Conference Connections, or Lack Thereof

Posted by on Mar 11, 2009


Educational technology conferences are strange beasts.  Masses gather to focus and discuss technology, all the while maintaining throughout the discussions that it isn’t about technology.  It creates a rather odd juxtaposition.  I actually really like Ryan Bretag‘s statement he made a while back on Twitter that he prefers to go to content-specific conferences rather than technology conferences.  The reason that statement makes so much sense lies in the very nature of what most often transpires at a technology-specific conference.

I attended the Illinois Computer Educators’ conference a few weeks ago, and I was struck by a notable disconnect in almost every session I attended.  In almost every case, the session focused on a tool or on a specific technology devoid of any pedagogy or specific framework of how the said technology impacts a student’s learning experience.  It was quite troubling.  Many highly intelligent people were presenting tools that in essence, became sessions entirely about the tools rather than their implications.  A statement might be made at some point along the way, like, “this is really great for a math class” or perhaps, “you can see how useful this would be in a reading class.”  The problem is, that’s not pedagogy.  It’s not really much of a connection at all, to be honest.  Where’s the needed construct of what makes the technology truly transformative in the learning experience?

If a presenter took the first five minutes of a session to truly frame the discussion and base it entirely on a specific student learning skill, or set of skills, I believe the technology conference experience would be made much more powerful for attending teachers.  As it currently stands, a general classroom teacher enters a sessions, gets bludgeoned by a series of tools or applications, and then is left to leave the session dizzied and potentially disoriented as he or she attempts to draw a correlation between the dazzling tool just demonstrated and the learning experience he or she wants to afford students.  What if a presenter focused at the outset on foundational learning skills?  I don’t mean necessarily specific teaching content like math or social studies, but rather skills we know students need to be engaging in to be successful in life.  What if a presenter started off explaining the power of collaboration and communication in general terms-why those two skills are relevant and meaningful in today’s culture and built upon that foundation to frame the technology entirely within that learning context?  Discussions of pedagogy could then ensue.

For presenters, it would be like lobbing themselves up a nice softball to be hit out of the park from the very outset of the session.  If a presenter jumps out of the gate just swinging the bat, there’s zero change he or she will connect with anything outside of the occasion where the bat slips out of the hands and inadvertently strikes a nearby object.  An analogy that really does bear true in many technology sessions.  If a presenter is simply swinging that bat at the air, the only thing that can be said of him or her would be focused on the swing itself.  If the softball of learning is first lofted up, then it’s the connection that’s made that will be the focus of discussion, or perhaps the obvious lack of connection the swing of the tool makes with the ball of learning  Even if a weak connection is made and the ball is barely dribbled out of the infield, at least the discussion will be focused on where it should be, the connection that the swing makes on the ball.  It’s the whole point of why we learn to swing in the first place-to make contact with a ball and hit it as successfully as possible.

I hope more conference presenters consider this approach as they prepare for upcoming sessions.  Think about how you want your participants leaving your sessions.  Is it about the tool you are presenting or about the learning that ensues when utilizing the tool?  If everything we discussed was framed in the learning context, I believe we would serve the population of conference attendees in a much more powerful manner, and we might just find that we hit home runs with our sessions quite a bit more often.

Thanks to eschipul for the Flickr image.


  1. Steve Ransom
    March 11, 2009

    Personally, I think one’s technology knowledge increases one’s power and stature amongst peers and “newbies”. For many, this new power that they now feel due to technological “know how” (tool knowledge) is empowering. It gives them something [easy] to present.

    “Oh – now that I know how to use ___________ I can present at a conference!”

    So they do. Situating the use of those tools in powerful learning contexts that are built on solid pedagogical frameworks is much more difficult. Justifying the use of some tools in this way is next to impossible due to a lack of current research or compelling evidence. So, we focus on the tool and squeeze in a little anecdotal or hypothetical support for its use. It’s just easier… and professionally irresponsible. Tonight on Twitter Gary Stager expressed his frustration with similar ideas. I must say that I agree with him.

    I wrote a post similar to yours a while back.

