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Teachers and the Excess (I mean Exhibit) Floor

Attending NECC 2009 was a game changing event in my life regarding my approach to and advocacy for educational technology. There were tweet ups, seminars, panels, sessions and keynote speakers. And then, there was the exhibit floor. Hundreds of vendors barked their wares to teachers, instructional leaders and technology coordinators from around the world. But why?

exhibit floor by biberfan

I am a teacher. I don’t fill out system wide purchase orders. I have a shopping budget of whatever my credit card limit will allow. I hit every aisle in the Exhibit Floor and was most turned off by the scary yelling and Mardi Gras style festivities of the central part of the floor. On the outer aisles, I enjoyed talking with many of the vendors but really didn’t find professional benefits from these interactions. I am not going to be making decisions about outfitting my school with wireless connections or purchasing a website hosting service for our school system. I will not be purchasing plugs, switches, or wiring and am not seeking the lowest contract prices on computer hardware. So what was really in it for me?

When you ask most teachers why they visited the Exhibit Floor, most will tell you honestly that they were hoping to get some good ol’ free stuff. But what have they taken back from the Exhibit Floor that won’t be rotting in a landfill in the coming months and years? Sure, a few people won Flip cameras or netbooks or 1 year subscriptions to software or web-based applications. But how are these items impacting instruction? It wasn’t Flip giving away cameras accompanied by model lessons and examples on how these items can be used to increase student engagement and learning. Interactive whiteboard companies gave away tons of t-shirts and information, but did they focus on the ways to engage all learners with their products. Lots of people walked around wearing blue or orange t-shirts, but they probably wouldn’t know how to really enrich their learning with the products they were hoping to win.

So Friday evening, an interesting discussion arose on Twitter when @alfredtwo asked the question “how should companies participate in conferences like #necc09 ?” Jon Becker commented that they should be sponsoring more teachers to attend these events and experience the learning, much like Voicethread did this year. Some companies sponsored smaller model lesson sessions for teachers. Many companies used “real” teachers to share their experiences with their products. While I understand that companies are sponsoring these tables with the ultimate goal of selling their products, there has to be a better way.

Erin Gruwell, the teacher beind The Freedom Writers, spoke at the closing keynote this year.  Part of the reason I enjoy her so much is that she made sure the proceeds from the New York Times best selling book and their movie went to paying for those 150 students to attend college. While her message is eloquent and clear, the behind the scenes piece is what most impresses me. I would be more interested in companies who focused on being teacher and student centered. Find the teachers who are using these products to enhance learning, teaching and achievement and sponsor them to attend ISTE 2010 in Denver. Let them do smaller sessions where more people can experience these products with their focus. Hold focus groups where you can take input to what is working, and what isn’t, in the classroom. Give everyone trials to your website/software on the ISTE flashdrive for all participants and teach us how and why these programs are effective for our students. If you want me to go back and really try to convince my school and system administration, it’s going to take a lot more than a t-shirt and a highlighter. If even only half of your ISTE participants are classroom teachers, the Exhibit Hall has the potential to directly impact thousands of students with teaching and learning strategies – not with post it notes, pens and sparkling pens.


10 Responses

  1. I agree with you in the fact that companies should be utilizing the most well-informed user of its products…the experienced teacher. Truly they could sell SO much more if they had a TEACHER demonstrating its use within the classroom. Salespeople do not know what actually happens in there…they think they know…but thy don’t. However, I disagree with one point. Some of these vendors ARE using teachers to do the short 15 minute demos that are incredibly valuable in “hooking” the teacher into WANTING to learn more. Take for instance the intel booth demoing the Intel Teach Program or the SMART booth giving little sessions for integrating the SMARTBoard in effective ways. Those sessions are presented by teachers. And guess what…they are the better attended BIGGER booths. So yes, I agree with you, put the teachers in front of the product. But I would also like to give credit to those companies that have already figured this out. And by the way…no pens, t-shirts, or pamphlets for me. I am not interested in hauling any of that “stuff” around with me during the conference. My laptop is heavy enough and this year I even took a netbook to lighten the load. 😉

  2. Kelly, I have just now read your post, as I did TeachaKidd’s last night (too tired to leave a post and I apologize!). When I first began attending FETC here in FL back in 1997, I spent the majority of my time in the exhibit hall. As you mentioned, I was looking for those freebies and anything I could bring back to my teachers! My focus has changed through the years and this past year, my FETC experience was by far the best I have ever had spending the majority of time on attending sessions. I realize that FETC is not on the same scale as NECC (ISTE). But, I wish these “smaller” state conferences would model the the larger venue and set up blogger cafes and such for the attendees as all of have mentioned in your posts. I would much prefer the interaction with vendors who are willing to discuss with attendees what the needs of the classroom teachers and students are and have them showcase lessons that integrate their products. I appreciate you and everyone else who kept us updated on the happenings at NECC. I only wish I could have attended this event!

