An Opinionated Field Guide to Industry Education Conferences
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An Opinionated Field Guide to Industry Education Conferences

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I am just back from Davos in the Desert. Had it been in the mountains, I would have returned with tablets. Not stone ones. Considering the focus, more likely iPads.

That’s because this Davos wasn’t economic, it was education. And it was one of an increasing number of industry-focused, technology-tinged conferences for education industry (that is, company and organization) execs, and those wanting to influence or do deals with them.

The industry (as opposed to educator) conference landscape can be a mysterious one for both teachers and startups figuring out how to traverse it. Unlike well-established national and regional teacher- or administrator-targeted events (think ISTE, TCEA or FETC) where the role of the industry is as the “vendor” buying booths and sponsorships, differences in company confabs aren’t as clear cut. And their number and fortunes are in flux.

Here, then, is a somewhat opinionated map to the madness from someone who has been attending, planning and speaking at conferences for two decades. These are nearly a half-dozen of the highest profile in the U.S. While disclosures of my involvement follow each, I may no longer have to worry about that after their producers read my shorthand evaluations.

ASU+GSV Education Innovation Summit

Alternately known as “ASU+GSV Summit” or, yes, “Davos in the Desert,” the ASU+GSV Education Innovation Summit is held in April in Scottsdale, Ariz. Hosted by Arizona State University and the investment firm GSV (Global Silicon Valley) Advisors, ASU+GSV has both a K-12 and higher education innovation focus. Perhaps the highest-powered of the new crop of conferences, it actively woos venture capitalists, edu-policy wonks, social organizations and foundations in addition to established and startup education companies, plus a few dozen hardy teachers. Growth has been huge, from 240 participants five years ago to 2,000 this year.

Business factor: Money, money, money. A must-attend for those seeking funding--if you can find your funder among the crowds.

Buzz factor: Magic Johnson. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. Star power of the highest order. Plus the crowd-sourced “Return On Education” awards.

Best for: Startups seeking funding or glory. Educators wanting to rub elbows with the elite.

(Disclosure: I’ve never spoken at Davos. Or here. And considering my sardonic sense of humor, probably never will.)

SXSWedu

Held in Austin, Texas, every March. Up until recently the baby of the extended “South-by” family, this is probably the most egalitarian of the industry events and attracts the highest percentage of educators. That’s by design. SXSWedu began as a Texas-centric, teacher-heavy event and has worked hard to create a balance between educator, non-profit and industry participation. (Each group continues to debate whether a proper balance has been achieved.) An almost overwhelming number of programming elements such as keynotes, panels and workshops to cover areas like tech, innovation and creativity have been accompanied by concomitant rapid growth every year: from roughly 800 attendees, to 2,000, to 4,000, to 6,000 in 2014. But not nearly the size of its gargantuan follow-on event, SXSW Interactive.

Business factor: Great for unvarnished educator feedback and peer-to-peer interaction, if you’re willing to leave your comfort zone and peeps.

Buzz factor: From Maker tools to apps, where the cool is rolled out and discussed, and leverages star speaker drawing ability (and entertainment chops) of its SXSW heritage.

Best for: Startups seeking feedback and participation in the LAUNCHedu event. Educators wanting to mingle and learn about new technology put into practice.

(Disclosure: I’ve been on the SXSWedu Advisory Board to review session proposals and moderated twice.)

SIIA Education Industry Summit

SIIA is the Software and Information Industry Association, an umbrella trade association that represents the digital “code and content” industries. One of its strongest sections is its Education Division, which hosts the Education Industry Summit every May in San Francisco. Telling of the event’s long heritage, and the now-pervasiveness of technology, is that the conference’s name recently changed from the original Ed Tech Industry Summit.

This was once the only conference with a technology focus in education, and draws edtech companies established in the K-12, and increasingly higher-ed, space. Startups are increasingly showing up, too, as they apply to compete in the Innovation Incubator, now entering its eighth year. It has a steady 300-400 participants, many of whom repeat year after year. (SIIA also puts on the slightly smaller, but more investment-focused, Education Business Forum in New York each late November/early December.)

Business factor: People who know each other get deals done, company to company.

Buzz factor: The annual education CODiE Awards, considered the industry’s highest edtech honor for three decades.

Best for: Startups wanting to see how it’s done. Educators wanting to see how it’s done, if they want to move into industry.

(Disclosure: I’ve served twice on the Education Division Board of SIIA, and will make participants suffer four times, as of this May, as CODiE Awards emcee.)

EdNET

The broadest-based, and longest-lasting, standalone education industry conference with a straight-on K-12 focus. Now 26 years old and run by market research and data firm MDR, EdNET is known for its no-nonsense networking, senior execs and balance of traditional (publishing) and cutting-edge (tech) education businesses. Indeed, “EdNET” originally was shorthand for “education networking.”

Programming is heavily influenced by an Industry Advisory Board and has the capstone of a signature “View from the Catbird Seat” closing session anchored by EdNET founder Nelson Heller and well-known analyst Anne Wujcik reflecting on, and identifying, new market trends. Held every September, but location varies (this year, it’s Baltimore). Attendance steady at 550-575.

Business factor: Networking, networking, networking from the very start when every company introduces itself and why it’s there, in 30 seconds or less.

Buzz factor: Not the point; business trumps buzz.

Best for: Startups needing strategic partners. Educators might be bored.

(Disclosure: Catbird Seat sitter, third year perching.)

Content in Context

As the education industry has reinvented itself with the dawning of digital, so has the industry conference once simply known as the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) Summit. Five years ago, it became Content in Context. But the focus--originally to serve learning resource and supplemental materials companies--is always on the educational content itself, paper or pixel, primarily K-12.

The re-badged conference, now put on by the Association of American Publishers preK-12 Learning Group, has done much to drag traditional publishers, some kicking and screaming, into the technology age. Held in DC each June for about 330-400.

Business factor: Sessions both visionary and practical for all levels of industry management, plus networking.

Buzz factor: Beacon and REVERE (formerly AEP) Awards, presented at a lunch and a dinner gala.

Best for: Startups with a content focus looking for partnerships. Educators, not so much.

(Disclosure: Moderator of many keynote/general sessions over the years.)

Should-I-Stay-Or-Should-I-Go?

If you’re a startup or an educator wanting to understand the inner workings of companies and organizations in the education industry, there is no single, must-attend “best” conference. Seeking funding? Searching for distribution partners? Emphasizing administrative tools? Emphasizing content? The combination of conferences differs.

And that’s the key--there is also no one conference that everyone attends (though, in my review of several years of attendance lists, there appears to be a hardened core of about 250 industry figures who routinely attend multiple events, either because they get remarkable value out of doing so--or have nothing else to do).

These five aren’t all of the industry conferences: there are several others, more niche and yet expanding their focus (the Education Industry Association, for example, which once focused primarily on supplemental education service providers, is one). Each has its benefits, each is integrating technology, and each is working to address the need for teacher and even student voices.

My advice to you if you’re in, or want to be in, the industry? Read the agendas for session descriptions. Pick two conferences. Then attend a primarily educator-focused event to triangulate (from ISTE to a Twitter Math Camp, depending on your emphasis). And for a reality/sanity check.

It’s one way to cross, and comfortably straddle, the startup-educator divide, without falling into it.

Frank Catalano is an independent industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a regular columnist for EdSurge and the tech news site GeekWire, and tweets @FrankCatalano. He is starting to realize that he may attend a few too many conferences. And on his own dime. What a moron.

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