  2. Conference Connections, or Lack Thereof :: Patrick Malley
    March 12, 2009

    […] Conference Connections, or Lack Thereof […]

  3. Andrew Kohl
    March 12, 2009

    I think what you describe is also a function of how conferences are set up and the expectations that organizers set for themselves. It’s almost as if there’s a template out there — fill in a few of the “name” presenters and check off the buzzword tools that we need to have presentations about. A little of that makes sense to attract attendees, but there probably isn’t as much attention to the actual substance being presented as there should be.

    Frankly, I would much prefer to attend a smaller conference with more “juried” presentations. I would love to feel that I’m being challenged by presenters and that what I’m seeing is relevant and sufficiently deep.

    I think that I’ve been guilty at times in the past of wasting teacher’s time presenting tools, thinly disguised as pedagogy. To that end, I’ve done a disservice to them as professionals and to myself as an educator. Recently, as I’ve tried to change my viewpoint, preparation and presentations on ed-tech, I’ve seen the discourse change in the schools. It’s caused me to grow as a professional and I hope that it’s helped affect a spoonful of change in some classrooms too.

  4. Vinnie Vrotny
    March 12, 2009


    I agree with you wholeheartedly. This is why in my ICE Presentation, Students as Historians, Amy Kenyon and I laid out the goals as stated by both the NCTE and NCSS for collaboration, connection, and visual literacies, to explain why we had selected to use VoiceThread as a platform to meet those goals. It is all about the goals and different ways to reach them, not the tools. Well stated.

  5. Will Richardson
    March 12, 2009

    Remind me to send you the conference programs for all the places I get to. And don’t forget to take a good look at the NECC lineup. The reason so much of this is about tools (and I’m not perfect here, either) is because the tools are easy. VoiceThread, WordPress, other tools with two capital letters and no spaces in their names are easy. It’s the “Oohh I can publish” thing and it’s “technology”. Broken record me here, but the real value in these tools comes after we publish, and that’s the hard part. I’ve seen NECC keynotes where the idea of connecting with anyone else around what has been published is never even mentioned. And in the work that Sheryl and I do with pd, we are constantly beating back the cry for “Tools! Tools!” before we’ve had a good long discussion about “Connections! Connections!”

    My Twebate with Gary yesterday (following yours with Bud) had me losing sleep last night over his very valid, main point: what is good practice with Web 2.0? And the implied point of where is anyone really defining what good assessment around this stuff looks like. If we’re giving kids A’s for being able to publish a blog post, or to even write well in that blog post, Gary’s right to be concerned. I’ll cut some slack to all of this in terms of the nascence of all of this still for most people. But I’ve been watching a lot of this pretty much stand still for eight years now. We ought to be demanding better.

  6. Doug
    March 12, 2009

    Hey Ben, excellent points! I was going to respond here but my response keeps growing so I think I will put it on my blog instead. I haven’t posted anything in a while so thanks for getting me thinking.

  7. Chris Lehmann
    March 17, 2009


  8. Ben Grey
    March 18, 2009


    You are absolutely correct, focusing exclusively on the tool is easier, and likely less risky. I enjoyed reading your post. I do believe we are on the exact same page with this.


    You make an excellent point about the way a conference is set up. I do think this is somewhat symptomatic of the focus to try and draw a crowd by accepting presentations based on what is perceived as being popular. Most often that perception leads to the buzzword focus.


    I was sorry to miss your presentation. I wish there were more like yours at the conference.


    Very poignant point about the assessment. Is it that we simply want them to engage the tool, or is it the nature and quality of the learning that the tool produces? A question you already answered, but one that isn’t being discussed enough. I do think it’s still a bit nascent as well, but it’s gaining momentum, and if we don’t begin to shift the focus away from simple acquisition and execution of tools now, we’re going to have a tremendous problem when the new web tools begin to reach saturation in education.


    Any chance you can drop a link here, so we can read your post? Glad you’re continuing the conversation


    Hey back. You have won my “Most Academic and Thought Provoking” comment of the year award. It’s very prestigious and coveted world-wide.


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