5 Reasons We Will Avoid Edtech Conferences

Opinion | Higher Education

5 Reasons We Will Avoid Edtech Conferences

By Kristen Eshleman and Joshua Kim     Jun 1, 2016

5 Reasons We Will Avoid Edtech Conferences

EdSurge has done our community a great service by aggregating (in a handy circular diagram) many of our postsecondary edtech conferences and convenings. This curated map of annual edtech conferences also perfectly coincides with our newly emerging realization that neither of us wishes to attend (almost) any of these future events.

Great tool, EdSurge, for planning edtech conferences. Thanks, but no thanks. As Jon Snow might say, when it comes to attending big edtech conferences, our watch has ended.

There are all sorts of costs to attend a conference. There are the direct costs: a dollar spent for travel and registration is a dollar that first has to be found and then can't be spent on anything else. And then there are the opportunity costs: time away at a meeting is time not spent on campus projects. If we are going to invest in going to a conference, then that conference has to provide value that is impossible to achieve in some other way.

It is with full realization at the ineffectiveness as a protest to the edtech party (um, conference) scene that we offer the following five reasons for our newfound stance as conscientious objectors:

1. It’s the Network, Stupid!

Educational technology is a networked profession—the way that we do our jobs effectively and advance the profession is by learning from our network. We rely on colleagues at peer institutions to help us understand how to improve incrementally and how to push the boundaries for more than incremental change. We do this work in productive conversation.

The modern edtech conference leaves too little time for conversation. So much of the conference is scheduled for sessions—and so much of our time is spent organizing and running those sessions—that little time or energy is left for the important conversations.

At the same time, networks are flourishing in virtual spaces like Slack and Google Groups to support liberal arts communities of practice, such as iLIADS and PLACE. They’re emerging to connect those of us who cannot attend conferences in VirtuallyConnecting.

We will be looking to strip out as much extraneous activity as possible when we invest in gathering with peers and colleagues. We will seek out, or create for ourselves, the intimate designs where diverse, productive networks are a priority.

2. Less Yack, More Hack

We don’t eat our own dog food. The champions of active learning have not figured out how to move away from the traditional conference lecture and PowerPoint presentation.

Meanwhile, our projects are increasingly cross-institutional. The research in which we engage, the programs that we build, and the services that we offer lean heavily on shared expertise and pooled knowledge. We gather in order to accomplish a task, to build an app, to code an API and to define the requirements for a project.

Moving from talk to action is both a limiting and broadening of networks in ways that are not happening at conferences. We are limiting our circles to plan and execute specific projects, initiatives and research. At the same time, we are broadening these initiatives to include collaborators from outside of academia: journalists, consultants, startups, companies, foundations, K-12 educators and government colleagues.

The edtech gatherings on the EdSurge wheel of conferences are mostly yack. If we want to hack, we have to create these events ourselves (see THATCamp or Indie EdTech, for example). We expect that in the future more of our professional development budgets will be directed away from passive conference attendance, toward active designing and building of our own initiatives.

3. Stuck in Silos

The third reason that we expect to attend less edtech conferences is that so few faculty and even fewer students haunt anything edtech. Faculty and students may be the objects of many edtech conference discussions, but they are seldom the protagonists. An enormous driver of our campus effectiveness is the quality of our relationships with both. Edtech conferences are just not doing much to improve these.

This isn’t a new complaint, but we see little chance of any large influx of faculty and students to technology conferences. Their lack of participation mirrors the unfortunate siloing that exists within higher education.

Faculty have more incentives to attend conferences in their field. Innovations in teaching and learning are seldom rewarded in promotion and tenure. The peer community for faculty are colleagues in their academic disciplines and not the edtech professionals from their own campuses. And students? We design for them ultimately, but we rarely designate funding to include their voices in edtech conferences.

Until conferences effectively cut across silos, we anticipate more of our time and resources will be spent on events, gatherings and convenings that involve our faculty and students. Fewer big professional meetings, more small and intimate gatherings on our campuses. Less time with lots of other edtech professionals, more time with a few edtech colleagues and our own faculty and students.

4. Over the Hype

A fourth reason that you are less likely to catch a glimpse of us on the edtech circuit? The hype has grown tiresome. We are believers in the less-computational-yet-highly-transformational human side of teaching and learning. We are deeply suspicious of how the goals of educational technology have been co-opted by businesses, investors and so-called thought leaders looking to profit from ‘creative destruction’ and disruption in higher education.

We are weary of the values, goals and language industries built on the quicksand of social media, big data or the next buzzword out of Silicon Valley. Although we share the values of access and equity, we think policy should should aim higher than a short-term, second tier, scaled-up solution just because ‘it’s better than nothing.’ We want intelligent reform, for technology to strengthen (not displace or disrupt) the hallmarks of teaching and learning to which we are committed.

To that end, we will reallocate conference time and resources to join, build and foster new and existing networks that can move the needle in the right direction. We will explore a disciplined approach to educational technology, with a focus on experimentation grounded in the history of edtech and in collaboration with the emerging field of learning analytics. We will engage in the technologies, trends and partnerships for new models, but will cut through the hype and study these from a research lens.

5. What’s the ROI?

Finally, we will have fewer edtech conference R.S.V.P.s because it’s hard to justify (to ourselves and our colleagues) the value of all this conference travel. Going to conferences is supposed to be a means to an end. We go to conferences because we think that attendance will help move us toward needed improvement or change on our campuses. The evidence that these conference-enabled gains are actually occurring is thin. It is difficult to point to a direct campus ROI.

Perhaps this is a function of the diffusion and ubiquity of information. We no longer need to attend a conference in order to learn about new projects at peer institutions, or new platforms or services from edtech companies. Or perhaps the feeling that our edtech conference ROI is diminishing is related to the fact that we have already picked most of the low-hanging learning innovation fruit on our campuses. We know what we need to change to improve learning in higher ed. The problem is not knowledge but the capacity to implement our most basic of strategies.

The need to learn from colleagues—and to share what we are learning on our campuses—will never go away. Edtech is a networked profession, meaning that we rely on our networks (both on and off campus) to improve our practices and grow our impact. It is not that we need our professional community of practice any less. It is just that we’re learning more by doing, and edtech conferences as they exist now are less likely to give us what we really need.

Kristen Eshleman (@kreshleman) is Director of Digital Learning Research & Design at Davidson College and Joshua Kim (@joshmkim) is Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning.

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