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?
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.