  3. Wouldn’t it be great if teachers were treated like celebrities at an awards show and all conference attendees received a goody bag with classroom friendly items and ideas for using them effectively. I don’t need a big bag, just a Flip phone, an ASCD subscription and a few Tootsie Rolls for me.

  4. For me, the frustration of the exhibit hall is that there is no tech budget at our school. None. Our Upper School students have laptops, but the parents pay for them. In the Middle School we have computer labs and that is it. No IWB, no fancy anything. But guess what, I can still do amazing things with my students. We talked to Malaysia this year; my French students did a project with French students in Canada. One student said about the experience how great it was to get to talk to someone else in French and added the obligatory 8th grade “no offense, Ms. Pohanka”.

    You can do great things without the bells and whistles. And while I would love to have an IWB and I really coveted the mini projector at the Texas Instruments booth, it is still about great teaching, not great tools.

  5. @Shannon – I think the companies that brought teachers along to share their stories about their products were better received than others, but I was still overwhelmed by the excess of it all. It was almost hard to concentrate. It will be interesting to see how the notion of an exhibit floor evolves over the coming years.

    @Bettie – When I read Lee Kolbert’s post, I was really taken aback by the different experiences that we had. I am not sure if it is because she is a tech coordinator and I am “just” a teacher or my newness to the whole NECC experience. I totally agree about the notion of the bloggers cafe and places for smaller, more intimate conversations to be taking place.

    @Sherri – Amen!

    @Carey – You raise an interesting topic. So much of what I do in my class is using free web based apps. When I don’t have a tech budget, what is the use of the vendor floor? And if so many wonderful things can be happening through web based free apps, it raises a deeper question of why are schools spending exorbitant amounts of money on high dollar equipment? Hmmm

  6. Everyone who attends NECC wears the same badge. It is impossible for an exhibitor to tell if you are a teacher, principal or superintendent as you walk by. The only way they can distinguish one attendee from another is by trying to engage them as they pass by. The exhibitors offering district-wide data aggregation services don’t really want to spend time talking to you, they just want the people they do want to reach to notice them and stop to chat.

    I honed my trade-show exhibit floor skills attending the largest non-public trade show in the US for several years in an earlier career. With those experiences in mind, I approached the NECC exhibit floor with specific objectives and vendors I wanted to visit. I was able to ignore all the booths that were not aimed at my needs by looking straight ahead and marching forward.

    I agree that the companies that offer products aimed at teachers or that teachers use should sponsor teachers to attend the conference, and more teachers should be used in the demos, but even in the demos I saw that were done by teachers, particularly in the IWB booths, the lessons and abilities demonstrated were basic, teacher-centered and totally uninspiring.

    Companies have to realize that NECC is the place to give teachers who are already using technology, or who have seen the basic presentation, access to more advanced training even as they show the basics to others. And I would love it if a company hoping to sell to people like me chose a few of us highly interested and striving teachers to sponsor so we can learn enough to turnkey our learning with our colleagues in our schools and districts.

  7. Kelly,

    Exactly on the free apps. There are so many out there. It would be great to make sure teachers know how to use those.

    Part (ok, most of it) of my angst was jealousy, too. What could I do with those amazing tools, yet so many teachers have access to them and don’t even use them. In a session tech people were talking about teachers who refuse to use anything! One gentleman said he finds digital cameras shoved in closets and has teachers who use their IWB’s just like a regular white board. It made me want to scream!

  8. The Exhibit hall was too big and overwhelming. I spent very little time there really only researching pros & cons of various interactive white boards for my school. I would have preferred doing that in a much quieter setting to do that research.

    Your idea about companies sponsoring teachers to come is a great idea and might mitigate some of the carnival hype that was present.

  9. Hi, Kelly,

    I felt the same way you did and complained about the circus atmosphere of the exhibit hall, until I read this post by Lee Kolbert: (http://www.macmomma.blogspot.com/) She offers another point of view that was eye-opening for me. I’d love to know what you think after reading it.

    Your post brings out so many important points. Hopefully, exhibitors will read your comments and consider making changes in their approach to teachers at NECC. Keep the focus on student learning, not on making profits!

    Thanks, as usual, for your thoughtful posts.

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