emerging products of tomorrow. In exchange for their time and insights, teachers might receive a free classroom trial use of that tool.

3) Blended Format 

A conference should mimic the field it represents -- particularly in education, which emphasizes differentiated learning experiences. Edtech gatherings, therefore, should feature diverse types of sessions, from communal playgrounds to unstructured workshops to group dialogues, rather than traditional one-way panel presentations. For example, combining the increasingly popular teacher-led EdCamps with industry conferences like SXSWedu could invite an entirely new demographic of attendee. Kolani explains, “I started chatting with people about an EdCamp before SXSWedu next year. It could maybe be a way to get more teachers in the [local] area for the event itself.”

4) Educator Pricing and Fellowships 

Because of the cost involved in conference travel and attendance, options such as discounted educator pricing or educator fellowships for panelists would level the playing field for all interested attendees. For many teachers, particularly in public schools, professional development funds are often unavailable. Teachers who have innovative work to share can thus miss out on the opportunity to inspire their peers. A fellowship program, in which accepted panelists could apply for stipends or free admission, would ensure that the best of American classrooms are on display.

5) Seasonal Timing and Remote Participation 

Many conferences occur during the school year, when classroom teachers are either unable or unwilling to leave their students. This seasonal impediment ought to be surmountable given the range of video connections currently available for remote linkage. Karen Blumberg of The School At Columbia University notes that hi-tech conferences should be able to offer opportunities to “chime-in” virtually via Google Hangouts when attendance is calendar prohibitive.

With just a few of these suggested renovations, the outmoded edtech conference can be elevated to a new industry standard. A communal convention space for tinkerers and teachers can become a home for all innovative ideas, with a firm foundation of genuine collaboration and an infinite ceiling of educational potential.



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